Arts: Time over risk equals suspension of ego

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"GALA" IS a pleasing word, meaning nothing more than festival, but offering something special, exceptional, out of the ordinary. Noel Coward charmingly makes the word an adjective: "It was very gala," says Gilda in Design for Living. It has lately come to connote a charitable purpose, and in that sense, the gala season is upon us. This Sunday there are two: one for Stonewall, at the Royal Albert Hall, and the other in aid of Breast Cancer Research, at the Palace Theatre. I'm directing and appearing in the latter, and I am filled all over again with affection for my profession, here seen at its best: time and energy freely given, artistic risks taken, ego suspended. A large number of the performers, not to mention the stage-managers, are in plays for the other six days of the week, and forgo their precious day off for the good cause.

Rehearsal is snatched here and there, in cold rooms across London - actors who have probably not worked together before (perhaps never even met) thrown together to work up a scene or a song they have probably never previously performed, knowing that if they don't get it right on the night they never will, and that the day of the performance will consist of the technical rehearsal from hell, with people stumbling about in the dark, microphones wailing and shrieking or simply conking out, nowhere to put your costume, the all-important prop disappearing or simply never found in the first place. To cap it all, the technical rehearsal will finally be abandoned in order to let the public in just before it's your spot, so you will never have done it on stage, in costume, in light and with amplification - not once. The terror that dries out your mouth, grips your stomach and thuds in your heart as you repeat your lines to yourself until they become an increasingly meaningless mantra is only compounded by the thought that the expensively clad people now entering the theatre have paid unusually large sums of money to witness what can surely only be a public nervous breakdown.

And yet, somehow, adrenaline plus sheer gut instinct and survival skills come up shining, and it often happens at a gala that you get a whiff of the old primitive experience of popular theatre: the gladiatorial dimension, the tightrope perilously negotiated, the performer digging deep into the basic capacity to communicate, a direct engagement between artist and audience, and the sense of unrepeatability that can turn these events into unique experiences.

Fifty years ago, the Night of A Hundred Stars was an opportunity for the great ones of the profession to let their hair down and be outrageous: Sir Ralph, Sir John, Sir Laurence and Dame Edith would perform sketches, or sing silly songs, as often as not in drag. It was a kind of Twelfth Night, or perhaps a school concert, where the beaks laid aside their majesty and authority and larked about.

When the National Theatre left the Old Vic, Val May devised an evening in honour of Lilian Baylis, A Tribute to the Lady, in which Peggy Ashcroft, in one her most astonishing performances, impersonated the lady in question by the most economical of means: slightly twisting her mouth and donning a pair of specs and a mortarboard, she addressed us and her "dear boys and girls", that extraordinary generation of Vic actors, many of whom were there - Sybil Thorndike in a wheelchair; Ralph Richardson talking of Harcourt ("Billy") Williams and his addiction to Bemax; John Gielgud distilling into "Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I" the heart of Hamlet and the beauty and power of a conception of classical acting we all knew was disappearing before our very eyes.

It can be a chance to see young actors essaying parts that they'll surely play in the near future (in our gala tomorrow, for example, Tam Williams and Beth Winslet play the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet), or parts that they have always wanted to play but have never been asked to do (God help me, I'm playing Henry Higgins to Amanda Holden's Eliza), or singing songs from shows that are never revived (Richard Wilson and Annette Crosbie in "I Remember it Well" from Gigi). Maria Ewing, hot from Bizet and Monteverdi, sings Noel Coward (that should be very gala); the original 1960 Tiller Girls dance (what else?) "Vitality"; port-voiced Roger Allam sings Sondheim; Con O'Neill reprises the part he created in the current production of Blood Brothers.

It is, I think you may say, value for money. Crowning it all, to my indescribable joy, is my hero (and everyone else's; I mustn't be proprietorial), Paul Scofield, speaking Prospero's final speech from The Tempest. We shall not hear the like of that again.

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