Plot thickens as actor stabs himself with real knife

Malfunctioning props have long and lethal history
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It is unusual for a stage production to be transformed mid-performance from period drama into modern whodunnit without a word from director or playwright, but such was the case in Vienna last week. An actor, directed by the script of Mary Stuart to slash his own throat, was rushed to hospital after someone switched the prop knife with a real one. Daniel Hoevels recovered, appeared on stage the next day with a bandage round his neck, and Viennese police are investigating how the phoney weapon came to be replaced by a razor-sharp one still bearing a price tag from a local shop. Never has a play's plot thickened so fast.

Props have a habit of turning theatre into real-life drama, whether it's the malfunctioning pair of braces that sent Hilary Swank to hospital from the set of P.S. I Love You; the beanstalk that collapsed during a Glasgow pantomime in 2004 and sent Jimmy Krankie (aka Janette Tough) crashing 10ft to the stage; or the US TV drama's gun which fired something more deadly than the blanks. Ms Swank, and Ms Tough recovered, eventually; the American actor, Jon-Erik Hexum, did not. He thought it would be amusing, between takes, to mimic someone playing Russian roulette. Regrettably, powder was left in the gun's chamber, and Hexum's pull on the trigger was the last thing he did.

Trap doors do not always behave themselves, either. They can open when they're not supposed to, like the one in a pirate ship hoisted 30ft above the stage, which sent Adrian Bailey plummeting to the boards during a production of The Little Mermaid in October. Or their mechanism can react a little too slowly, like the one during the making of The Wizard of Oz which meant that the Wicked Witch of the West's disappearance in a puff of smoke was nearly for real. Actress Margaret Hamilton spent six weeks recovering. And, contrary to smart-alec sneerers, escapologists do take genuine risks. In 1990, Joseph Burrus had himself manacled, then buried in a plastic and glass coffin under 7ft of wet cement and earth. Unfortunately, the coffin broke under the strain. Burrus died.

However, it's sharp instruments that give the most trouble. There was the execution scene in the 1974 A Man For All Seasons which put Sir Thomas More (David Beale) in hospital. Then, of course, there is the perilous relationship that sword-swallowers have with their main prop. Several have perished, most notably one who, in 1883, made the mistake of taking a bow while the sword was still in situ. He lingered for eight days, then died. In 1891, Patrick Mulraney elected to swallow a violinist's bow, and found that what goes smoothly down doesn't always come up. Taken, stricken, from the stage, he died shortly afterwards.

Yet in the field of ironic stage fatalities, two stand supreme. French playwright Molière suffered a fatal seizure while playing, of all characters, a hypochondriac in his drama Le Malade Imaginaire. And tenor Richard Versalle, while singing up a prop ladder in the New York Met's production of The Makropulos Case, had a heart attack and fell dead to the stage. His last line? "Too bad you can only live so long".