There's no glory in acting drunk
Acting is about the only profession where you can perform the work pissed out of your mind
Thursday 21 January 1999
On tour, actors gather round one table endlessly boozing, boring themselves into a numb zone. Most know when to stop, but there is always the one for whom booze acts as an incendiary device blowing part of his brain up. He fixes you with his newly acquired freedom, runny eyes pinning you in an accusing stare for being so stiff, reserved or sober. You feel guilty for not sharing this abandoned joy, his uninhibited release. Curiously, we other actors are involuntarily forced into a kind of submission, admiring his outrageous antics. His idiotic boldness we see as courage. We feel lesser as he grows bigger.
I was sucked into it as a young actor when the pub did nothing but sell booze, and maybe a few crisps to soak up the river of beer. We would dash desperately to the pub after the show, terrified lest we should miss our alcoholic reward. Like those newborn turtles racing for the sea, we raced to the pub. Conditioned thus to desperation, we got wasted when abroad, carried into hotels by sympathetic colleagues, lifted on to planes after international festivals. Didn't even Shakespeare know about this? Hamlet says: "They clepe us drunkards and with swinish phrase soil our addition..." Maybe we were always so inclined.
We can get wrecked, since the acting profession is about the only job, apart from pop and rock perhaps, where you can perform the work pissed out of your mind. With memorising and repetition, once the words have sunk into your brain no amount of alcohol can budge them. The become like a tattoo that you can't remove.
So, paradoxically, for acting you need great skill to create the role and then, once it's airborne, it seems to propel itself under its own volition. A dynamic company that included many disciplines, a demanding physical theatre, would not be able to tolerate indulgence; nor could the boozy actor endure the pace. Every actor has a story about someone who has gone on stage blind drunk. We admire the gall, interpreting it as a kind of wild roguishness. The great 19th-century actor Edmund Kean could go on stage after copious amounts of brandy because he kept the same plays in his repertoire for years - obviously, wisely so.
Booze is taken for granted, almost like the rum station for sailors. I have to have a drink after a show as if to replace something, or even keep that sense of freedom going; however, I can't feel comfortable with the idea that the liver, kidney and brain are invincible.
In the Sixties there was a strong reaction to stolid, heavy theatre when young, idealistic groups attempted to radicalise plod naturalism. The criterion for joining such companies was a radical attitude towards theatre, and a strong physical awareness. Rehearsals were most often commenced after an arduous warm-up - both vocal and physical - and much of the rehearsal discoveries came from the warm-ups themselves.
We were liberating ourselves and poured scorn on those "real" actors who propped up the bar at the Salisbury pub while, proudly, we felt ourselves to be pioneers of the new movement. However, it was still the booze-and- fags brigade who were getting highly paid TV work while we contented ourselves with touring the outer reaches of Europe winning accolades unknown to anyone.
But in those heady days there was always one actor, recruited from the "straight" theatre, who wasn't happy unless he was sliding in his own vomit, and it was the one who managed somehow to sour the group: the boozer. There was always someone in each production who had a problem with his intake, especially when he was loosened from family and ties of England and could let himself go... abroad.
Later, after the idealistic Sixties and Seventies, life continued much as it had before. I formed groups and again toured the outer regions of Europe, and again there would always be one or two who would enjoy a toot until they collapsed. The normal drinkers, curiously, thought of themselves as the "wets", since they felt dull for not poisoning their brains each night. I got used to the sour smell, the stinking breath, the lachrymose confessions.
That's why I wanted to form a company where we would continue to study, go to the gym and not end up as wine-tasters. The problem seems endemic in the theatre, and even worse on film.
I have no great wish to smile and tolerate the malfunctioning of an actor, and watch as the glory we have won so arduously and painstakingly is covered in grime when our hosts stare at us in disbelief. However, that is rare; our actors are usually way above the average.
Years ago, we had a first-class company but there was one actor we almost had to carry from town to town. He was on loan from a large subsidised company and we put it down to his previous under-usage that had demoralised him. Perhaps the material maketh the man. The junk movie and crap TV; the simplistic staging that makes little demands. Who knows or cares?
But one day I should like to see a company of actors with the dedication of athletes.
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