The actor, starring in the one-man show Jack - A Night on the Town with John Barrymore, left theatregoers at the Criterion in silence on Thursday night after just six minutes of the two-hour piece. Critics and fans had waited more than 15 years for an appearance on a British stage by Williamson, but all they got was, 'I'm sorry this has cost you money', before he walked off.
At the end of last night's powerful performance, Williamson gave a speech to the audience explaining why he walked off the night before.
He said the energy of the part had overwhelmed him for the first time in his career. And rather than give a below par performance he preferred to repay the audience's money out of his own salary.
This is not the first time that Williamson, 55, has run into trouble. In the Sixties and Seventies he was hailed as one of Britain's finest actors, earning hysterical praise for his Hamlet and John Osborne's Inadmissible Evidence. But he is an actor in the hell-raiser mode, remembered for rows on and off stage. He once punched a New York actor as the curtain came down on one production, apparently because he misheard the actor when he whispered: 'That's a wrap.'
'There are lots of theatrical stories about performances having to be stopped, but they're usually down to drunkenness or illness,' said Richard Mangan of the Mander and Mitchenson Theatre Collection in Beckenham, Kent. 'I don't think I've ever heard of anyone just stopping and walking off.'
Mr Thompson insists, however, that there was an Irish actor in a production of Hamlet who said 'fuck this for a game of soldiers', and walked off stage. There are other stories, too. Such as the production of The Diary of Anne Frank, in which the lead actress was so awful that, when German soldiers arrived on stage, a member of the audience shouted: 'She's in the attic.'
And there was the time in the Fifties that the actor Wilfred Lawson bumped into Richard Burton in a pub before suggesting - after copious amounts of alcohol - that they go to the theatre.
'Act I finished and they went to the bar, had a few drinks and settled down for Act II,' Mr Mangan said. 'After a few minutes, Lawson nudged Burton and said: 'You'll like this bit. This is where I come on.' '
The most outrageous on- stage putdown must, however, go to the late Sir Ralph Richardson, who, during one production - believed to be in Brighton - is reputed to have clutched his chest and shouted: 'Is there a doctor in the house?' With cast and audience reduced to shocked silence, a diminutive man stood up said he was a GP. Richardson staggered to the edge of the stage, leant over and said: 'Doctor, isn't this play awful?'
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