When Sir Peter Hall woke up during a performance of Chekov's Uncle Vanya at the weekend, interrupting the poignant final speech of actress Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith in Downton Abbey) by bellowing that he would rather have been at home watching television, what he presumably meant was that he would rather have been at home watching Downton Abbey on television.
My sympathy immediately went to the 81-year-old Sir Peter and his apology yesterday that he felt “disorientated” on returning to consciousness in Row G of the Vaudeville Theatre was entirely consistent with my experience. I suffer from a rare strain of narcolepsy, which afflicts me only when I am captive in a theatre. I can't speak for Sir Peter, but in my case it's rarely a comment on the level of artistry.
I once fell asleep during Deborah Warner's Medea, in which Fiona Shaw gave a hugely acclaimed performance. The BBC said at the time: “Shaw is terrifying as the woman whose fury at her unfaithful husband erupts like a volcano before a stunned audience”. Stunned was certainly the right word for me, although even I woke up when she murdered her children.
I can't be unusual among generations brought up on television and cinema. I simply find the effort of being in the audience, watching all that acting without a camera pointing my attention in the right direction, just too exhausting, and, bang, there go my eyelids. I can admire the stagecraft, and I know a ham from a jambon de Bayonne, but it is an art form that rarely touches my soul. Nothing wrong with that: we can't all have the same emotional response to a work of art any more than we can all find the same man or woman attractive.
There's a funny thing about acting. In the movies or on TV, you should never notice someone acting, and if you do it's because they are not very good at it. In the theatre, it's the opposite: it's all about the acting, so you'd bloody well better sit back and enjoy it.
I don't actually know whether Sir Peter yearned to be among the 10 million Britons who watched the denoument of Downton on Sunday night, but it does seem to have captured the nation's attention in a way that only major sporting events or reality television seem capable of these days. Unusually for dramatic fiction, Downton has become a phenomenon, to the extent that some newspapers have been treating figures from the series as if they are real people, and the actors themselves as if they are characters in crinoline.
The arrival of Shirley MacLaine to play the American matriarch was presented as a bona fide news story, and a report on the real-life relationship woes of Michelle Dockery felt like a plot line written by Julian Fellowes.
The second series of Downton was poor, risible in parts, but this past series has been much better, full of good acting, fine writing and enough suspense to keep even a hard-working octogenarian awake.