`I'll run away and then they'll be sorry'

Stephen Fry is acting out a fantasy we all share, but he'd be better off seeing a shrink He has created a newspaper story about the power of newspapers

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I thought it very proper of Simon Gray to express, first of all, nothing but concern for the welfare of Stephen Fry, who had bolted from Mr Gray's new play. Then, when Mr Fry announced that he was still alive, I thought it very human that Mr Gray should collapse into utter exasperation: "Now that it turns out he is all right, I am sick to death of the whole issue of Stephen, who is absolutely in the past as far as the company is concerned."

Parents go into a rage like that, when a child casually turns up after going missing (and I'm not talking about anything as astonishingly ambitious as running off to Malaysia). It comes from a feeling of having been emotionally tricked. First you go into shock or premature mourning. The next thing you know, you are expected to act as though nothing has happened. It's infuriating. Here comes your son who, only a second ago, was the victim of kidnappers/had fallen under a train/ had taken Ecstasy and died. Just as you were gearing yourself up to identify his corpse on a slab, here he is expecting a meal! People shouldn't behave like that.

One guesses, too, that, somewhere among all the emotions at war in Mr Fry's bosom, there might have been that familiar infantile plan: "I'll run away, and then they'll be sorry." Feeling unloved, Mr Fry decides to test people's affections. He runs away, a sad figure, seen reading the papers on the Channel crossing. The next day, reading the newspapers again, he learns that the affection is there after all. He has had good notices for his personality. People are upset. They pay tribute to his character. Mr Fry, to a degree, gets to read his obituaries, and begins to feel ashamed at the gratification this has given him.

And this, oddly enough, is a man who affects to have given up the newspapers. But he has contrived single-handed to create a newspaper story about the power of newspapers, a story in which he has become a highly desirable tabloid target. "Find Fry!" shouted the beer-bellied men with green eye- shades, and everyone rushed to Bruges. So Mr Fry faxes his agent with the plea: "I hope you will allow me a little space and solitude now. I could not bear to be `tracked down' by the media."

So here we have a good example of a person's actions inadvertently creating the opposite of their consciously intended effect. He thinks he wants to be alone. But a sneaky part of him is engaged in the game mentioned by Hamlet: "Hide fox and all after."

Well, if there is an argument between Mr Gray and Mr Fry, I am firmly on both sides of it. Of course we must not let our colleagues down, make our parents shriek "Where were you? I was worried sick!", jeopardise a West End production, have our friends in tears. And yet, and yet ...

There is a deep desire in all of us to behave phenomenally badly in an infantile way. Hotel du Lac is a best-seller whose heroine does precisely what anyone would want to do: she is about to get married, admits to herself at the very last moment that it's all a mistake and so directs the car in which she is arriving at the ceremony not to stop. The attractiveness of the novel derives not from the wisdom with which the heroine avoids the mistaken match, but from the drama of her sailing past the dumbfounded wedding party without any explanation. The male version of this fantasy of bad behaviour is to be found in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

In doing a bunk, Mr Fry acted out a fantasy which we all, to some extent, share. And in succumbing to stage fright he prompted a discussion of the role critics play in the undermining of an actor's ability to go on.

The first thing to say about this is that the word "critic" should be understood to cover not only people writing for newspapers, but any thinking member of the audience. The critics who inflicted stage fright on Sir Ian McKellen were a couple of actors he overheard discussing his failings. That does not surprise me. Actors can be utterly devastating about each other, not because they are catty by nature but simply because they tend to be professionally expert at slicing up a performance.

Newspaper critics, whose job it is to give a vivid and memorable account of the merits and faults of a production, are obliged to condemn as well as to praise. For their praise to mean something it must come from a pen that could have damned, had the performance not been good.

And you are soon made aware, as a theatre critic, of the considerations peculiar to that profession, most of which are due to the fact that a theatre critic is dissecting something that is not, like film, in the can, but which the actors have to go out and repeat the next night. They are required to repeat, and that is the source of difficulty for actor and critic.

Some things should never be said. A senior theatre critic made his junior colleague apologise in print for having said of a particular actor that he could not act. This is a judgement we all make in conversation ("Oh he can't act to save his life!") but which takes on a particular falseness in print. How can a critic know that someone can't act? There is a presumption involved. You are also, printing such a phrase, signalling that you have closed your mind about an actor's future work. So it seems right to say (and the junior critic agreed in retrospect) that a critic should never put the sentence "He can't act" in print.

If you write "He only ever does one thing", that (if true) seems a legitimate criticism to make. It may be that the actor will take this judgement to mean "This critic thinks I can't act", but it could mean "It really is time you varied your routine" - and that is a judgement well within a critic's prerogative.

Not that it makes it easier for the actor to appear the next night. Mr Fry appears to have read his notices for Cell Mates and to have decided that the critics were right, and also to have decided that their criticism meant he couldn't act. If the undermining accusation was that he only ever does one thing, it would be galling in this case because it was obviously a part of the intention of the billing that we should want to see what Rik Mayall and Stephen Fry could do in a straight play. And if Mr Mayall succeeded where Mr Fry was failing, that would be super-galling. But the idea that Mr Fry can't act is counterfactual. And the solitude stuff is probably a fantasy. What he needs is a couple of chats with a nice, but firm, uncharmable shrink.

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