An actor’s recipe for insanity

I’m on the road, a very proper place for an actor to be. Never mind all those jokes about some people having tour de force and others being forced to tour – a tour gets the stuff out to the people. If they ca n’t come to us, we must go to them, each actor on his ass, as Hamlet smuttily tells Polonius. I fancy that my generation of actors was the last to assume that we would take our wares around the country. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed discovering all the different playhouses, with their different challenges and opportunities – a chance to rethink the thing. Standing in the same place, on the same West End stage night after night, peering out into the same auditorium, is a recipe for insanity or at the very least automatism.

The show is the musical Cole Porter Anything Goes, which played an ecstatic season last year at the Barbican in London, one of the very first new shows out of the trap after lockdown. I was among the first to see it, and experienced the strange combination of unbridled joy at its vitality, wit and tenderness, and high emotion at the return of live theatre. So a year on, when I was asked to join the cast and take the show round the country and then back to London, I felt it no less than my duty as a responsible citizen to sign up. The musical, written in 1933 and honed and trimmed and tweaked over the decades, is a cunning piece of theatrical engineering, strapping together farce, romance and crime into a nonstop whirligig of song, dance and surreal comedy, all under some unstoppable rhythmic forward motion which puts me in mind (if you were to send this page direct to Pseuds Corner, I’d understand) of the last movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, the so-called Apotheosis of the Dance. The show culminates in a mass outbreak of tap dance into which even I am drawn. It would be exhausting, for audiences and performers, if it weren’t so utterly joyous. Is there any art form which creates this life-enhancing delirium as directly – when it’s on song – as musical theatre?

On this fairly far-flung tour, we’ve played Bristol, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Dublin and now, our last gig, Manchester. I know all these cities well and have acted in many different theaters in each of them. Dublin is the one in which I have spent least time lately. On this visit I was astonished to find a whole new Dublin, barely 15 minutes’ walk from O’Connell Street: Dockland. Both the theater and the apartments in which we stayed are located in this new enclave, on either side of the Liffey. It is rather beautifully done, with wit and even elegance, in the international glass-and-steel architectural vernacular of our time, its rectilinearity modified by angled surfaces, cunningly placed foliage and outdoor restaurants, as the new trams glide unhurriedly past. charming; but somehow nothing to do with Dublin itself, just minutes upriver.

I wandered about the area, looking for remnants of brickwork or sandstone, and came upon a sombre gray church and asked an old chap raking his garden nearby what it was. Ancient Mariner-like, he fixed me with glittering eye; his reply, in the accents and the vocabulary of Sean O’Casey, was the story of his life in the area – his troubled aggressive boyhood, when he earned the moniker of Tasmanian Devil, his mother’s suicide by drowning, his drug-addicted daughter’s death in his arms, his wife’s slow decline, his good years as a train driver eventually blighted by modern innovations. ‘It’s been a terrible life,’ he said, ‘but I’m alive and healthy and happy’, as the tears flowed from his baby-blue eyes, and I wondered if in any other city in the world anyone would confidently expect to hold a total stranger spell bound for nearly an hour with the story of his life.

I’ve directed a number of musicals, and been in a couple, neither of them all-singing, all-dancing events like Anything Goes. My own singing and dancing in the show are, thank goodness, limited in scope, but pretty well everybody else is at it constantly, and seeing it close up I marvel at the precision, the energy and the athleticism of it. Miss Marshall, choreographer and director of the show, demands that every number starts at maximum energy and then by increments gets faster and more brilliant. That they can do it at all, sometimes twice a day, is miraculous, but the real wonder of it is that while they’re doing it, they smile – great, gleeful, radiant smiles, as if they were having the time of their lives. Afterwards, in the wings, they clutch various parts of their anatomies, stretch themselves out, sometimes even fall asleep; I hear these thirtysomethings muttering that they don’t know how much longer they’ll be able to do it. Minutes later they’re back on stage, at maximum velocity, and there it is again: The Smile.

Simon Callow stars in Anything Goes at the Barbican until 3 September.

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