Relax, Darling, It's Sunday
Evening Standard Magazine, December
by Kenneth Branagh
Why is the sign for Wembley
Stadium the most welcome sight for tired actors on Saturday nights?
Why might you see stage stars looking harassed in postcard shops
in the afternoon? Why would the entire membership of British
Equity assemble in the Dorchester foyer? Kenneth Branagh provides
The quickest performance of the
Renaissance Theatre Company's recent national tour was invariably
on a Saturday night. The disrobing of 15 actors and their subsequent
exits from the dressing-room suggested a frenetic fire-drill.
Then like lightning, into trains, buses and cars and down the
motorway and a few hours later the familiar welcome of the sign
for Wembley Stadium, London and home.
The personal and professional
lives of most actors and actresses are based in London. This
is where the work starts, from the myriad offices of casting
directors and agents in Soho and beyound. Actors' homes are here,
so when, as is often the case, they work away, their lives are
tied to railway and coach timetables, or a late-night motorway
drive. Travelling from provincial theatres or film locations
has become an art.
This Saturday night fever is
apart of a great acting tradition. Sir Laurence Olivier, when
running the National Theatre at the Old Vic, would instruct his
actors to 'get a move on' on Saturday nights so that he could
catch the last train home to Brighton. All this manic activity
is geared to preserve that most precious commodity of the working
actor - Sunday. In London, for some of us, that means late mornings
with the papers, lunches with chums and a brief breath of the
capital before tearing back to the provinces.
Once in London and working on
a show, the actor's view of the city begins to lose its Sunday
romance. Putting on a play can be a hard practical experience.
In my case, bringing the Renaissance Shakespeare season to London
during September and October meant hard city graft for the 21-strong
compnay. The actors and production team had been together for
six months of tough work around the country, rehearsing and playing
in Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and Hamlet.
Three set designs, hundreds of
props, more than 100 costumes and 92 pairs of shoes had to be
made, lit, washed, worn, quick-changed and ready for each new
stop around the country.
It's often assumed that actors
working so closely together for a long time must hate each other.
Camaraderie rather than bitchiness has to the order of the day
when you're living on top of each other in cramped dressing rooms.
But Renaissance has been a particularly happy company. Not a
single birthday or special thank you has been missed, marked
by special cakes secretly prepared and paid for by all.
The first night in London is
always tricky. There are actors who sail throught the experience
while others are enveloped by tension. There are some who refuse
to send traditional first-night cards to their fellow actors,
believing it's ridiculous to accord special status to this particular
performance. But for most exam-day nerves are inevitable, faced
with the knowledge that your work will be judged in print the
Most actors send each other gifts
and cards. On the afternoon before first nights, you'll see them
in desperate last-minute shopping sprees around Soho, or the
Design Centre, Dress Circle (for soundtrack albums) or the Postcard
Gallery (for card). This is when, in the panic, many redundant
first-night presents are purchased. Cigars for the person who
doesn't smoke, chocolates for the girl who's allergic to dairy
products, a bouquet for the person who can't bear uncut flowers.
After the performance, there's
a great relief, many hugs, and yes, a lot of 'Darlings!'. The
reason so many of us use the term is simple. The vast number
of people actors work with or bump into means that instant recall
of everyone's is impossible. Some form of endearment is necessary
to cover the moment when you recognise the face but can't instantly
remember that you met at an audition in 1972 for a chocolate
Once a show is on and running
in London, the days are lazy or packed, depending on the personality
of the actor. The keenly self-motivated will perhaps take classes
at the Actors' Centre. The fitness fanatics can be found at Pineapple,
Dance Works or Body Control. The lazier ones enjoy a late large
breakfast on mornings free from rehearsals. I also enjoy a light
tea with friends at Valerie's in Old Compton Street. For special
occasions, the Waldorf tea dance offers a wonderfully decadent
Working actors are great cinemagoers,
catching a late afternoon show in Leicester Square before their
own evening performance. Actors also happily go to other shows
when matinees don't clash with their own. A variation of this
routine (curtailed by financial dictates) is followed by the
unemployed actor in London.
Periodically, an actor will get
a call from his agent to audition for an advert or a voice-over
somewhere in Soho. Or they might be told that Cimino or Scorsese
are in town and that they are 'dying' to meet you. You arrive
to find out that 'they've got behind' and the entire membership
of British Equity is waiting in the foyer.
Before the show, I like to arrive
early at the theatre, natter with everyone about their day and
have a warble on stage to warm up for the evening. During our
recent London season, we learnt to double-check what was playing
that night since, with three plays in repertoire and exhaustion
sometimes rife, we occasionally had actors in the wrong costumes
half an hour before the show began.
There's often hilarity about
things that go wrong during an evening: gunshots not going off
or lines accidentally inverted to create wonderful Spoonerisms.
Gertrude's injunction to her son: 'Hamlet, cast thy nighted color
off' has come out as 'Hamlet, cast thy coloured nightie off.'
Sometimes directors come round
to the dressing-rooms after the show. You look at their faces
to see if you've got away with it. When you haven't, you can
expect a stern session of notes to improve your performance.
Then friends come round, including my favourite, who, on seeing
my Hamlet, walked into the dressing room and said, 'Yes, well,
you're a comedian really, aren't you?"
Afterwards, it's a good meal.
Current favourites with actors are Orso, L'Escargot, and the
Caprice, although Joe Allen and Groucho's are still popular.
I've eaten happily at them all but I often prefer, like many
exhausted (and broke) actors, to head home. I stop at the Silver
Lake Chinese Restauarant in Camberwell Church Street for a take-away.
Sometimes, the best part of the day is sitting down with a meal
in your own frontroom, winding down with the telly or the record
player on. The greatest pleasures of an actor's life in London
are often the simplest.
Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium