Relax, Darling, It's Sunday

Evening Standard Magazine, December 1988
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 answers

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 following day.

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 commercial.

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 afternoon.

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.

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