Last night, thirty minutes from the end of Timon of Athens at the National Theatre, Simon Russell Beale slipped and broke his finger. The performance was interrupted – “I’m sorry ladies and gentleman, I seem to have broken my finger” – an announcement was made by the stage manager, and ten minutes later Paul Dodds, Simon Russell Beale’s understudy, took over and finished the performance. Thankfully, the injury was a minor fracture and Simon Russell Beale is back performing tonight. This is very good news, first and foremost, for Mr Beale (see what I did there, I am turning into the New York Times), the audience (I am sure Mr Dobbs was fantastic, but nobody wants the big star to go off sick for long) and me. Because I can now discuss, guilt free, my not entirely healthy fascination with injuries on stage.
I am not attracted by the pain and misfortune. But in a live performance, it’s the thrill of the unexpected. When an actor falls, even a practiced fall, you know it is real, it must hurt a little. And if something goes wrong, everyone, actors and audience, enter a place when noone knows what will happen. It’s always interesting to see the audience’s reaction to the understudy who takes over: in theory, this should be a disappointing development, but the audience wants to experience the adrenaline, fear and excitement of someone who goes on stage at a moment’s notice. The best performance in the world can’t quite beat that.
But, more often than not, stage accidents happen and the audience doesn’t suspect a thing. Accidents, after all, often happen in scenes where physical confrontation, injury and fight are already part of the play. In 2008, in Vienna, in a performance of Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart, actor Daniel Hoevels accidentally slashed his own throat when the prop knife who was supposed to use when his character commits suicide was replaced by an unblunted one. Blood pored out, actor collapsed on stage, the audience, at least initially, thought it was a marvellous performance. Fortunately, the actor survived and even resumed performances the next evening. Say what you want, actors are tough.
At other times, the body’s reaction to injury hides the seriousness. Tom Hollander, while performing in A Flea in Her Ear at the Old Vic, sustained a serious arm injury which took him out of the play for several nights. But the evening the accident happened, he actually carried on and finished the play, as adrenaline and the body’s ability to deal with physical shock hid the pain and discomfort.
Some times, accidents happen in rehearsal: (Darrell D’Silva got injured with a prop gun in the technical rehearsal of Royal Shakespeare Company’s Antony and Cleopatra in 2010) and their consequences are carried onto the stage (press night was postponed and he had to wear a sling for several performance of the play). Occasionally, the audience is at the receiving end of more than the actor’s spit (Allegedly, in a performance of Othello with Lenny Henry in 2009, a woman in the audience sustained a minor cut by a flying prop knife).
Theatre has to look dangerous. The most exciting scene in Old Vic’s Richard III was Kevin Spacey tangling upside down several feet off the ground. I knew nothing was going to happen but a voice inside me was screaming: they might drop Kevin Spacey on his head. The great art these days is that theatre looks more and more dangerous while it is safer and safer. Which is fine by me. Minor accidents are exciting, big ones are not.