278. The Phantom of the Theatre…

“In those days, there was usually an intermission between each act during which the audience – and the actors – would get refreshments. One night, the great actor Edmund Kean was giving his Hamlet but by the end of the fourth interval found himself so refreshed that he couldn’t remember Act V. He could, however, remember Act V of Lear – which he’d done the previous week – so they did that instead.”

Now, we saw King Lear last week in an NTLive cinema streaming. Absolutely brilliant, it was and how McKellen hasn’t got double pneumonia from being drenched every evening and twice on Saturdays, goodness only knows. On reflection, though, having a grave on the Dover cliffs, complete with gravedigger and some amusing skull byplay, might just have put the icing on the cake. Lear holds the skull aloft and says “Ha, Goneril with a white beard!” Play-blind casting; very now.

Maybe the audience in Regency times were also as refreshed as newts and didn’t notice the surprise ending. Though there was a fashion in changing the ends of tragedies to make them less – well, tragic – Othello realises the hankie business is just a laundry malfunction and he and Desdemona live happily ever after, that sort of thing – so perhaps this was written off as another alternative ending. Gerard, who is guiding Pa and I and a handful of others around the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, gives a few more examples and we move on.

He’s a really good guide, is Gerard: knowledgeable, amusing, great communicator. He is, of course, also an actor so we could hear every word and didn’t bump into the furniture. And what furniture! Gerard took us through the King’s Entrance – there is a separate Prince’s Entrance so that George III and the Prince Regent didn’t have mingle – and into the Royal Reception Room which is well lush. Eighteen carat gold twiddly bits on the wall, all very regal and comfortable, leading into the Royal Box which has, it must be said, the very worst view in the house. You can’t see the half of the stage nearest to you but you can see all the actors waiting to go on in the opposite wings. Definitely a place to be seen rather than to enjoy the show.

Gerard guided us into the Royal Circle – much better view – and then backstage. In the wig room, we heard about the practicalities of putting on a show as massive as 42nd Street. We went into the bowels of the theatre and saw the tunnels that originally would have run down to give easy access to the river. We also saw the tunnel which Charles II used for his secret visits to the home of Nell Gwyn, who started as an orange-girl at the theatre, progressed to being an actress, thence to the King’s mistress.

We then went down to a walkway under the stage and by heck! The sheer size and the mechanics, with all the engineering used to move the various sections of stage – incredible. The stage itself is massive; apparently you could comfortably fit onto it the entire Globe Theatre. So the place lends itself to spectacle; productions with horses and helicopters and houses. Gerard had some great stories about the nuts and bolts of previous shows but, as I was listening rather than taking notes, I’ll not try and replicate them. Ask him yourself.

We went out of the stage door but sadly no one asked for our autographs. Gerard guided us around the outside of the building and told us about the plan next year to put a small extension on the side accommodating a lift which will give wheelchair access to all levels. So the theatre will go dark for most of next year while this is being done.

We’d meant to ask about any ghosts, Pa and I, but Gerard was so interesting that it completely went out of our heads. I reckon this must have really annoyed the ghosts because, while we were standing at the corner of the building, by the statue of the chap who brought pantomime to the theatre (oh yes he did), Gerard was suddenly walloped in the chest by a sizeable orange which seemed to come out of thin air. It gave us all a shock especially, of course, Gerard who, trouper that he was, soldiered on but was clearly pretty miffed. “It could have hit me on the face!” he said, which indeed it could, and would have taken a bit of explaining at auditions.

We looked around, all of us, for the Phantom Orange Thrower of Drury Lane but there was truly no obvious culprit. No open windows from the buildings opposite; no smirking youths on mopeds. The only possible explanation, to my mind, is a bit of classy attention seeking from a neglected ghost. And – given the choice of weapon – it seems pretty obvious to me which one.

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