The theatre world in Britain has been in a state of mild shock this week after one of its favourite sons, the actor Michael Gambon, announced that he will give up live theatre work due to failing memory. From now, he will be restricting himself to films and television, areas of the business in which an inability to remember lines is not so cruelly exposed.
Long before he achieved international fame as Professor Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films, “the great Gambon” (as he’s universally known within the business) was already a prodigious talent.
I worked alongside him several times in London’s Theatreland in the 1980s, when he was approaching the height of his powers. I still remember his mesmerising blend of power and dexterity. Yet now, at 74, he’s played his last theatre role. “It’s a horrible thing to admit but I can’t do it,” he commented. “It breaks my heart … when the script’s in front of me and I can’t learn it. It’s frightening.”
His plight cuts to the very essence of acting. “How do you learn your lines?” is one of the most commonly asked questions of those in show business. With good reason, for it’s a subject rarely discussed in the trade. In truth, we don’t really know how we do it, and are hesitant to discuss it for fear that over-analysis will destroy the fragile mental alchemy on which we depend.
However long it takes, we have to believe that once learnt, the lines will come out each night on demand and in the right order. But when they don’t, either through fear, failing faculties, or over-familiarity, the job of live performance is transformed in an instant, from the best gig in the world to the stuff of nightmares.
When you “dry” (as forgetting your lines is commonly known), there are only two available options – a helpful ad-lib from a fellow actor, or a prompt from the stage manager in the wings.
But stage managers are an overworked lot. Quite apart from following the script, they have lighting and sound cues to tee up, props to prepare and errands to run. So they may not always be available when you most need them. One actor of my acquaintance asked three times for a prompt, only to receive the unhelpful response: “Hang on, I’m doing something …”
Nearly as dangerous as lack of preparation is over-preparation. Endless repetition of the same scenes night after night during a long run, sometimes invites mental atrophy, a state of being in which you know the lines so well you can almost perform them on autopilot. That’s when even the most seasoned pro can find themselves suddenly upended. One moment you’re on stage without a care in the world, the next, you’re gaping like a fish. On such occasions, time seems to stand still. You know the word you’re searching for, it’s just that you can’t remember what it is. It begins with an L. Is it an L? Or is it a P? Too late; the line is upon you, your mouth is already framing the word, and you have no option but to allow instinct to kick in. Thankfully, instinct usually does the trick. But meanwhile you’ve aged 10 years in a couple of seconds.
Forgetting your lines is one thing, but no longer being able to assimilate them is quite another. Nowadays, tiny earpieces are available, which means an actor can be fed his lines discreetly by a colleague with a microphone in the wings, but this can only ever be a temporary solution. As Gambon says when he tried it: “After about an hour I thought ‘this can’t work’. You can’t be running about onstage with someone reading your lines into your ear.”
Ultimately, a failing memory requires an actor to take a long hard look in the mirror. Or they can pretend it’s not happening and blunder on year after year, relying more and more on the kindness of others to get them through. Gambon is too good an actor and too proud a man, to contemplate this.
He will have no shortage of offers in TV and films in the years ahead. And theatre’s loss is certain to be Hollywood’s gain. And with his mighty presence no longer in the frame for the best stage parts, the rest of us will probably stand a chance.
Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London
On Twitter: @michael_simkins