With theatres large and small, professional and amateur all dark, for the first time in London, at least, since plague wreaked havoc in the 16th and 17th centuries, reviews are a retreating memory so we are musing on thoughts theatrical until curtains rise again.
Superstitions, Dos and Don’ts
When it comes to superstitions The Scottish Play leaves the rest in its wake. Perhaps safest not to name it in case that brings the world wide web crashing down, but it rhymes with Black Death . . . and how spooky is that!!
The legend started early, at the world premiere apparently, when the actor playing Mrs M back in 1606 is said to have shuffled off his mortal coil somewhat suddenly and had to be replaced at the last minute.
Then, if that was not enough, it was claimed that Shakespeare had included real spells in his text for his three witches, which angered the national union of real witches and warlocks who cursed the play for all time – and you think critics are bad if they don’t like a play?
And Big Mac has enhanced his own legend along the way with an actor supposedly dying when a stage dagger was accidentally replaced with a real one, which made the actor’s death as realistic as you are ever likely to get, and plenty of other tales of death, accidents, injuries – most apocryphal but some are even documented - and no doubt somewhere in the world someone once told a friend they were off to see . . . the play . . . saying it’s real name moments before they were mown down by a bus or struck by lightning or trampled by a rampaging stampede of wildebeast.
Then there have been riots, theatres burning down, suicides and even Verdi’s eponymous opera has come in for its share of catastrophe, including a suicide during a televised performance in New York.
But, sadly for fans of the paranormal, the fact remains that more actors have died during productions of Hamlet than Mr M’s tale. Mind you, Hamlet in full flow, at 4,000 lines and four hours plus, is about twice the running time of the play we dare not name. and is also Will’s most performed play, so there is both more opportunity and more time for any actor with a penchant for the dramatic to take their final bow.
Tales of terrible tragedy, deaths and the like have given the play a kudos of impending calamity, but the more likely explanation for Macbeth (there, I've said it - don precautionary tin hats!) being a portender of doom is much more serious than mere legend – the threat of penury, starvation and unemployment tending to concentrate the mind on thoughts of impending doom.
In the days before computers, tablets, video games, internet, Sky, Netflix, telly, radio . . . the days when social media was the sawdust-floored inn, there was theatre. Every town had at least one, my home town of Oldham had 12, we also had 365 pubs (February 29 must have been a problem for pub crawls) along with the first Yate’s Wine Lodge and first fish and chip shop – we knew how to live up t’north.
There were in house repertory companies as well as actor/managers touring the land living on ticket sales – Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser tells of one such of what was a dying breed by the time of the Second World War.
Now Macbeth with its battle scene, trio of old crone witches casting spells and 12 violent deaths – blood and gore in almost every scene - was a popular play, a real crowd pleaser, a sure way to put bums on seats.
The only problem was that all too often if a company was struggling, a switch to Macbeth was the last throw of the dice to stay afloat, often the harbinger of bankruptcy which meant actors unpaid and out of a job. Even a mere mention of the play was enough to send shivers down the spine of a struggling actor in a struggling company. The word held terror all right, terror of starvation and being thrown out of lodgings for unpaid bills.
That old Mac magic: The middle witch appears to be passing her own opinion of Mr M in this detail from an engraving by Robert Thew of a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds in the Wellcome Collection
That didn’t stop a whole range of antidotes to the curse that probably never was. There was going out of the room, turning three times, swearing or, in some rituals, saying a quote from another Shakespeare play, then asking to be allowed back in. Some antidotes had actors going outside and walking around the theatre building three times – quite a trek at the Hippodrome, Grand or Rep – and you would probably need to take sandwiches for the journey at Derby.
Then we come on to all the other superstitions, such as it being bad luck to use real money, real jewellery and real mirrors on stage. It might of course have something to do with real mirrors reflecting spotlights into actor’ eyes, or destroying carefully designed lighting plots, while real money and real jewellery . . . not so much superstition as temptation.
And while we are on props, how about peacock feathers. In Greek mythology Argus Panoptes was a giant said to have had 100 eyes, He was appointed by the Goddess Hera to protect her priestess Io, but Hermes tricked Argus and killed him. Hera then transferred his eyes to the tail of a peacock. It’s all a bit more complicated than that with Zeus involved and Io turned into a cow but that was the peacock bit. For some reason, that meant peacock feathers came to represent the evil eye on stage – not that there is a lot of call for peacock feathers these days.
Then we have break a leg. In my modest performing days I once wished a female lead good luck in the time honoured theatrical tradition of telling her to break a leg as we headed out of the dressing rooms for the dress rehearsal, whereupon she promptly fell down a short flight of steps, knackered her ankle and had to perform the run in a surgical boot . . . good luck might have been safer, methinks.
But where did the tradition arise? The Americans claim it relates to the actor turned assassin John Wilkes Booth who fatally shot Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre in 1865 then leapt from the box to the stage to escape and some accounts, largely disputed, had him breaking his leg in the process. Broken or not he escaped on horseback to be shot dead 12 days later.
All right, it involves a theatre, a stage and an unlikely broken leg, but I suspect the more astute of you might question as to how all this relates to wishing someone good luck, but as it was some 60 or so years later before the phrase was first recorded in the US then either Americans think at a glacial pace or that is probably not the origin.
One theory is it comes from the leg line the invisible or sometimes chalk line between performing area and backstage, so to break a leg was to enter the stage, which meant, in times gone by, an actor or performer had the good fortune of getting paid. No appearance, no pay.
Some say it relates to Elizabethan times when an actor would bow, that is break a leg, after a good performance, even kneeling to pick up coins thrown in appreciation. Others suggest it is to confuse evil spirits who will mischievously cause the opposite of what is asked. Whatever . . . if you want to wish someone good luck, tell them to break a leg . . . and then hope they don’t.
Not so common these days is the superstition of not wearing blue on stage, which is from the same origin as Macbeth (tin hats again, please!). Blue was an expensive dye, so struggling companies would pop in blue costumes to give the impression they were financially in a better state than they really were. For actors blue once more brought the spectre of impending unemployment. Wealthy companies dispelled the myth by using real silver items to show their wealth was more than costume deep.
Some superstitions hang around such as a bad dress means a good show despite the fact a bad dress can also be because it just happens to be a bad show.
The idea stems from the fact that if the dress is error strewn it is a reality check for cast and crew who will pull all the stops out to be ready for opening night. A good dress could encourage complacency and a less than inspired opening.
Not that a dress should ever be fully completed of course. There is the old belief that the final line of a play should never be said until it is performed, nor should a bow be taken in an empty theatre or the production is doomed, and how about the idea of sleeping with the script under your pillow as it will somehow allow the words to slowly seep into your brain as you sleep helping you to remember your part – something science has not yet found the time to prove.
While we are at it, never go on stage where there are three candles, The actor nearest the last to be lit, or the shortest, or the dimmest flame, depending upon which version of doom you believe, will either end up getting married or dead. If you are married already I suppose it puts the current spouse on notice and in some plays the latter could well be a welcome relief.
Flowers have their own supersitions. Never give a bouquet before a performance or it will be a dreary, jaded affair that night and, a real bizarre one, on the final night of a show the leading lady or director should be presented with flowers stolen from a graveyard. What the leading lady is going to do with a load of carnations that spell GRANDMA has never been fully explained..
This is apparently to mark the symbolic death of the show and is said to stem from the days when penniless actors wanted to show appreciation to leading lady or director but couldn’t afford a posh bouquet, so nicked a bunch.
There are many more, some local to individual theatres, or single countries, but whatever you are seeing and wherever you are seeing it there is as much drama back stage as in the spotlight – but, that being said, just remember next time you go to the theatre . . . sometime this year hopefully . . . if you open a bag of annoyingly noisy sweets or crisps, especially if done slowly in a quiet bit, stand up and before you sit down again turn round three times, open and close your seat twice, mutter a quote from Hamlet and scratch your right ear then you put your left arm in, your left arm out, in, out, in out and shake it all about.
Probably nothing will happen if you don’t . . . but we can always hope.
When it comes to superstitions, theatres can probably manage almost one for every seat in the house. For a start any self-respecting theatre has to have at least one ghost; if they are lucky an actor was murdered there or was fatally wounded in a sword fight that didn’t go quite as rehearsed.
Even an actor keeling over on stage would get him the coveted eternity gig, failing that there is always some dastardly deed, murder most foul, terrible accident or, if necessary, some documents, or, if all else fails. An undocumented legend of tragedy on the site where the theatre now stands, or within a reasonable haunting distance.
Many theatres uphold the tradition of ghost lights, a single lamp, centre stage, as a courtesy to allow the theatrical ghosts to perform on the empty stage in the empty theatre.
It also means that the stage crew are not going to break their necks when they leave or arrive in the blackness to switch on the lights, including house lights, back stage – a small point which is surely merely a bonus, almost a gift from the ghosts.
Tradition also dictates that theatrical ghosts are given a night alone in the theatre out of respect which is why theatres are rarely open on Sundays. All right, it also coincides with the get-out and get-in for touring shows, but even on long runs theatres are still dark on Sundays - a night given over to the spectres of the stage . . . or just a night off for those actors with breaths and bows still to take.
Mind you some say theatres should traditionally be closed on Monday - many play safe and closed both - as the day when Thespis can perform, apparently being none too chuffed his moment in the ghost light. He was the first actor to speak lines as an individual around 6BC and is the reason actors are called Thespians.
The Theatre Royal Drury Lane is said to be the most haunted theatre in Britain with the ghosts of Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837), the white faced clown who virtually invented pantomime, still in residence along with the clog dancing Dan Leno (1860-1904) a renowned pantomime dame.
But it is the Man in Grey who is the most famous, having been seen many times, usually crossing the upper circle and melting into the wall. Who he is no one knows, except during renovations in the 1870s workmen found a hidden room behind the wall where the ghost vanished. Inside was the skeleton of a young man in grey rags with a dagger stuck in his rib cage.
He was supposedly a young man who had fallen for an actress in the reign of Queen Anne and her actor lover had murdered him and hidden the body. Whoever he is, he is a welcome whenever he visits, only appearing at the start of what will subsequently turn out to be a successful run. If he doesn’t appear . . . the show is in trouble!
The Palace Theatre in the West End boasted two ghosts, one a ballerina who does the odd twirl across the stage, and Ivor Novello who apparently watches shows from the dress circle. Two seats were left bolted open and permanently empty for the ghosts to enjoy shows whenever they wanted . . . until the sell out Harry Potter came along and the ghosts lost their freebie seats and had to take their place in line to pay like everyone else.
Is it a phantom . . . or just Photoshop at The Alexandra Theatre?
Theatre Royal Haymarket has former manager, writer and director from the 1800s John Baldwin Buckstone in attendance. He apparently prefers comedies, while the Adelphi has Shakespearean actor William Terriss in residence. He was murdered at the stage door in 1897, always a good career move for immortality, His killer was former friend, former not surprising in the circumstances, and fellow actor Richard Archer Prince. Poor Bill died in the arms of his lover and leading lady vowing to visit her after his death. He still pops in to knock on her door 120 years on . . . now that’s real love for you.
Closer to home the former Alexandra Theatre manager Derek Salberg, who died in his office in 1997, kept in touch from the ethereal back stage with strange knocking often heard on the door and things being knocked over in The Salberg Suite, his old office, not that you are safe in the auditorium where the ghost of a cleaning lady is often seen in the circle or wandering up and down stairs.
Leon Salberg, another of the legendary theatre family also died in his office, in 1937, and his ghost is still around as is former stage manager Mr Turner, renowned for jangling his keys, which can still be heard as his footsteps cross an empty stage and there are a couple of other ghots who pop in from time to time. Hate to cast aspersions, but in these troubled times, when it comes to ghosts, the Alex seems to be hoarding them!
The Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton has Percy J Purdey, a manager there in the early 20th century, who wanders around and pops in the bar for a whisky each night - hope he gets a staff discount! They also have a Grey Lady, or the Lavender Lady after the scent she leaves behind. She is said to be an audience member who fell to her death from one of the boxes.
The Royal Shakespeare Company has two in-house ghosts, the Perfumed Lady, who leaves a scented trail as she passes by, and the Grey Lady, who haunts the Swan, switching on lights every night. You could almost believe Perfumed Ladies and Grey Ladies is a franchise job in the ghost community . . .
Birmingham Town Hall can boast the most celebrated ghost in the city in Charles Dickens, who read A Christmas Carol there in 1853, and apparently his ghost is still seen sitting in the hall or wandering the corridors, while the Town Hall also has two stonemasons, killed when a block of stone fell and crushed them during construction in 1833. They can still be heard, apparently, chiselling away.
Even the amateur stage is not exempt with Hall Green Little Theatre having its own apparition, Jimmy. Jimmy, it seems, like musicals, which is unfortunate as HGLT don’t actually do them these days and he hates ghost stories.
HGLT stalwart Roy Palmer has personal experience of Jimmy. He said: “I was told I would have to learn to play drums for a play and they brought in a drummer to teach me.”
The teaching was somewhat successful, so much so that Roy bought a drum kit and was practising alone in the empty theatre. “When you are on your own you give it some stick don’t you and I was drumming away, enjoying myself and suddenly there was a voice in my left ear which said ‘can you be quiet now’. I looked round and there was no one there.”
The last play at HGLT before all theatres went dark was the ghost story Edith in the Dark, which Jimmy did not like one little bit. Roy was the director and he and the cast and crew would arrive for rehearsals and find things had been moved, sound and lighting cues and settings changed, and with no one admitting responsibility that only left one suspect – and he was well known to dislike ghost stories.
Who Jimmy is, or rather was, no one knows, but the theatre, in Pemberley Road, Acocks Green, was built in 1950 on what had become a rubbish dump on a site that contained water tanks left over from the Second World War.
Roy said: “Our lowest cellar here used to be a water tank and some of the tank still remains, and the theory is that Jimmy drowned in there.”
Whatever, he is another in the cast of ghostly characters who tread the boards . . . softly.
To come: Superstitions, Dos and Don’ts.
The Prince of Darkness
I have had the good fortune to spend, what is now, many years being a part of theatre, either in its production or as a reviewer. As a producer I have also staged many live events of awards conferences and presentations. Starting from a technical background of sound, vision and light, I have always, when review space permitted or applicable, tried to include the technical aspects of a production. This is especially so with lighting, and always when their effects contribute creatively, beyond that of simple illumination. Light has always intrigued me and been a part of my working in Film and Television and photography, for without it we are left alone with what my crew always called The Prince of Darkness.
So with the virus closing our theatre doors and running wild across the world in our political, economic and health arenas, I thought I would talk about the way light in the theatre and in our lives in general, is such a crucial element. There is a tradition in any theatre when it’s empty, to leave on stage what is known as a Ghost Light. This often is just a single illuminated bulb on a stand and caged for safety reasons. The original reason for this light is said to be one of safety, as before modern front of house control rooms, lighting would be controlled off stage. Navigating a blacked out space is an issue and with a possible 15 foot fall into an open orchestra pit, you can see the sense in a permanently lit lamp.
Like with so many other theatrical superstitions, the inclusion and possible name of the Ghost Light has been commandeered over the years, to mean things like a light that allows the Ghosts of many a haunted theatre, to take centre stage in the otherwise blackness. The term `going dark’ is also a warning to onstage performers that their safety is about to be impaired by a lighting tech extinguishing the lights.
Lighting can often be the making of an event but I have also seen a few less than entertaining productions where I had wished the lighting had failed during the play and it had `gone dark’ during the actual performance. Such an event nearly happened on one of my own productions.
I had been commissioned to produce a national awards ceremony at the Savoy Hotel for the cabinet office. It was a pretty highbrow affair and tense as the Prime Minister, Tony Blair’s wife, known professionally still as Cherie Booth, was going to be making the awards onstage. She at the time was heavily pregnant, so press interest was high, and the event was attended by a herd of 20 or so, over eager press photographers. We had rigged and rehearsed the day before and all was well.
Next day the show was due to begin at 11.30 a.m. At 7.30 in the morning we powered everything up in the control area and my lighting engineer set about some last minute focussing of lamps. Police with dogs and other security were scanning the place at the same time, so things were buzzing. By 8.00 the cabinet suits and office officials were all over the stage panicking about everything from the number of glasses for the water, to the temperature of the room and the general politics of the day. The staging looked great and we were all set. Then unannounced he arrived, the unwelcome Prince of Darkness.
A ghost light keeps the heart of theatre alive at Highbury Theatre Centre
With the stage `going dark’ except for the ambient room lights, the officials were all wondering what had happened. I assured them it was all in hand and of course lied, saying it was intentional. Reassured they carried on adding to their increasing levels of anxiety. My engineer was expectedly perplexed and after messing with the lighting desk he pronounced that is was ` Booked’ or a word that sounded very similar to it.
It is at those kinds of moments that a professional crew goes into overdrive. Everyone began to explore the possibilities and eventualities of either a replacement desk or failing that, the possible explanation and solution, to having no lights at all on the stage. I set off into the hotel to see what they could do, while the crew began calling local companies for a hire replacement. By 8.40 we had found a replacement desk, but it was an hour’s drive away and facing the London rush hour it was expected to get to us by 10.15 at the best.
The cabinet office team were now at fever pitch, but fortunately the debate about photos being taken of award recipients after each award or at the end, had entered a testosterone fuelled frenzy, with juniors being snappily asked to walk and rehearse the acceptance path in order to calculate the show timings.
The lighting desk didn’t arrive till 10 .25 and was hurriedly unpacked ready to install. By now a fair proportion of the audience were seated at their designated round tables, tucking into their extortionate £10 per round, Savoy bacon butties.
Cherie was due to arrive at 11.00 and so I was requested to assist her arrival. Although I was just a token body, and way down the pecking order amongst the ministerial hangers on, they each were all eager to extract her, and her soon to be delivered baby, from the rear of the Bentley she arrived in. I still had no idea if we had light but was quietly confident we would have.
For a minute I forgot our issues as when the car arrived, I remember her getting awkwardly out of the rear seat and feeling quite sorry for her. She looked like she was wearing an old potato sack and overall she was clearly in need of a good ironing. The press blitzed her with flashlight. The entourage headed indoors and I followed on, fingers crossed that we had light. It was now 11.10 and with the full audience now present, I re-joined the crew at the rear of the room, just in time for the lights to appear on the stage to the relief of us all.
Unfortunately the unexpected failure of the lighting desk had put us all on edge for the day and none of us could enjoy the show in any way, each of us waiting for the Prince of Darkness to return. Thankfully he didn’t and no one ever knew about our technical failure.
So who knows when the doors of about every theatre and performing venue will open again, for us to enjoy the safety of their fresh air and their inevitable deep clean? I think it could be a while, but when you do, think about the power of stage lighting, for without it you will be seeing nothing.
Hopefully, while we are all absent, the Ghost Light will do its job and keep the virus and The Prince of Darkness well away.