The Awful Hell of Stage Fright
The Times, February 1996
Stephen Fry's generosity is only one of his many endearing virtues. Last summer I asked him to give up a Sunday evening to appear at the Albert Hall in aid of Stonewall, which lobbies for legal and social equality for lesbians and gay men. He told me he was "very sorry to let Stonewall down", but would I contact him "nearer the time?" I duly did, but he was still overwhelmed with work. Two days before the show, he called me. He could squeeze a couple of hours out of his diary. So he elegantly sauntered on to the Albert Hall stage and ad-libbed a passionate and hilarious speech about injustice.
Four months later, should anyone be surprised that he has decided that enough, for the time being, is enough? His disappointed fans might not credit that he could take so hard a few disparaging reviews for his part in Simon Gray's new play. No actor will be surprised.
I was acting twenty years ago in a much praised production on Shaftesbury Avenue. At a late night supper in Soho, I eavesdropped on a couple of actors discussing my performance. They criticised my diction, damned my physique and agreed on my total failure as an actor.
I thought I was impervious, but the next night, in the second act, I stopped in mid-flow, certain that every member of that night's audience agreed with my critics. Unable to say the lines, unable even to walk offstage, I longed for the proverbial trapdoor to open and release me from the hell of being a failed actor. For the next four months the last place on earth I wanted to be was appearing in public.
Performers don't talk much about stage fright. The spectre of a tongue turned to stone and vomit where the lines should be is all too frightening to be evoked. As Laurence Olivier confided in his last book: "Stage fright is... always waiting outside the door, waiting to get you. You either battle or walk away."
Loyalty to the play, to fellow actors, dramatist and management, plus the convention that "the show must go on" prevent all but the least confident from walking away. Gray's play is continuing. I hope it won't be long before Stephen can echo Sir Laurence's words: "I have been there, I have looked over the edge, and I have returned."