As an audience member, I generally go along with the natural order of theater, especially when it comes to going along with an actor’s creative choices which for the most part appear seamless within almost all productions that I have seen. What you see on the stage fits the expectations and rarely does anything come from that experience that stops you in your tracks. There are exceptions when you find your way in the fringe of hard-core theater where the general rules of performance is to screw the hell out of the general rule of performance. Most of the time, when it comes to Shakespeare or Dickens, (or even the classics that don’t star pr have been fiddled around with by Kenneth Branagh) you go along with everything, and everything seems to fit smoothly, appropriately.
I knew of that rule, even when I performed on stage myself… at age eight for a school play of Peter Pan. I was Starkey, the cowardly and all for self sacrifice pirate who would rather be eaten by sharks then go into a cabin where Peter Pan lies in waiting. “Oh no sir…” was my line. “I would rather drown!” and once that epic one-liner was delivered, I was still hungry for more. As I jumped cautiously off the stage on what should have been the plank that sealed by death, I gave out a long resounding… glug, glug, glug, glug, glug. The creepy head teacher who played Captain Hook corpsed and the audience laughed also. I improvised. I took it a step beyond the brief and naturally, I carried on… glug, glug, glug, glug, glugging until the stage resumed actual scripted programming.
I remember thinking in that moment: “I have arrived!” — next stop RADA and hello Dame Judy Dench, you will be playing my mother, and, oh what the hell, Helena Bonham Carter, you can play my love interest. No doubt she would argue with the 8 year old me, stating that she only turned up so she could play the witch. I would give a childish sigh and in my pre-pubescent voice concede, “if you must! I still have to audition Debra Winger and that young thing Meredith Salenger who would be a much better love interests then you, Helena, let’s be serious.”
Wait… did I recall that fantasy or was I just… oh never-mind.
After my performance in Peter Pan — the Christmas primary school play of 1988 — I didn’t think there was anything else beyond that which could have made me any more a part of the stage, the play and the audience. My world was without boundaries.
That was until at the age of 15 when I witnessed a creative choice that wasn’t so “accidental”, and yes, that was a planned pun. The moment things got real was when I joined a school drama group to a viewing of Macbeth. Things got real in the form of Jane Horrocks, who’s comedic genius had embraced our screens many times before and many times after.
It became real the moment she peed on stage…
Can I start this by saying, it was just a normal routine day at school? Sure I can. It was every bit as ordinary, even though it wasn’t everyday that we’d get the chance to skip an afternoon of classes to go and see Shakespeare in the raw. We got on the bus, I’m guessing with 12 strong. All aspiring actors waiting to have Shakespeare handed to us, blowing our minds and making us reach for the Complete Works with a thirst for the thespian tongue. Now wait, it’s not how it sounds.
A couple of us, and I’m not naming names, took the sitting at the back of the bus while the others sat close to the teacher so they could catch up on soap operas and other televised crap. We back seat rebels took this freedom as an opportunity to crack open some cold ones and sip beer with that awesome feeling that dared us “not to get caught.” Needless to say, the two of us (or three, I don’t know how many rebels actually made it to drama class) embarking on an early learning pre-Shakespeare bender. We made sure we were going to experience things differently from the others who were either just happy to be out of school, or dreaming of casting Helena Bonham Carter as a witch in their own future blockbuster projects. Who knew that this class was about to be tested. This was a viewing that could easily send the prude and unadventurous floozy into a lifelong spiral of wishing they’d taken a subject of greater stability: such as metal work or home economics… I’m just guessing.
In fact, I don’t think any of the students I went to class with ever made it into stage or screen. When your teacher’s only reach for inspiration is a ten minute gossip catch up about what happened the night before on Absolutely Fabulous, you realize this is not the New York Stella Adler Studio of Acting. We weren’t studying anything that was on the KUDOS computerized version of “What career would suit you best” and the teachers knew it! They just wanted to have something for the ones who didn’t like high concept science or math. We were there to dream.
We should have worn our incontinence pants.
Maybe it was that performance of Lady Macbeth that we saw that day that scared the crap out of any shred of aspiration that lay within. It was something that once seen was never spoken, even though I strongly believe that I turned it into a realisation that acting is bigger than a lot of the preconceptions of how much goes into any given performance.
I knew it. I had by that time already seen the Godfather, Don’t Look Now, read Tennessee Williams A Streetcar Named Desire. I even read the review section of the guardian and even though I wasn’t prepared for Jane Horrocks, I knew that it was a moment of expression that separated the understanding from the desire. It was a moment that made me realize that there was a seriously high step up when it came to high art and the power of creative choice.
Macbeth, the play was straight forward. It was everything you came to expect. The performances sold it. It was all believable and had us all transfixed — even the boozy ones.
It was Act 5, scene 1. It was the scene where Lady Macbeth was sleepwalking. Jane Horrocks started to intentionally lose it perfectly as Lady Macbeth. In all honesty, she was already acting her socks off. She walked across the stage, and suddenly, there was something different about her gown. It was changing colour. No, it was getting darker… and then we could see a delicate trickle of water splashing about her feet as she stood there, front and centre.
Surely, my instinct was to look up and see if the roof was in fact leaking. That would be the first decision for any audience member who wouldn’t write up public urination as an option at the top of their list. It didn’t take long, maybe a moment or two as she walked away from the puddle that it hit me.
She’s peed on the stage.
Oh but no, she would have a bottle up there… she used a pump right? Yeah, because in Lady Macbeth’s most fragile and tormented moments she would want to reach into her pocket and pump a little balloon that was linked to a tube down her leg… and she would have to be careful not to squeeze it too early because that would be embarrassing!
But no, I had already come to terms with it, even though I still needed to know if it were true. She had managed to urinate on stage, on cue and in full view of A Level students, GCSE students and Glen and Fred: two of Nottingham’s finest locals who dropped by the theater that day because there simply was nothing worth haggling for on the market.
The scene ended, and I guess it was the end of an act. Somebody would have had to mop it up, or was it at the end? I don’t remember that detail. I would have to ask her. I really should…
The play ended and as if nothing had happened, we all got back on the bus and went back to school.
Nobody wanted to talk about what they had seen. Nothing at all was said about Bubbles, I mean Jane Horrocks taking her leak for Shakepeare, and it wasn’t even something you could just miss. It was an intimate setting, and that was the sheer brilliance of the performance. If you boil it down… hers became the most memorable performance of Lady Macbeth I had ever seen. How many productions do you remember seeing somebody do something so unforgettable? It was all in context. It wasn’t lude, dirty, shocking… but it was real and memorable. As I said before, pre-leak, Jane was already owning the stage. That moment… that creative choice took it over the edge and made it something that could never be followed.
Only G.G. Allin could rival that performance. He would have made a glorious Macbeth even though, that would surely have been a one night only performance and no Shakespeare would ever pass his bloodied lips. That’s where it falls into the lude, the dirty, the artless and the plain gross.
Nothing was said and that’s the biggest shame of this piece. Why not have that conversation in our class discussion? Didn’t we owe it that? Whatever was behind that choice informed us about Lady Macbeth and the power of Shakespeare more than any pencil scribbles in the side margin could ever explain.
Perhaps for some, it was just a beloved actress, taking a leak on the stage. For some, it was a golden moment that showered hope over us all that there were things, methods, undiscovered treasures that were yet to be explored. You might say that any classic role can only be done a hundred times before it becomes warn out and overdone… but it’s the one hundred and first that might have you ready in the wings, with a mop, because that’s where the exploration lies. That is what puts the art in entertainment.
By Stephen Radford 12/03/16
Read the interview with Jane Horrocks about her role as Lady Macbeth here: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/the-interview-jane-horrocks-actress-1577653.html