Actors have the limelight, the kudos, the recognition.They also have to deal with crippling self-doubt, rejection and ‘suffering’ for one’s craft. With this in mind, what sorts of things ferment in an actor’s subsconscious? Written by Christopher Durang and directed by Lydia Parker, The Actor’s Nightmare is in many ways an ode to ‘thesping’. Beginning with the inception of drama and the vernacular of ‘thee-ate-ter’, the play is Joycean in intent with its use of stream-of-consciousness. Very much a ‘Everything You Wanted To Know About Acting But Were Afraid To Ask’, the plays showcases the different forms of performing and the idiosyncracies that accompany them.
The five actors that make up the ensemble all get their chance to shine in signature roles, though even in a supportive capacity, they are hair’s breath from ‘stealing the scenes’ from each other.
Very much an actor’s worst nightmare, Stefan Menaul’s ‘George’ faces the perennial fear of ‘drying up’ on stage. His inability to remember what play he’s supposed to be performing suggests he really is asleep and that none of this ultimately matters because it is a dream. If only he can wake up…
From living inside the dream of ‘an actor’ to a lady who loves going to see plays, we meet Kate Sumpter as ‘Mrs Sorken’ who lives vicariously through her theatrical viewing experiences. She is, however, only too aware of the ‘relationship’ and ‘contract’ between what an audience expects to see and what a show tries to evoke in people. It is through Sumpter’s ‘Medea’, however, that we see how the theatrical traditions from nearly 2,500 years ago look to the ‘uninitiated’. Of course this is all done with humour, but it does highlight how the tropes of Greek tragedy can be ‘comprehended’ or misunderstood by the 21st century.
The idea of alternative endings to established plays is explored with Layo-Christina Akinlude’s Blanche De Dubois, who lives in a ‘Stella-free’ household with her brother-in-law Stanley (Adrian Richards). But rather than feeling at the end of her tether, Blanche and her relationship with Stanley is comparable to an old married couple who oscillate between sniping remarks and indifference. Critics often compare characters from other plays a playwright has written, as if they were in the same ‘universe’. What The Actor’s Nightmare does is show the possibility they exist at the same time and are privy to appearing in each other’s plays.
Richards also has a fine time as ‘Chris’ – a writer who has been asked by his agent to see Hollywood producer Melissa Stern (Meaghan Martin). Proof that people with the money don’t always have good instincts and should stay clear of the creative process, we see Chris feeling the pressure from his agent and Stern to throw himself into the ‘questionable’ projects. But for ‘artistes’ in general, does ‘taste’ have to be checked in at the door if opportunities haven’t been forthcoming?
To bring things full circle, Martin’s ‘Comedienne’ brings a real poignacy to the show. Often self-deprecating, the Comedienne’s ‘confessional’ routine reveals a difficult relationship with her mother who is at the root of her low self-esteem. Her routine elicts a sympathetic, if awkward, silence from the audience which exacerbates her insecurties. The fake laughter track she uses to ‘hide’ she is ‘dying on stage’ – the ultimate actor’s nightmare – only compounds her situation. For those who are driven to perform, it is a double-edged sword…
It has to be said, that to fully enjoy The Actor’s Nightmare, a modicum of knowledge regarding theatre history is helpful, as there are a lot of in-jokes about individual plays and intertextuality. But for anyone who is more than familiar with the plays of Tennessee Williams, A Man For All Seasons, Shakespeare and Greek Tragedy, it is a rich cornucopia of dreamlike associations.
© Michael Davis 2019
The Actor’s Nightmare runs at Park Theatre until 10th August.