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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 22 November 2018

The show must go on ... even when words fail you

Sometimes the hardest part of being an actor is remembering your lines, writes Michael Simkins
Rock singer Patti Smith knows a thing or two about forgetting lines. Alain Jocard / AFP
Rock singer Patti Smith knows a thing or two about forgetting lines. Alain Jocard / AFP

How do you remember your lines? It’s a question frequently asked of people in showbiz and to tell the truth we don’t even know ourselves. Forcing thousands of words into your brain merely for the act of regurgitating them in public is, indeed, an unnatural business. Here in London, you’ll often see actors on the bus or underground mumbling incoherently into mid-air or feverishly running the flat of our open palm down pages of dog-eared script perched on our laps (it’s also a great way of making sure we always get a seat to ourselves).

Yet once the words or lyrics are safely in, we have to assume they will re-emerge on demand. Yet even the most seasoned performer can suffer a “dry” (showbiz parlance for forgetting your words), which is exactly what befell punk rock artist Patti Smith at the Nobel Prize in Literature ceremony in Stockholm last weekend.

Smith was there to collect the prize for the singer and songwriter Bob Dylan. It had been hoped he’d collect it in person, but no matter, Smith, a fine performer in her own right, was the ideal substitute, not only to represent Dylan, but also to perform one of his most famous compositions: A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. All five verses of it.

All went well at first. But without warning, her brain went walkabout. Like some downhill skier who collides with a slalom flag, she nearly managed to regain her equilibrium and stagger on to the relative safety of the next chorus. But no, she eventually ground to a halt, apologised for her fluff, and asked for another run at it.

The audience gave her a warm ovation at the end of the song and accepted her momentary amnesia with good grace. But watching Smith’s performance on TV I found her discomfort deeply unsettling – if only because I’ve been there myself.

The occasion of my own brainstorm was a charity gig at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane a few years back, one for which I’d rashly agreed to sing a song unfamiliar to me. I’d learnt the lyrics too hurriedly, rehearsed insufficiently and trusted luck to see me through. But once onstage, the words evaporated like morning dew and I found myself gaping like a fish, nothing in my head except the litany of celebrities now glancing down at their laps with embarrassment, including Alan Rickman, Sir Kenneth Branagh and Sir Richard Attenborough. Indeed, I recall thinking that I was the only person in the place I didn’t recognise.

Smith and I are in good company. Barbra Streisand famously forgot her words during a concert in Central Park 1967 (she never again went on without a teleprompter), while according to theatrical legend, Frank Sinatra frequently blundered his way through entire concerts, inventing extra lyrics and paraphrasing others, without apparently batting an eyelid.

Which brings me to Leslie Uggams. Not a name you might recognise, but she is a celebrated song and dance performer in her own right, a familiar name on Broadway and, thanks to a monumental memory lapse during an open air concert in Washington DC a few years back, purveyor of the most outrageous example of how to keep going when your memory has suddenly gone walkabout.

The clip of her performance that day is widely available on YouTube – and impressive stuff it is too.

Uggams, singing June is Bustin’ Out All Over from the musical Carousel in front of a capacity crowd on a glorious summer’s evening, suffers the mother of all dries, yet still manages to sing an entire verse of gibberish without missing a beat or losing her composure.

Indeed, to look at her, you’d think nothing was up. It’s only if you turn the sound up and listen to the words coming out of her mouth, including the immortal line: “All the bugs are out of bushes and the rum and river rishes”, that’d you’d know anything was wrong.

As Bob Dylan would surely concur, they don’t write ‘em like that any more.

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer in London

On Twitter: @michael_simkins