Sad news on the theatre front. Sir Michael Gambon, one of those magisterial British actors who do so well in part that require innate dignity, is retiring from the stage. Moviegoers best remember Gambon for taking over the role of Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films, following the death of Richard Harris. But he’s been making movies since he played a spear-carrier in Laurence Olivier’s 1965 cinematic adaptation of Othello. I remember him in Gosford Park and in Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, Quartet.
Yet the classically trained Gambon, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, was first and foremost a stage actor. Over a period of 53 years, he’s performed the plays of Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Samuel Beckett. Simon Callow, a fine actor himself, has hailed Gambon for his ability to conquer the enormous main stage of Britain’s National Theatre: “Gambon's iron lungs and overwhelming charisma are able to command a sort of operatic full-throatedness which triumphs over hard walls and long distances.”
Recently, though, Gambon has butted up against a problem that is death to any stage performer. Now in his seventies, he suffers from short-term memory loss that has made him struggle to remember his lines. In 2009 he twice succumbed to panic attacks during rehearsals, because the words just wouldn’t come. Extensive medical tests cleared him of any sign of Alzheimer’s, but that didn’t make his plight any easier. He tried to avoid stage roles requiring massive amounts of dialogue, and finally went so far as to try wearing a prompt ear-piece while rehearsing a West End show. As he put it, “There was a girl in the wings and I had a plug in my ear so she could read me the lines. After about an hour I thought, ‘This can’t work.’ It’s a horrible thing to admit but I can’t do it. It breaks my heart.”
Fortunately for the rest of us, Gambon plans to continue on with his stellar film and television career. His situation accentuates some key differences between stage and screen performance. Movies are made in fits and starts: you rarely speak more than a few snippets of dialogue at a time, and when things go awry, do-overs are always possible. What’s exciting about live theatre is its continuous flow. Stage actors shaky in their lines can’t stop and correct themselves, nor look to someone in the wings for help. Yes, there are moments when even the most experienced performer “goes up” (as the British say) on his or her lines, but such flubs must be overcome without the audience realizing that anything’s amiss. No wonder that actors find the stage so exhilarating, and also so scary. It’s a high-wire act, which is why some of the greatest performers of all times have suffered from debilitating stage fright. Gambon’s problem is sadder still, in that it seems to be physical as well as psychological. But at least we’ll be able to enjoy him in a medium that often depends more on powerful close-ups than on the ability to master long strings of polysyllabic words.