There's a slightly campy thing that actors say to each other if one of them is ill and has to go on: 'Dr Theatre will sort you out'. It's half a joke but half a way of talking about the strange thing that really quite serious debility can sometimes fall away when you step on stage. You feel sick, blocked up, headachey, fluey, but you step on stage and you feel powerful, clear-headed, energised. It tends to be explained as the rush of adrenalin, which is a pain killer and also by raising your body temperature and increasing your heart rate, clearing your head and giving your the feeling of energy. But can it be just that?
I'm very moved to read extracts from Kika Markham's forthcoming autobiography about he final years of her life with Corin Redgrave. In 2005, at a public meeting to protest against the Dale Farm evictions, he suffered a massive heart attack. He was saved by the swift action of a traveller who gave administered CPR but he had been without oxygen for several seconds and the trauma changed him. Markham relates mood changes, psychotic episodes, and - almost worst of all - he had forgotten their life together.
Eight months later, on 12 February 2006, he came to Royal Holloway for an event celebrating the work of Harold Pinter, organised by Michael Kustow (who also, sadly, died three weeks ago). Kustow had put together an extraordinary cast for a series of readings: Ken Cranham, Jane Lapotaire, Harry Burton, Roger Lloyd Pack, and Corin. Oh and Vanessa Redgrave turned up. It's certainly the starriest event I've ever seen at Royal Holloway, the sort of event only someone with the chutzpah of Michael Kustow could put together.
My only concern was Corin. He was frail, but not just frail: he was vacant, somehow. His eyes seemed not to be taking in what was around him. He looked without sight; he seemed infantile, to be frank. His movements were slow, imprecise. He seemed breathless. While the other actors stood in the improvised green room talking animatedly about recent work, he sat absently in the corner. Was he smiling? Or was it a grimace of pain? How, I wondered, was he going to perform anything? Would we even get him onto the stage?
We did, with some difficulty, get him up the three steps to the stage and he sat on the end of the line of chairs at the back of the stage, where the actors waited before they would step forward to perform their extracts. Corin wasn't due to do anything until very late in the sequence. Everyone was storming it; Harry Burton, wiry, sweetly menacing as McCann in The Birthday Party; Roger Lloyd Pack blankly troubling, Ken Cranham delivering Deeley's 'Odd Man Out' speech from Old Times with enormous relish: ‘it was Robert Newton who brought us together and it is only Robert Newton who can tear us apart’ he roared with an explosion of laughter. Jane Lapotaire gave one of Ruth's seductive speeches from The Homecoming with a tease of eroticism. And then it was Corin's turn. He was due to deliver a couple of Harold's poems. There was a pause. I think the actor next to him had to indicate to Corin that he was due on. Corin looked up. He looked round. He stood up, unsteadily.
it was honestly like the end of The Usual Suspects. We see Kevin Spacey's character limping awkwardly down the road, his crooked hands; the camera watches his twisted legs, his stumbling feet. And slowly his legs straighten, the steps stop dragging become purposeful. The hands untwist. Suddenly there's poise and decisiveness in his movements.
That's how it was with Corin Redgrave. He stood and I swear it was like the milkiness of his eyes cleared, suddenly he seemed totally in the room, he stepped forward with poise and command. His eyes swept across the audience; he appraised us. And he began to speak. I felt the hairs on my arms give a start. The quavering mumble backstage was now a deep crackle of authority. And he spoke the poems with conviction and a sense of confrontation reminiscent of Harold himself. He was funny; he was intense; he seemed twenty years younger. He twinkled. He seemed weighty and he seemed light. Can that just be adrenalin? Perhaps it can. But a man whose brain, damaged by oxygen starvation, seemed for a few minutes to heal itself in front of us.
The audience erupted in applause which he acknowledged with a half smile. He turned and returned to his seat and as he sat down he became vacant, baffled, distant, his eyes faded, his left arm hang limp by the arm of his chair. It was as though an actor had exited the stage, leaving only a man.