This Friday Heath Ledger’s final film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, is being released in Britain. Ledger, of course, tragically died during the making of it, but its director Terry Gilliam completed it anyway: although a recent Observer interview feature with Gilliam suggests that his first instinct was that it would be impossible to finish what Ledger had started, and on the morning after the news of his death broke investors started pulling out - “You can’t believe how quickly the money ran away from this thing”, he is quoted saying - but his 31-year-old daughter spurred him on. “She turned out to be really fantastically pig-headed and good. It was like a mother instinct took over.”
It was her idea that they needed someone to complete Ledger’s role, but “a dead star wasn’t enough. Now we needed a bigger star to continue the movie.” And they hit on the idea to split the role between three: Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell.
As Tim Adams points out in the piece, “The first time we see Heath Ledger [in the film], he is hanging under Blackfriars Bridge in London with a noose around his neck; he is subsequently brought, coughing and choking, back to life. Given that, in January 2008, Ledger himself died during the making of Parnassus, from a probably accidental combination of sleeping tablets, it is an unnervingly shocking moment. It is also a pointed reminder that film routinely deals in immortality: Ledger, who won a posthumous Oscar last year for his performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight, has never looked as alive as he does in what follows.”
But theatre, on the other hand, deals entirely in transitory experience: It only lives in the moment, and then the memories of those that have seen it (and the critical word that have born testament to it). Even a filmed version of a live performance isn’t the entire deal, because of course it the performance wasn’t made to be filmed. So what happens when a show loses its lead actor?
Last Friday, I saw Stewart Permutt’s Many Roads to Paradise at Jermyn Street Theatre - and just a week before it was due to open, it lost its lead actress, 84-year-old Miriam Karlin (born June 23, 1925), due to what the press release called “ill health following an operation”. Now there aren’t too many working actresses around in their eighties, still less ones that can pick up and run with a brand-new role (and learn all the lines) in a week. But last Friday, the show went on - with a word-perfect Thelma Ruby taking over (also 84, but a few months older than Karlin, born March 23, 1925). It was an amazing achievement - and amplified the story’s touching portrait of the infirmities of old age but the support mechanism that can help a person overcome them in unexpected ways. Ruby offers living proof that the show can and must go on.
And last week I reported here on the shocking coincidences of art, death and life as Matt Lucas, then playing Kenneth Halliwell in Prick Up Your Ears at the Comedy Theatre in which his character commits suicide, found out that his former partner Kevin McGee had been discovered dead, after apparently committing suicide, in his Edinburgh flat.
While the producers of the play announced immediately that his role would be taken over by his understudy “until further notice”, yesterday they duly announced that Con O’Neill is to replace Lucas permanently now, from October 22. In a press statement, they said, “We are thrilled that Con O’Neill, an actor of such significance, is available to take on the role of Kenneth Halliwell at such short notice in our production of Prick Up Your Ears. Given the sad news that Matt Lucas has recently received, and the role he was playing, it is understandable that he could not return to play Halliwell at this time and our thoughts are with him.”
At least the hard work that co-stars Chris New (as Joe Orton) and Gwen Taylor (as neighbour Mrs Corden) have put into the play is not going to be obliterated by what might have otherwise have been an enforced early closure. It’s valiant of the producers to keep faith with the play, too, though I noticed two things in the small print to the press release: first that they’ve curtailed the run by a week (it will now close Nov. 29, instead of the originally advertised Dec. 6), but also that the ticket prices have come extensively down. Previously advertised with a top price of £49.50 (with so-called premium seats available at a stonking £55), the release now states: “Tickets from £17.50, with best seats at £25”. Strangely, however, that pricing is not currently reflected on the website for Ambassadortickets.com, where the old prices still apply. But then wise theatregoers know to search for bargains elsewhere, and today’s Independent actually offers tickets for all performances to the end of the run at just £15 apiece.
I also wonder just how director Daniel Kramer is going to juggle re-rehearsing the play with Mr O’Neill with his ENO mainhouse directing debut duties on Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, beginning performances on November 6. I sometimes think I don’t have enough hours in my day; but Mr Kramer is going to have his work seriously cut out for him in the coming weeks.