BBC Radio 4, 23 April 2009
This drama-documentary recalled the occasion in 1976 when the actor Ian
Holm (Iain Glen) had a panic-attack while performing Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh on stage, which rendered
him incapable of continuing the performance. From then on he was reluctant to appear in the theatre; although persuaded to
do so after a long hiatus, Holm recalled in an interview that he was still subject to similar attacks at inopportune moments.
In Steve Jacobi's play Holm was characterized as a confident leading man, who by
the mid-1970s had climbed to the top of his profession, with memorable performances in Shakespearean and other roles. In Howard
Davies' (Malcolm Raeburn's) production of The Iceman Cometh, Holm played Hickey; this was a monstrously long part,
but one that seemed quite within the actor's capabilities. Everything appeared fine in rehearsal: Holm learned his lines and
interacted happily with the rest of the cast. The only thing that seemed odd was his rather unnatural reliance on his wife
Bee Gilbert (Charlotte Emmerson), who was expected to attend every rehearsal. Bee complied, but at no time did she appear
perturbed - in her view this was nothing more than anxiety on her husband's part at the prospect of playing such
an onerous part.
The play's action was punctuated with extracts from an interview with Holm himself,
who recalled that, as a result of an unhappy childhood, he felt the desire to inhabit (rather than just play) theatrical
roles. This helped him overcome crippling shyness, as well as overcoming the shattering consequences of his brother's early
death. However the sheer strain of performing night after night became too much for him - even while rehearsals for The
Iceman Cometh were taking place, Holm felt the stress welling up inside him.
The breakdown was spectacular: Holm suddenly stopped dead in the middle of a speech
and could not continue, despite the prompts of his fellow-actors. The curtain came down, and Davies made an announcement to
the audience that the performance could continue. Meanwhile Holm collapsed in a stupor backstage - even though he soon
came round, it was clear he could not play Hickey any more.
The Iceman Goeth emphasized just how much mental effort an actor experiences
in preparing for and subsequently performing a role on stage. Some turn this task to their advantage; the adrenalin created
by acting in front of an audience spurs them on to greater achievement. Others - like Holm - find that the ordeal proves
too much them. Nonetheless, as Holm recalled in his interview, he could still be proud of his stage career, with
memorable characterizations in Shakespearean revivals, such as Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream.