How does it feel to go back on stage night after night in a play that’s been mauled by critics and deserted by audiences? Richard Eyre and other directors and actors relive their trauma

Movies, TV shows and books can all get terrible reviews and small audiences, but the difference when this happens in theatre is that the actors have to go back on stage and remake the work just after critics have declared it disastrous. “It is so crushing for actors to have to go on night after night bearing the weight of failure,” says Richard Eyre, artistic director of the Royal National Theatre from 1987 to 1997. “And that’s one of the reasons actors are such stoics. For directors and writers, there’s a sense of disembowelment you carry round if you’ve had a major failure – but they can just fuck off to Tenerife, and some do. Actors are obliged to soak it up.”

Actor Michael Simkins, who wrote the theatrical memoir What’s My Motivation?, says: “If I had to articulate what it feels like to be in the middle of a play you feel is dying on its arse, it’s a cold sense of dread, like battery acid in your stomach. After terrible reviews, a sort of numbness sets in that is still there for the second night. You haven’t yet fully processed it. The first thing you do is tell all your friends who have booked tickets to cancel.”

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