Frances Reilly Persichetti lived backstage. Her dressing room doubled as her bedroom and the air of irreversible decay that permeated every other part of the theatre here had not been kept at bay. Her bed looked as if it were home to a long and comfortably entrenched range of life which would give you good reason for second thoughts before resting your head, however tired.
The theatre, the Goldoni, was part of the Spanish College , in the heart of Rome. How she had obtained her tenancy I have no idea. All I do know is that, apart from her odd son Patrick, her half Italian offspring whose Gestapo-murdered partisan father was commemorated on a plaque somewhere in the city, she was all that kept this faded Baroque theatre from closure. On her death the theatre was quickly turned it into a pub which, to begin with, did as much business in an evening as Frances did in a season.
The frayed seats, many of which seemed on the verge of inflicting serious injury to the nether regions, were sparsely taken except when an old friend or colleague from her distant past on the boards in England, such as Paul Schofield, could be persuaded to share the stage with Frances.
She was a trooper and despite the Romans’ indifference, every year produced a season of plays in which she was the mainstay. I remember a stunning performance of Beckett’s “Happy Days.” Afterwards, I went backstage to congratulate her. How did she remember all those lines?
“Easy” she said, pointing to her ear. “ Patrick has recorded everything on a cassette. All I have to do is repeat it.” We laughed conspiritorially.
Unprofessional? Of course. But she must have been in her 70s and perhaps she felt she couldn’t trust her memory. Certainly, had she dried, there was no money for a prompt to slip her the line.
A far cry from the publicly funded Polish National Theatre. A few weeks ago I met a young actor on a Warsaw bus. I began to express my outrage that actors I had seen in a production at the TR Theatre had been miked on stage. If an actor could not make him or herself heard in such a small space surely they were in the wrong profession. The actor shook his head.
“That’s nothing. At the National Theatre they have their lines read for them through an ear piece.”
I was appalled. How is it possible?
Apparently, many of the National Theatre actors are too busy with television work to learn their lines properly. Now, if true, that is what I call fraudulent. They would never get away with that sort of cheating in London or New York, or even Rome, which, I suppose, is the difference.