Decades ago I saw a Glasgow Citizens production of Brecht's Arturo Ui in which the actor teaching the central character deportment, was played by a tall dignified thespian, John Lancaster. I later worked with another actor of the old school, James Cairncross, whom I'd often see treading the boards of the Edinburgh Royal Lyceum, once in one of the many productions of Hamlet I've totted up. This poem, though not directly based on either, could be seen as a fictional amalgam of them both projected into an imagined heyday, by an engraving I have, of a figure in golden armour depicting MR POTTER as the GHOST in HAMLET.
The Actor’s Farewell
It faded on the crowing of the cock.
– Hamlet Act I scene i
Even in my heyday, I never played the Prince:
Horatio in rep, Laertes at school performances,
but never Hamlet in his black doublet and hose.
In contrast I remember the frisson of first striding
the battlements, in the glinting armour of the Ghost.
For a spell my speciality was not just doubling
but despite being stabbed behind the arras,
trebling as Polonius and First Gravedigger.
But that meant reappearing at the final curtain:
my preference, simply to vanish into darkness.
Even then I felt compelled to await heaven’s
remonstrance; Hamlet mesmerised in his hall
of mirrors, driven to the rim of madness;
or from the safety of the wings, to watch Claudius
and his heartless queen get their come-uppance.
Whilst these and the others were drawn
from Holinshed or Thomas Kyd’s tragedy,
the Ghost was purely Shakespeare’s invention.
Each night I sensed hovering round me
all those who had played the role previously.
Sometimes on tour things would go wrong:
once a rostrum not properly set, on my exit
I stepped into thin air; or some half-pissed idiot
missing his cue, a late cock-a-doodle-doo and thud
screwing up ‘The morn in russet mantle clad’.
from The Touch of Time: New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2014), © Stewart Conn 2014, used by permission of the author and the publisher.