Friday 6 December 2019

For an actor, there are no rehearsals on the road to sobriety

When Brendan Coyle - famous as Mr Bates in 'Downton Abbey' and an accomplished Irish actor in a range of roles - was all over the tabloids the other day for a drink-driving offence, many of us recovering alcoholics will have thought: "There but for fortune go I."

How grateful I am that I didn't drive a car during my drinking years. I would have done exactly what Brendan (original name, 'David') Coyle did: Booze mightily on a long overseas flight, then get straight into the vehicle, with that misplaced self-assurance that liquor bestows, and try to drive home.

When the Old Bill flagged him down in his BMW convertible last month between a London airport and his Norfolk home, he was three times over the limit.

His lawyer, defending, explained that Mr Coyle had spent all of December getting treatment for alcoholism in Thailand. He had tried his best, and made progress with a "significant" problem; but, as we all know from our own dismal experience in this sphere, a "slip", or relapse can always occur. And so it did.

Such a relapse is a setback for anyone battling with the bottle, but it's particularly tough for an actor. Anyone who sits at a desk for a living - a writer, an engineer, an academic, an office worker, a civil servant - can often be a 'functioning alcoholic'. They can sufficiently shift their boozing and working hours so that somehow, the work gets done, and kind colleagues will often cover for those 'sick days' that are in truth ghastly hangovers.

But for an actor, every performance is transparently open to visibility, and any slurring or loss of control is detectable immediately. Actors may be as vulnerable to alcohol problems as anyone else, but performance art is less forgiving: the late Robert Stephens - former husband of Dame Maggie Smith, father of Toby Stephens - was a superb actor. But his career crashed when he was known to be drunk on stage: no director would trust him again.

Screen actors like Oliver Reed could get away with it - to an extent. But many a fine screen actor, like Richard Burton, shortened his own life through alcohol abuse. Burton had been a great stage actor - people still talk about his Hamlet, back in the 1950s - but the fact is, you can't act and drink.

Anthony Hopkins has often spoken about his own struggle with alcoholism; and often said that if he hadn't quit and found sobriety, he would have been dead. Instead he went on to greater and greater performances. Brendan Coyle is, besides his celebrity in 'Downton Abbey', an esteemed stage actor, seldom out of work. Now 52, he won an Olivier award for his role in Conor McPherson's wonderful play 'The Weir' (as well as an Emmy for 'Downton'.) He did a rehearsed reading for a play I wrote some 10 years ago, and did it very well.

I noted at the time how keen Brendan was to get on in his career. We were having a cup of coffee at the National Theatre in London, when a renowned director, Howard Davies, entered the cafeteria. Brendan immediately excused himself from our conversation and went over to speak to him. I didn't object at all: it's far more important for an actor to make contact with a distinguished director than to chat to a lowly writer. I admired his sense of ambition.

And I admire his continuing ambition to win the battle against the bottle that he has faced, according to his own descriptions, over the past four or five years. To spend a month at a rehab in faraway Thailand shows a sense of purpose and determination to get sober.

Rehab can work for some people - I have known alcoholics who made good and long-lasting recoveries after quite gruelling rehab sessions in faraway places: South Africa seems to have specialised in rehabs which put the alcoholic through a Magdalene-laundry type regime, rising at 6am daily to scrub the floors and clean out the loos.

But the known risk with rehab is that you may emerge feeling so physically on top of the world that you can tackle anything: including, fatally, a bottle of whiskey the next day.

The most successful recoveries I've seen have occurred in daily application of sobriety to ordinary life. You have to get used to living your life in familiar surroundings, but in sobriety.

The medical and neurological jury is still out on whether alcoholism is actually a 'disease', but it is surely a 'condition', or even a 'syndrome', and it is established there can be a genetic predisposition towards addiction. There is no miracle cure, but there is recovery, a day at a time. Anyone who has tussled with the problem - or seen it in their family - will sympathise with Brendan Coyle's case (he was given a community order to do 100 hours of unpaid work). His probation officer said that he showed "a high level of remorse" - and alcoholic remorse is anguishing - and has cancelled all acting work for two months to focus on recovery.

Anyone familiar with the problem also knows that in every alcoholic personality there is a dangerous little demon known as 'ISM' - 'I Sabotage Myself'. This is the self-destructive urge which is often part of the condition. That's the imp that must be crushed decisively on the daily journey to sobriety. @MaryKenny4

Irish Independent

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