Kate O'Toole is currently performing in Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke at the Apollo Theatre in London.

Born to travel

Actors are curiously in exile in their own land. Judy Garland's Vicky Lester sang that she was "born in a trunk in the Princess Theatre in Pocatello, Idaho" and from there moved on to live in a "crazy world of dressing rooms and hotel rooms and waiting rooms and rooms behind the scenes". I made my entrance with considerably less pizzazz in a Stratford-upon-Avon maternity home somewhere near the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Yet no sooner had I arrived "home" to my parents' temporary lodgings behind the theatre than I was brought into work and did in fact spend quite some time in capacious wicker baskets, dressing rooms and the costume department with its warm leathery smells, suits of armour and maternal types knitting chain mail and the occasional baby bonnet for yours truly. My father was giving his Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, which, performed in full, begins with a rag-tag assemblage of strolling players who have been travelling the country looking for places to set up their tent. It was decided that this troupe should include a babe in arms, and thus I made my stage début, began a lifetime of living on the road.

My mother describes a moment when, aged three, I was accompanying her as she played the UK provinces. We arrived at our digs in Manchester and I made an experienced beeline for the bed in order to test the mattress. Finding it lumpy and hard, I apparently passed judgement with a weary "Oh fuck". Mother says it was then she began to question the sanity of our domestic arrangements. My father tells of a large landlady in Glasgow who came into his room one night, disrobed down to her undergarments, sat on the bed beside him and demanded: "Undo me, Wally." When he politely informed her that he wasn't Wally, she smacked him in the gob, knocked one of his teeth out and accused him of being a dirty bastard. Boringly enough, the bureaucrats in Brussels have now outlawed this sort of thing.

My first professional engagement in the eighties found me travelling the length and breadth of Ireland with Brian Friel's theatrical and literary company Field Day. Stephen Rea played my husband and, already an established actor, could afford to lay his hat in nice hotels. Or perhaps they were nasty hotels; the point is they weren't lowly lodgings like mine. Nowadays, even the shabbiest B&B has to provide an en-suite bathroom (be it only a ghastly plastic shower stall so small you risk poking your eye out should you try to bring a bar of soap in there with you). Back then, there were no such niceties. The one thing places took great pride in was their ability to have their guests awake to a Full Irish Heart-Attack Platter. Not what you wanted if a) you were up all night drinking post-show whiskeys with Messrs. Friel and Rea, and b) you're a vegetarian.

Having made a spectacle of myself by requesting cornflakes during a mid-tour stay at the chilly Mon Repose Guest House in Sligo, I frigidly ventured into the front parlour one bitter February morning to receive the blessed sacrament of the cornflake, pausing to wish the elderly man of the house a good day as I entered. He was sitting in his usual spot, a greasy old armchair in front of the turf fire next to which you would normally find a sofa but, this being a B&B, it had been replaced with a postage-stamp sized table for two lone guests to have breakfast while the man of the house read his newspaper and coughed up a lot of sputum. Never a keen conversationalist, he completely ignored me this particular morning. He's not speaking to me, I thought, his wife must be furious that I've rejected her skills with the frying pan. I sat with my back to the armchair and started crunching on the cornflakes. Horrendously loud in the absence of any small talk. No newspaper rustling, no sputum. The sky blackened, and as the heavens opened I made a flaccid attempt at conversation by remarking on the sudden deluge outside the window. Again no answer. I turn around from time to time to make eye contact, find out what his problem is. Then after a longer stare at those glassy, open eyes I understood. He was stone cold dead. Mon Repose indeed. I was having breakfast with a corpse.

In his Divine Comedy, Dante describes exile as a form of living death:

You will leave everything you love most This is the arrow that the bow of exile Shoots first. You will know how salty Another's bread tastes and how hard it Is to ascend and descend another's stairs...

People go to considerable lengths to ameliorate this effect. Wilson Keppel and Betty, the music hall act famous for their popular sand-dancing routine, hit the big time by being invited to perform their show in Las Vegas. Naturally they accepted the offer, packed their favourite biscuits, tobacco, tea and, just in case, also brought their own sand with them.

I'm no match for Wilson Keppel and Betty in the anxiety department but I too now bring a couple of familiar items with me, for the dressing room at work, and even when staying at the ritziest hotels. A mug, a bit of music, pictures I choose to live with and which cover the ones I don't. Yet none of this really makes me feel at home. We don't exercise as much control over the habits and familiarities that comprise a sense of home-liness as we like to imagine we do. And so it comes as no surprise that, appalling as it is, I feel most secure and comfortable whenever I'm in transit. It's not that I don't have a perfectly nice house to live in, but my true home lies somewhere in the wholly disproportionate sense of bliss felt when being on the road. Repeated so often, the habit has become a source of solace.



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