‘It’s so close to the bone’: Sheridan Smith on her very public meltdown – and reliving it on stage

<span>‘I need to prove I’m not that person’ … Smith as Myrtle Gordon in Opening Night.</span><span>Photograph: Artwork design by Oliver Rosser for Feast</span>
‘I need to prove I’m not that person’ … Smith as Myrtle Gordon in Opening Night.Photograph: Artwork design by Oliver Rosser for Feast

It is late morning and a major star is kicking off. “Turn the lights on, for fuck’s sake!” she rages at a stagehand. Her fists are clenched, her tanned, tattooed arms are sticking out of a royal blue sleeveless dress, and her locks have been dyed a burnt brunette. Once her demand has been met, the star pivots to face the wide, high-ceilinged room and switches to a gentler register. “Humilia-ting!” she trills, making the last syllable ring like a bell. As laughter fills the air, she slips out of character, her body visibly relaxing. This woman is no longer Myrtle Gordon, the sozzled Broadway legend cracking up on the eve of her latest show, but Sheridan Smith, the double Olivier-winning star of the Legally Blonde musical, whose own recent troubles have left her feeling she has something to prove.

The new musical – called Opening Night and adapted by Ivo van Hove and Rufus Wainwright from John Cassavetes’ blistering 1977 film – could be just the ticket. “It’s so close to the bone,” says the 42-year-old, taking a break from rehearsals in this London studio. “I’ve actually had the curtain brought down on me. I’ve been through that sort of crisis.” Myrtle – played ferociously and fearlessly on screen by Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes’ wife – is starring in The Second Woman, a melodrama limping through out-of-town previews prior to its glitzy New York premiere. Myrtle fears she has lost her youth, her grip on the role, and increasingly her mind. Her sanity becomes even more precarious after a fan is knocked down and killed outside the theatre. Soon she is seeing the dead girl everywhere.

There was no support team back then. It was just: ‘Get on stage!’

Now regarded as a masterpiece, Opening Night was panned on its initial US release, playing to a handful of near-empty cinemas. Yet its rawness and audacity have made it an object of enduring fascination. Van Hove previously staged a non-musical version in 2008, Isabelle Adjani played Myrtle in a pared-back 2019 production, while Ruth Wilson (opposite 100 consecutive male co-stars) brought a 24-hour play based on a single scene from Opening Night to London’s Young Vic last year.

Perhaps Opening Night has become pertinent to all of us, not just actors, as our public and private selves have blurred in the social media age. Smith’s own crisis is well-documented. Self-doubt, anxiety and alcohol, along with grief over her father’s cancer diagnosis and eventual death, caused her to unravel publicly while playing Fanny Brice in Funny Girl in 2016. “Getting the script for Opening Night was a sign,” she says. “I knew I had to do the play as a way of taking control of what I went through. I felt so ashamed of that time. I need to prove I’m not that person. It’s been very cathartic.”

She worried that elements of Myrtle’s story might be triggering. “But there are therapists here that you can talk to,” she says. “It’s so different from when I had my meltdown eight years ago. There was no support team then. It was just, ‘Get on stage!’” That’s what happens to Myrtle in Opening Night, when she arrives for work practically insensible, only to be shoved in front of the audience with nothing but a black coffee to steady her. “Life imitating art,” says Smith. “I’m in a stronger place now. We find the truth of a scene, then shake it off and go home. Ivo doesn’t make you live in angst.”

Watching the 65-year-old director – fresh from a recent production of Jesus Christ Superstar in Amsterdam, as well as last year’s sell-out London run of A Little Life – it is easy to believe he is a stabilising presence. Thin as a pool cue, hair the colour of chalk dust, he calmly approaches Smith between scenes, palms pressed together or with one hand raised thoughtfully to his chin. He has a sage, priestly air – if he weren’t giving direction, he could be taking confession.

Meanwhile, seated behind a trestle table with the script open in front of him is 50-year-old Wainwright, dressed in a salmon hoodie and sporting a badger-like beard. Opening Night has long been dear to the sonnet-singing, opera-writing, Judy Garland-impersonating musical polymath: he even dressed as Myrtle in the video for his 2012 single Out of the Game. “It’s a movie I’ve seen many times,” he says. “It has changed my life whenever I’ve rewatched it, because I find myself relating to new aspects that it takes maturity to understand.”

Like Smith, Opening Night represents a kind of personal salvation for Wainwright. “Before beginning this, I experienced a very deep depression. I was in Australia and I said, ‘I need something to get me through the day: a song, a poem, a phone call.’ Opening Night came into my mind: the movie – and Gena Rowlands’ performance. It really was almost a matter of life and death. I was at a very intense juncture. Then I got home and Ivo suggested we do Opening Night.” How exactly did the film pull him through? “A lot of it was that hairdo,” he laughs. “And that stare she has. The world is so dark and she’s trying to navigate through the intensity.”

Van Hove has adapted Cassavetes several times before, including a production of Faces during which audience members reclined on beds, but he never consults the film versions of anything he adapts. In fact, he still hasn’t seen Opening Night. “I need to feel we can create something unique,” he says. The introduction of music has altered its whole dynamic. “There’s a unity. You don’t have scenes followed by songs. One merges into the other, so that when people start singing it feels normal.”

Myrtle flees to her bulb-studded mirror – and the ghost of her dead fan takes her place on stage

That is evident from the section being rehearsed today. It begins with Myrtle veering off-script and flying into a fury while the ghost of her dead fan Nancy looks on, dressed in shredded denim jacket, white lace dress and black Chelsea boots, twirling a rose in her hand. When Myrtle flees to her dressing room and sits at her bulb-studded mirror, Nancy – played by Shira Haas – takes her place on stage, writhing at the feet of Myrtle’s oblivious co-star. It isn’t only song and dialogue that bleed into one another here: all borders are porous, from the divisions between stage and backstage to the line separating the spiritual from the corporeal.

Devotees of Van Hove’s work will not be surprised to learn that video features prominently, with an onstage crew filming Myrtle for a behind-the-scenes documentary, the images from their live feed projected behind the actors. “You have to make choices as the audience,” the director explains. “You have to look actively.”

By the end of the run-through, Wainwright has advised the musicians in the corner about one of the guitar cues – “Make it dissonant and ugly” – and conducted the company as they sing the show’s ethereal refrain-cum-overture. Manny, the director of the play-within-the-play, gives a rousing address, slipping between speech and song, rallying the troops with the words: “We get paid to express ourselves on stage – and part of that is pain.”

Van Hove steps in to emphasise this point. Yes, he explains, it’s a pep talk, but it isn’t only that: it comes from Manny’s heart, just as Mark Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar emerges from his. “Outside is Gaza, outside is Ukraine. But in here, Manny is saying, ‘We’re creating something meaningful that can affect the world out there.’” The reverent hush that has descended on the room is broken by Hadley Fraser, who plays Manny. “Now, Ivo,” he says, “if you can just sing that …”

When I see Van Hove afterwards, he is smearing antiseptic gel over one of his palms. “I dug my pencil into my hand,” he says with a wince. “It was quite emotional.” Well, Manny did say that pain is part of theatre. The prevailing image from the morning’s rehearsals, though, is of Van Hove watching over his company like a proud father as their voices soar together. “I call it a play about a theatre family,” he smiles. “Families and how they function pop up a lot in what I do.”

That will apply more than ever to his forthcoming adaptation of The Shining, to be staged next year with Ben Stiller as Jack Torrance, the ultimate flawed patriarch immortalised by Jack Nicholson on screen. “Everybody thinks of the Kubrick movie, which for me is a masterpiece,” says Van Hove, before mentioning its author. “But Stephen King hated it. When I reread the book, I could understand why. The first 100 pages are gone. And that’s when you see the father has his issues. It’s why they go to the hotel so he can be alone and write. What I’ve done is go back to the book. It will be a very different thing from Kubrick.”

With its ghosts, unstable creative types and harrowing mental collapse, however, not so different from Opening Night.

• Opening Night is at the Gielgud theatre, London, from 6 March until 27 July