When he was cast as Hamlet at age 24, Conor Madden thought his stage career was about to take off – but then an accident during a sword-fighting scene left him with serious injuries. No-one knew whether he would ever act again.
A piercing silence filled the theatre as Conor lay on the floor of the stage, listening to his surroundings. His body was frozen. He knew he was hurt.
Despite his youth, Conor had been playing the lead role in a modern production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet – a role usually given to established actors a decade older than him. It was a huge honour.
The cast had already performed the play many times, but they had just moved to a new theatre in a different city.
Conor remembers the clang of a metal sword falling to the floor beside him, and a fellow actor cradling him and asking, “Are you OK?”
The 800-strong audience remained still, assuming this was part of the play.
Then the silence was broken by the hurried footsteps of the company’s artistic director walking on stage. He apologised to the audience and said the show must end. There was a round of applause, and the curtain fell.
Conor had always wanted to be an actor.
“Initially I didn’t know why I wanted to do it. I just knew that I wanted to do it,” he says.
Most of his relatives worked in manual professions such as building and painting. Conor was the first in the family to pursue a creative career.
At 15, he got his break in a play that toured Ireland. After that, he studied acting at Trinity College Dublin for three years, constantly developing his skills and gaining connections throughout the industry.
And then he was offered the most prestigious role he could imagine – Hamlet.
“It was a great challenge. And I revelled in it and I really looked forward to it.
“There is this weight of history behind it, the fact that lots and lots of famous actors have played Hamlet throughout the years. It’s made and broken careers, and broken actors,” he says.
For five weeks Conor rehearsed and then performed in Dublin.
“Everything was perfect. I was having an amazing time. Audiences loved it, the rest of the cast loved it, I loved it – it was all great,” he says.
They then moved to the Everyman Palace Theatre in Cork, the Irish Republic’s second biggest city.
Although the same set footprint was used, the stage was slightly smaller. The actors had some time to get used to it, but the final technical rehearsal had to be cut short before the final scene, in which Hamlet is mortally wounded.
Given the success of their previous performances, the actors confidently made their way on stage, and everything went well until swords were drawn in the play’s climactic final moments.
Conor and another actor found themselves standing closer to each other than usual – too close, it turned out. A rapier struck Conor just below the eye.
As he fell back “it was like someone had hit slow motion on the video of my life,” he says.
“On the way to the floor, the first thought I had was: ‘Uh-oh, something’s not right here.’ The second thought I had was, ‘We are totally, totally alone when we die.'”
The sword did not go through Conor’s skull, but it fractured the orbital bone of his eye, and left him unable to move.
“I couldn’t stand up. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t really move. I just kept saying ‘Ambulance!'”
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Conor was immediately taken to hospital but it took some time for doctors to work out what was wrong. After three days he was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury.
At first he was under the impression that it was a short-term problem, and that he would be back on stage in about a week.
But over that first week, Conor’s condition deteriorated. Soon he wasn’t even able to feed himself, and his father had to care for him.
“I was 24, very fit, was used to doing everything for myself, and suddenly I’m kind of put in this position… My dad had to shower me, it was really unpleasant for a young man. It felt very emasculating,” he says.
It took him seven months to re-learn how to walk and talk.
“I remember saying to one of the therapists, ‘I was able to walk a month ago, and I’m in a wheelchair now – that means something to me.’
“It felt really bad. It felt really final, actually. It just felt like, ‘Wow, this is my life.'”
But Conor’s determination paid off. Although his brain injury had permanent effects on his speech and mobility, he was able to return to work within a year.
Back on the streets of Dublin, though, Conor experienced difficulties moving around. With his limited mobility – including balance and co-ordination problems and permanent double vision – he realised how crowded the city was, and how broken and uneven the footpaths were. Using public transport was extremely difficult.
So Conor and his wife moved back to his home town, Newmarket on Fergus in County Clare, and he began travelling back to Dublin for work.
But even acting didn’t feel like it had before.
“There were lots of really stressful jobs, things I didn’t enjoy doing, and I didn’t know why I didn’t enjoy doing them,” he says.
“I wasn’t able to explain to anybody what was going on, I didn’t know what was going on. I spent three or four years just hoping everything would go back to normal and it didn’t.”
Conor later found out that he was experiencing post-traumatic stress.
He experienced a loss of identity when he was injured, he says, and his abrupt return to work left him unable to process this.
“I didn’t have time to grieve,” he says.
“You grieve for who you were. I didn’t fully realise the gravity of what happened. And it took three or four years to get what it meant.”
Nine years later, Conor is still coming to terms with his injury. It’s been “traumatic, literally and figuratively”, he says.
“There are things you do to accommodate it or to make yourself live with it, but there are no positives. I still grieve; I still miss who I was.”
It’s his passion for acting that keeps him going.
“I love telling stories. I love communing with the audience and sharing this kind of bizarre quasi-spiritual experience with each other in a dark room in the middle of Dublin,” he says.
“It’s what I trained to do and it’s what I want to do. So I do it.”
To accommodate his needs, the theatre company Conor works with allows him to take regular breaks and prints scripts for him in a larger font.
Conor has played the character of Hamlet since the accident, in a play called The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane. In this adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy – which he has taken on tour internationally – three actors audition for the role of Hamlet on stage. The decision is made in the interval.
Conor tells the audience about his accident, but he says they often have a hard time believing the story.
“None of the audience believes this is true. It’s just like this is just an actor talking about how he can’t do what he would like to do, rather than this is actually an actor who was stabbed in the face playing Hamlet,” he says.
“I guess it is positive feedback but it’s also incredibly hurtful, because it really did happen.”
If there is an upside to having an invisible disability, Conor says, it’s that it has made him a more compassionate person.
“It’s made me think a lot deeper and more carefully about other people. It’s made me consider, ‘People don’t see my injury, so maybe I can’t see theirs?'” he says. “I don’t know what these people are going through.”
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