When I was cast in a travelling production of Hamlet in 2011, I was very nervous – Hamlet has an awful lot of lines. But I was 24 at the time, and having a leading role was a big deal.
We performed the show for six weeks without a hitch in a Dublin theatre. Then it transferred to Cork. Time was tight, which meant we didn’t get to finish our technical rehearsal before opening night, which was going to be a full house: about 750 people.
The show went smoothly until the fifth act, when it was time to perform the swordfight between Laertes and Hamlet. We weren’t using prop swords; they were solid steel. The stage in Cork was smaller than we were used to, and the actor playing Laertes and I got too close. We were exhausted – we’d been talking nonstop for two and a half hours on stage.
In the fight, Laertes is carrying a poison-tipped sword designed to kill Hamlet with just a scratch. But as he lunged forward to make the gesture, his sword stabbed my face. I felt a snap in my brain and fell to the floor. All the actors rushed on stage. The audience thought it was part of the play, and as the curtains went down they gave us a round of applause. I remember thinking I was about to die.
I was taken to hospital in an ambulance. I was slurring my words and had no balance, but the doctors said, “You seem fine. You’re probably in shock.” I went home and was sick all night. My parents took me back to hospital the next day, as my speech and balance were still not right. I had lots of MRIs, and I would run through my Hamlet lines as I lay down in the long tube, reciting “To be or not to be” as if I’d be back on stage the next day.
The doctors told me I had a traumatic brain injury. Even though the sword hadn’t gone into my brain, the tip had bounced off my orbital bone and the energy kept going and passed through my head. My symptoms were typical of a stroke: I couldn’t walk, talk or feed myself. They said I would survive, but I might not walk or talk properly again. I freaked out. It was also very traumatic for my parents. I was young, but they were suddenly looking at someone who’d lost control of his body.
I was in hospital for a month and in rehab for five more, learning to walk and talk again. It felt as if my identity had been stripped from me. I was a sprinter before the accident, but now I can’t run. I have a limp still, with weakness on one side. I used to love riding mountain bikes, which I can no longer do. I have permanent double vision and ataxia (a neurological disorder that affects balance, coordination and speech). I can’t drive.
I experienced PTSD after the injury. I would get irrationally angry, going from 0 to 100 immediately, which was horrible for people to see. Some people with brain injuries become addicted to alcohol or prescription painkillers. I didn’t, but I can see how that can happen.
I was living in Dublin at the time and was really unhappy. So I moved back to my home town in the west of Ireland, which is much quieter. I live there now with my wife, Zara, whom I’ve been with since I was 14, and our six-month-old daughter.
I still act, and have played Hamlet many times since – just not with swords. I will never feel anything but love towards the actor who was playing Laertes. It was neither his fault nor mine, and it could easily have been him in hospital.
My court battle against the theatre company’s insurers was more traumatic than the injury itself. It was a very adversarial process and it took three years to get to the high court. In the settlement, I got enough to buy my parents’ house and the house next door. We’re now living beside each other, mortgage-free.
I’ve since toured the world playing Hamlet in a production called The Rehearsal, Playing The Dane. In the play, two other actors and I audition to play Hamlet in the first half, and then the audience votes on who gets the part for the second half. In every show, I tell the audience my story of being stabbed. No matter where I am, from Australia to China, they never believe me. Truth is stranger than fiction – they normally vote for the other guy.