I’m not sure what the collective noun for understudies is… a crowd, a break maybe, or an opportunity of understudies?  Anyway, today I had the pleasure of seeing a whole cast of understudies giving us King John at the Swan Theatre for the RSC.  I was there as part of a proud extended family for actress Mariam Bell who gave not only an immensely powerful Constance but also her dirty dancing Blanche – and indeed at one point both together on stage in conversation. 

It’s normally a privilege only for those involved with the productions, and those who are friends of friends, to see the understudy runs, but this performance was also open to the public, and so there was a goodly audience of normal theatregoers seeing the play and the production for the first time.

It was a really fine cast of actors, getting their only chance to give a full understudy performance of the play, and giving us, and the RSC casting department, agents, and members of the rest of the RSC company of actors, a chance to see each player in a different (or two different) roles.  They're a fit and healthy group of actors unlikely to go sick, and so for most it will be their only chance to play these leading roles, and our only chance to see them. (Until that is they, themselves, get cast in future productions of the overall repertoire.)

Those people passionate about drama, and with limited cash available, should keep a watchful eye out for other RSC understudy performances with tickets on sale, and also check whether any of the other major reps or production companies admit audiences to share this fascinating, adrenalin fuelled performance.

I was particularly delighted to listen to assistant/understudy director, Sophie Ivatts, giving a warm-up and mini-masterclass on the role of the understudy and the process of preparation of these roles. She explored the dilemma between making the role personal to the individual performer, yet able to fit seamlessly into the original production, and honouring the original intentions of the lead actor that they are understudying. A balancing act which every cast, assistant director and originating director has to tackle. I most definitely enjoyed the “mad inventiveness of an RSC understudy run” to quote Michael Boyd.

Twenty years ago I suggested to the Society of London Theatre that they might create, with a couple of us as producers, a rather fun touring Sunday night musical project – gather a cast of understudies of the principal roles of each of the musicals, create an ever changing show which was itself a celebration of the shows playing in the West End, and then tour it to those theatres across England where there might be audiences who would decide, having seen the show, to go into London to see the full production. The idea was not of any interest to SOLT then – but I just thought about it again and so float it again. I still think it has legs - linked to a group travel trade marketing scheme.

Thank you to a dedicated company of RSC actors for giving us an energised, passionate, powerful reading of the play. Well worth the drive from Bury St Edmunds, which is, according to Shakespeare’s selection of English counties in King John (Pembroke, Essex etc) 2 days ride from the Globe.  But watch out, later in the year, we have a team of crack walkers who intend to do a fundraiser from the Globe to the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds in 2-3 days. More of that anon.