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Richard Jordan: RSC’s embracing of understudy performances shows it has come a long way

Charlotte Arrowsmith performing as Curtis in The Taming of the Shrew at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo: Ikin Yum
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One of the greatest pleasures of theatregoing is stumbling upon something unexpected that can blindside you on an idle Friday afternoon.

A couple of weeks ago, I was on my way to Stratford with tickets to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Kunene and the King and As You Like It. Glancing at the RSC brochure, I also spotted that if I got there earlier, I could see the matinee open understudy performance of The Taming of the Shrew.

Having been to a couple of these at the RSC, I can highly recommend them. They’re open to anyone for a small charge, and delivered with similar production values to the regular performance.

This particular show turned out to be rather special. Not only would we experience a one-time public performance of the play with this cast, but we’d also be witnessing a piece of RSC history being made with Charlotte Arrowsmith stepping into the role of Vincentia. She is the first deaf performer to understudy a hearing role at the theatre using British Sign Language.

Deaf actor makes RSC history by becoming first to understudy hearing role

She pulled off the role with aplomb, and I then had the pleasure of seeing her the following afternoon play her regular role of Audrey in As You Like It. Both these experiences afforded me something I have enjoyed in previous productions that have involved deaf actors: as an audience member, you become even more immersed in the language of the text and the words take on further resonance and feel visceral.

Recent news reports have rightly given considerable recognition to Arrowsmith’s achievement as a deaf actor covering a hearing role. But mention should also be made of ensemble member Amy Trigg, a wheelchair user, who, at the same performance, covered the role of Trania – a part that is usually played by an able-bodied actor in the production.

The understudy performance of The Taming of the Shrew reflected collaboration at every level, particularly the way all the company embraced British Sign Language and supported each other. It further reiterated the importance and value of holding open understudy performances and the opportunity they afford to company and audience alike.

Another great thing about these shows is that the production’s assistant director takes charge, in this case Leigh Toney. This means not only is it showcasing the talent on the stage, but off it too. That makes it an invaluable development opportunity for actors and assistant directors alike.

Since becoming RSC artistic director in 2012, Gregory Doran – himself a former actor and assistant director at the RSC – deserves considerable credit for the way he has renewed the spirit of the company. He has succeeded in finding the careful balance needed to carry the faithful existing audience with him and build a new one alongside it.

Part of that is through smart programming, but a lot rests in the atmosphere of generosity that’s been created by its leadership and eradicating some of the old-school stuffiness that once existed around the environs of Waterside. It is also through the care taken in recruitment where directors and lead actors are genuinely committed to setting the right rhythm, that the RSC has recaptured its essence as the world’s greatest theatre ensemble.

I saw this at the RSC’s Barbican transfer of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Its lead David Troughton, playing Falstaff, had to deal with understudy Nima Talenghani not only playing his regular role of Bardolph but also that of Robin – characters that had some crossover.

Troughton, one of our great stage actors, had huge fun with it and even pulled Talenghani forward for his own solo bow at the end – to be applauded by both the delighted audience and a happy cast.

I have worked on productions when the lead would not give the time of day to the understudies or ensemble they were working with, showing little respect or generosity of spirit. But my, how they panicked at a performance when suddenly confronted with an understudy instead of the regular actor playing opposite them.

Rudeness can be a dangerous game. There is the story of a director whose behaviour was so abysmal towards the ensemble that, when giving notes to the actors on stage while walking backwards, the performers failed to offer any warning and the director fell into the orchestra pit.

Company spirit was in abundance at The Taming of the Shrew understudy performance. Director Justin Audibert attended, along with regular cast members who supported and cheered on their colleagues.

Things feel like they have come a long way at the RSC since actor David Weston wrote in his 2011 book, Covering McKellen, about the frustration he held towards his fellow cast members when trying to raise their interest to do an understudy performance of King Lear in which he was understudying the lead role.

As my Friday afternoon at the RSC demonstrated, it would be hard to stop any of its casts today from not wanting to embrace such an opportunity, and that can only be to the benefit of both company and audience.

Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan

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