On the edge of failure

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Alexis Soloski suggests we shouldn’t be too bothered if the star of the show is replaced by an understudy.

And it’s often been my experience that understudies perform as well or better than the much-hyped actors they replace – because they want it more, because they’re hired for factors other than looks or name recognition, because of the sheer adrenaline of playing a role they haven’t fully rehearsed.

My oustanding theatre memory is a performance from 25 years ago. The RSC were doing Gorky’s Philistines in the Pit. A little slip of paper explained that there were no understudies for shows in this studio theatre and the lead actress was too ill to perform. But someone had persauded Juliet Stevenson to step in at half-a-day’s notice. It said she’d have to be holding a script. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

It was simply electrifying. Stevenson was brilliant, it didn’t feel like she was actually reading from paper, though she was. And it seemed the whole cast had been energised by the challenge – I remember David Burke was absolutely blistering as Bessemenov. And, of course, the audience were in on the excitement too, willing it to succeed. Unforgettable.

So often excellence lies on the very edge of disaster.

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