Whispers from the Wings

Playing Saturnius

June 28, 2013

I'm standing on the stairs that lead from stage left of the Swan to the first gallery. I'm staring at a single light-bulb, gaffer-taped to a wooden beam in front of me, waiting for it to illuminate. My heart is beating ten to the dozen, my fingers are flicking and twitching with excitement, and there's a knot in my stomach that is positively Gordian.

It's Tuesday 25 June, and I'm about to play Saturninus in the Titus Andronicus public understudy performance.

We always knew this day would come, and our superb assistant director, Mel Hillyard, has done an amazing job of rehearsing and preparing us, covering the essentials whilst also working with real finesse and in fine detail to allow us to find our own versions of the characters. Now the day is actually upon us though, it almost doesn't seem real.

The cue light turns to green, and I step forward onto the upstage bridge to wait behind the drapes for my entrance. Gwilym troops in below as Titus, and solemnly surveys those of his sons most recently slain in battle.

Joe Bannister and I are both standing at our respective ends of the platform, heads bowed in anticipation (and possibly mild terror). It's a peculiar moment.

As an actor, I want to reach out and make a show of solidarity; in this nerve-wracking but exciting moment, we're in this together. But as the character that I'm preparing to play, I pretty much hate his guts right now, because he's trying to take something away from me. It's an odd moment, in that I simultaneously want to hug him and punch him.

But it doesn't last long. Jimmy Jones' drum refrain kicks in, and before I quite know what's happening, I'm standing on the bridge addressing the audience of the Swan as if they were a Roman political rally.

Thus begins a pretty extraordinary two and a half hours. The stand-out moment for me in terms of balls-to-the-wall surrealism comes when I find myself sitting naked in a bath tub below the Swan stage, waiting to be winched up through the trap and presented to the assembled crowd of four hundred odd theatre-goers like some sort of terribly disappointing quiz show prize. This is the first time I've been nude on stage.

Yes, the water is foamy. Yes, I have a strategically-positioned flannel. But believe me, it's still very exposing. I wonder if this no longer feels at all odd to John? Perhaps he's gotten used to it now, and finds his own baths at home, in the absence of a fee-paying audience, sadly pedestrian. Perhaps our director, Michael Fentiman, has ignited in John a previously latent streak of exhibitionism that could soon spiral out of control and one day see him imprisoned for a public indecency offence. Let's hope not.

Ironically though, it's in this scene that I relax and begin to enjoy myself most, possibly because of being thrown so far beyond the boundaries of what would normally feel comfortable.

This exhilarating madness over, it only remains for me to grace Titus' banquet with my presence, chow down on some humble pie, and be dispatched by Lucius just as I'm enjoying a brief moment of triumph over the old Andronicus. The whole thing has gone by in the blink of an eye.

Nervy as it was, it was also tremendous fun. I'm incredibly proud of the achievements of the company as a whole - obviously of those like Gwilym, Badria, Sarah, David, Dwane, Ciarán, Harry, Nick, Joe, Ellie, Rich (heck, everybody) who stepped up to the plate and delivered terrific performances of challenging parts, but also of those who generously pitched in to make the show work.

It's brilliant that the RSC have these public understudy runs – they're a unique experience for a performer and, I hope, give a real insight into all of the (often unseen) hard work done by everybody in the company.

And lastly, I have to say a massive thank you to everybody who came to watch this unique rendition of the show – we couldn't have asked for a more supportive crowd.

by Ben Deery  |  2 comments

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Jul 1, 11:08am
Sylvia Morris

Ben, thanks for this post explaining more about what it feels like to be an understudy. I wasn't there on Tuesday but was at the show on Thursday when you had to do it for real. If I hadn't known you were the understudy I wouldn't have guessed from your performance. Well done!

Jul 10, 11:25am
Ben Deery

Hi Sylvia,

Thanks so much! I suppose I was lucky that it happened so soon after our understudy run, but it was still nerve-wracking. A lot of fun too, though!

Thanks so much for coming to see the show, and for your lovely comment.


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