I’m onstage in a costume that doesn’t belong to me, sweating from a mad quick-change I’ve never done before, feeling like the audience can see into the inner workings of my self-conscious and withering soul. Ross is saying someone else's lines (very well), and the audience is full of people who either usually play these roles or who are in charge of casting at the RSC. It’s the Timon of Athens understudy run. And it’s actually quite a lot of fun. 

I suppose there’s a ‘tradition’ at the RSC of doing an understudy run - where everyone who is covering other actors’ parts gets to have a stab at it in front of an audience (either voyeuristic Stratfordians or friends, family and staff of the RSC). It’s a really great thing. You get to work closely with the assistant director - Matt Dann, in our case - although only for a week in total. Matt’s definitely going to be running a building one day. In Tamburlaine rehearsals he had the unique ability to almost always come up with a note that director Michael hadn’t seen himself. He’s mild-mannered, but has a ferocious and forensic eye on how plays work and is able to unlock performances or scenes with a soundbite of observation or wit.

A group of people feasting at a long table.
The Timon of Athens Company in performance.
Photo by Simon Annand © RSC Browse and license our images

The run also means that those understudying gargantuan roles like Timon - in this case, Imogen Slaughter - get to know that they can do it. Imo has worked SO hard. She spends all of her time offstage in the ‘real’ thing, watching one of the backstage monitors, especially in the second half when it basically turns into a one woman show of Timon the Misanthrope. She totally nailed it in our run the other day, and it was really exciting to see an actor grow and grow as the play went on and start fully expressing herself. It was true to Shakespeare/Middleton’s play, but Imo’s own character spoke through it. 

From seeing the understudy runs this season, I’ve realised there’s something about them that can bring that performance closer to the text in a really refreshing way. Because actors are working off their instincts, they aren’t in a place to start embellishing or adding stuff that isn’t there. You hear things you haven’t heard since the read-through, and the play is conveyed in really quite a pure way. There’s sort of nothing to lose. You have to just go out there and have a bash at it. There’s no time or space to overthink your way out of it. It just happens to you. And that’s a lot of fun. 

Ralph Davis

Ralph Davis

Hello! I’m Ralph and I’m part of the Swan Winter company. I’m playing the Poet in Timon of Athens and various furious kings in Tamburlaine. I’ll be unleashing some nonsense and offence on this blog over the next few weeks to give you guys a look in on how rehearsals and shows are going. Apologies in advance.

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