You might, if you have been reading all my blogs, be wondering why I have not written very much about the day to day rehearsals of Hamlet. Well let me tell you the reason: I have two very small speaking parts in the play and one silent servant role, a man who hovers around the castle of Elsinore popping up whenever he is needed. So I have been musing around other themes, important themes to me, allowing my mind to wander.

Finally, in the seventh week of rehearsals, whilst most of the cast were in their stride having been engaging with the play on a daily basis, I had my first spoken scene rehearsal. It felt like day one again and if you have been reading my blogs, dear reader, you will know how much I adore first days.

The cast of Hamlet seated on the floor with some large cardboard boxes containing costumes
Rehearsing Hamlet
Photo by Byron Mondahl © The artist – Image Licensing

Having little responsibility in the first show has actually been a great introduction to working at the RSC. I have had time to just sit and observe the work of the company, take in all that happens behind the scenes and on stage. It has also allowed me time to grapple with my understudy lines for Polonius and spend some time in rehearsals observing Cyril Nri bring that part to life.

I have never understudied before. It is a very strange journey. You know you are not playing the part every night but you almost have to pretend that you are as anything could happen at any time - we need to be ready to go on from the first preview.

I always thought of myself as a quick line learner. Through the process of rehearsals, the words seem to sink into my head. I do go back to my script all the time but I find that if I close my eyes and picture myself on stage, and see what I am doing, the words flow easily into my head.

Not with my understudy lines! Oh no…it has been weeks of initial learning, which was slow and haltering, then to find myself going back to the script all the time and finding that big chunks of lines and words are lost from memory! 'Why???!!!' my mind shrieks in panic.

Everyone has their own technique to learning lines, so whenever we are asked: “How do you learn all those lines?” all an actor can do is fumble an answer based on personal experience. For me, knowing where I am on stage, knowing what I am doing is a huge help in letting the lines sink in. Context is key for me. So is repetition.

But I can't do that as an understudy. I wondered if other people in the cast where having the same problem and so I asked around. And sure enough there were a few groans and shaking of the head and some muttering. Daily rehearsals give you a context, and your discussions with a director deepen that context until you feel your character’s heartbeat in yours. As an understudy, you are denied that until you are able to observe your character's scenes.

The cast in the rehearsal room for Hamlet
The cast of Hamlet in rehearsal
Photo by Byron Mondahl © The artist – Image Licensing

I started observing Polonius’s scenes this week and it has helped me to understand the context of the character and on a basic level to see his blocking through the play. This helps a lot. I have also had amazing sessions with the Assistant Director, Anna Girvan, who is responsible for having rehearsals with the understudy cast. She has brought what was discussed in the rehearsal room to me, helping to deepen our understanding of how this production is observing these well known characters. And I have had the opportunity to start speaking the lines out loud. And that was another shock. The moment I started speaking I struggled to find the words, fumbling through the gaps in my memory. Mind that…gap!

So I am learning what it means to be an understudy and I think that after some major adjustments I have come up with a way of helping myself here. I don’t know if this is going to be useful for me but I have to try to give myself a context so this is what I am doing to do everyday:

  • Stand up and say the lines – no more lounging around…time to get on my feet and speak these words
  • Keep observing rehearsals when I can – unless I am needed in Cymbeline
  • Get help from other understudies and speak the lines to each other – time to stop being alone. We are all in the same boat so share the experience

Soon, we will have a full set of rehearsals for the understudy public run on 30 March, and that will be a major help but until that happens I am going to try and be as ready as I can. I'll let you know how it goes.

Byron Mondahl

Byron Mondahl

Byron Mondahl is an actor who enjoys thinking about and writing about the elusive art of acting. He is from South Africa where he first began acting but has lived in the UK since 2005 when he studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. He has taught English in Taiwan, and also lost six stone and transformed his life for the better. Follow him on Twitter @ByronMondahl

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