Today is Good Friday and it is a really really good Friday. It is the first weekday I have had off since starting rehearsals for the RSC in November. We now have a week of doing just eight shows (mainly in the evenings) and therefore, we have most of our daytimes free. Until we start rehearsals for The Alchemist a week on Monday.

Since being in Stratford we have worked (give or take a few hours) 10am to 10pm days, 6 days a week for 9 weeks. Most actors who love working in theatre will admit that one of the loveliest things about working in theatre is that once the show has had its press night, your days are free to do with them what you will. Be it to have a lie in, read a book, watch a series, meet friends for lunch, send emails that make you feel important, meet more friends for afternoon coffee, go to a yoga class or the gym or just sit in a cafe reading the Guardian by yourself with other freelancers because you are a freelancer and so THAT'S WHAT YOU CAN DO.

Eleanor Wyld holding a script in rehearsals
Eleanor Wyld in rehearsals for Don Quixote
Photo by Helen Maybanks © RSC – Image Licensing

I have not been able to do any of these things in the daytime whilst performing on stage at night with the RSC. It's a whole different ball game here. Once we pressed Faustus we rehearsed Quixote, then once we pressed Quixote we had day time understudy rehearsals of Faustus and a public understudy performance whilst also doing both the regular shows at night. Then this week we did understudy rehearsals of Quixote in the day and a public understudy performance yesterday whilst also doing both regular shows at night for the rest of the week. That's FOUR different plays crammed into our tiny tired brains in two weeks.

Tempers were frayed and exhaustion levels were high. The adrenalin drop from playing Mephistophilis in the understudy run of Faustus had hit me hard. The late nights and early starts were starting to take their toll and the pressure was on as Don Quixote is almost double the length of Doctor Faustus but we still only had 20 hours to rehearse the understudy version. Not the mention the 'business' we had to rehearse in those 20 hours. Tracks that were hard enough to get into our own heads in the real show, we were having to pass on to each other to cover in the understudy run. An example of a 'track' I had to pass on to another actor was:

'Dump plastic babies on shelf upstage left and run to upstage right making sure you pass Richard on the left so he can get past with his big tree branch and then nestle into the far corner of the mid stage right entrance behind John's 8ft Windmill so that you can get on stage holding a wooden plank before John but AFTER Natey who is being the wheelbarrow Donkey in front of you' 

This was just a 30 second 'track' of a 2 and a half hour show 

Rosie the assistant director and Pip our stage manager had meticulously worked out who was covering what track when and we were each given a 5 page document with all the details printed down for us. Cues, entrances, costumes and props. It was months of detailed work from the wonder that is Rosie Banham. 

With the Don Quixote understudy run we knew we had fantastic lead understudies in Theo Fraiser-Steel as Quixote and Richard Leeming as Sancho Panza. We knew we had organisation and patience with Rosie our director and Pip our stage manager. We knew we had an acting company who committed with generosity and warmth. But none of us really knew if we were ACTUALLY going to pull off the understudy performance of Don Quixote yesterday. A lot of us thought the level of tiredness and the nature of the play would just be a bridge too far.

David Threlfall and Theo Fraser-Steel as Don Quixote
Our Don Quixotes - David Threlfall (left) and Theo Fraser-Steel (right)
© RSC – Image Licensing

We were nervy but Richard set us off fantastically and within minutes it became clear that the joy on stage was really being translated into the audience. They were gunning for us. People were having a ball doing it and watching it. It was going to be a lot slicker than we expected. It became completely beautiful. Theo and Richard gave comically brilliant and moving performances. Everybody had their five sheet document in their pocket and followed it moment to moment with enthusiasm and running and dodging backstage and love for this new version of the play. If we weren't on stage, we watched the monitors and cheered on those who were. David Threllfall and Rufus Hound were both plotted in to play a horse or a donkey or hold a windmill or be a benediction monk. But only at choice moments. The audience had a treat spotting our leading actors as they reversed roles with the actors who usually supported them, and were now playing their parts. 

I was utterly overwhelmed by emotion after the show as I sat having my wig unpinned. By Theo and Richard's talent at landing EVERY moment under such pressure. By my cast who had balls of steel, who I knew I loved, but who I now love infinitely more for pulling together against all odds with such heart and passion. I was crying those enormous, gloopy, big drop tears into my lap that wouldn't stop. And people were trying to comfort me even though I didn't need comforting.

I clearly need to rest.

Eleanor Wyld

Eleanor Wyld

Eleanor Wyld is an actor who grew up in Hackney, London. She writes and has four part time jobs when she's resting. She is an associate at the Big House Theatre Company based in Dalston, a theatre charity helping to empower young people in care. Follow Eleanor on Twitter @EleanorWyld

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