In Praise of the barely rehearsed understudy

Robert Hardy in rehersals for The Audience. Photo Johan Persson

Robert Hardy in rehersals for The Audience. Photo Johan Persson

The announcement was simple: “Robert Hardy pulls out of Gielgud theatre’s production of The Audience. Edward Fox steps in“. But behind the headline, several remarkable things stand out. Before his injury, Bafta-winning actor Robert Hardy, aged 87, was planning to do eight live performances a week for the next three months. Even after he cracked his ribs in a fall, he continued to perform at previews. And Edward Fox, who is replacing him, will learn the part, rehearse and perform at press night in less than a week.

Actors are often dismissed as pumpered and spoiled but they strike me as much tougher than most white collar workers. Granted, acting is not hard labour but working in an office, as I do, isn’t either. I don’t know many 87 year olds who want to get out of the house, let alone work.

As for actors working with little or no preparation, I am often amazed at the performances they can give. Last fall, I saw a preview of This House at the National Theatre when Phil Daniels, set to play Bob Mellish, was indisposed (this turned out to be the first of several performances he missed). Howard Ward, who stepped in, was given the script to hold and walked on stage to perform. Did it show? Hardly. Apart from holding the script, often done with such skill that it went unnoticed, the performance was accomplished and involving.

(Which reminds me of Look Back in Anger, performed as a rehearsed reading at the Royal Court in 2006: Anne-Marie Duff was juggling the iron board, the iron and the script in such a way that the script virtually disappeared. This was slight of hand if I ever saw any).

Live performance is visceral and unexpected. It often means fear and getting away with it by the skin of your teeth. Speaking as a member of the audience, that kind of excitement is hard to beat.

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