Last night, thirty minutes from the end of Timon of Athens at the National Theatre, Simon Russell Beale slipped and broke his finger. The performance was interrupted – “I’m sorry ladies and gentleman, I seem to have broken my finger” – an announcement was made by the stage manager, and ten minutes later Paul Dodds, Simon Russell Beale’s understudy, took over and finished the performance. Thankfully, the injury was a minor fracture and Simon Russell Beale is back performing tonight. This is very good news, first and foremost, for Mr Beale (see what I did there, I am turning into the New York Times), the audience (I am sure Mr Dobbs was fantastic, but nobody wants the big star to go off sick for long) and me. Because I can now discuss, guilt free, my not entirely healthy fascination with injuries on stage.
I am not attracted by the pain and misfortune. But in a live performance, it’s the thrill of the unexpected. When an actor falls, even a practiced fall, you know it is real, it must hurt a little. And if something goes wrong, everyone, actors and audience, enter a place when noone knows what will happen. It’s always interesting to see the audience’s reaction to the understudy who takes over: in theory, this should be a disappointing development, but the audience wants to experience the adrenaline, fear and excitement of someone who goes on stage at a moment’s notice. The best performance in the world can’t quite beat that. Continue reading