‘share his part thereof’: Sharing Roles in Theatre

 

Imagine: you walk onto the stage as a performance starts. But you have no idea who you will be playing tonight.

Such will be the case with the RSC’s upcoming production of Doctor Faustus. Both Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan walk on stage at the beginning of the show. They each light a match. They and the audience wait with quite literally abated breath. Because whoever’s burns down first will be playing the unfortunate Faustus, the other the menacing Mephistophilis.

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Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan. Photo by Helen Maybanks, copyright RSC.

It’s an incredibly dramatic piece of staging and casting in effect. Not only will this be an incredible live theatrical experience for the audience, but it also follows in a rare history of sharing roles. Hopefully. It would be very strange if for the entire run, every night someone’s candle burned down first…

The most recent and perhaps most well known example of this is of course the 2010 production of Frankenstein at the National. In this production, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternated the role of Creator and Created, Frankenstein and his monster. Both Miller and Cumberbatch shared the Olivier for Best Actor that year, a feat which may be repeated should Grierson and Ryan impress.

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Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein, and Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature. Photo by Catherine Ashmore.

There may be those who view this as a gimmick, a cheap stunt for no other reason than to pull in punters. In reality, it actually represents much more than that for the actors and audiences alike. In 1973, Richard Pasco and Ian Richardson played Richard II and Bolingbroke in a production of Richard II. Both actors said it had an immeasurable effect on their characterisation and caused audiences and critics to view them in different lights too.

So may the case well be with this new production, bringing Grierson and Ryan a sense of greater understanding in the roles. It will also no doubt shine new light on the play for audiences too. While Richard II, Faustus and Frankenstein may not seem similar plays, they share two similarities. Their respective protagonists and antagonists are more alike than they think: Bolingbroke usurps the throne of Richard, who is then plagued by fears and threats of usurpation which haunt his reign. Frankenstein has that famous line: ‘who is the monster then? Thee or me?’ Secondly, the line between which is the protagonist and which the antagonist is often blurred. A facet which may be even more intangible, indeterminate in the RSC’s production.

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Photo by Donald Cooper.

I have never seen Doctor Faustus before, but in the anniversary of both his and Shakespeare’s death I am seeing it twice. Once at the Trafalgar Studios and once in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

It seems I may have to add a third viewing to my list.

 

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