Actor shot in the eye during matinée – but the show goes on

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"I have shot mine arrow o'er the house, And hurt my brother," Shakespeare's tragic hero Hamlet once observed. It is a line which might have been on the minds of several of the more erudite theatregoers who witnessed Saturday's matinee performance of Stephen Sondheim's Passion at London's Donmar Warehouse.

As the musical reached its climactic finale, a cast member was apparently shot in the eye with a fake gun.

David Birrell, an actor who has also starred in the West End staple Monty Python's Spamalot, rather nobly completed his performance before being taken to University College Hospital by ambulance for treatment.

The production, at one of London's more critically acclaimed theatres, has now been suspended and will reopen on Thursday. A theatre spokeswoman said in a statement: "During the matinée performance of Passion on Saturday, David Birrell sustained an injury to his eye for which he is currently being treated in hospital.

"Our priorities are to David's wellbeing and recovery; and to theatregoers who have purchased tickets for performances in the coming days. We are cancelling the show, Monday to Wednesday, and then hope to resume performances from Thursday. We will, of course, refund patrons who are unable to see the production."

The musical, billed as a "haunting story of desire, sacrifice and redemption", features the use of fake guns during only one scene, a duel between army captain Giorgio and the protective Colonel Ricci, played by Birrell. The spokesman said the eye injury was caused by debris from a licensed replica gun.

Cast members have praised the professionalism of Mr Birrell, who successfully managed to conceal his injuries from the audience after falling to the floor following the wayward shot.

David Thaxton, who plays Giorgio, the intended target of Mr Birrell's fake bullet, said: "I thought David hurt himself. I assumed it was the heat from the gun. I didn't realise it was his eye. He fell to the ground in a way that he could come off stage without the audience realising. That's what we're trained to do."

He went on to describe Mr Birrell as a "complete professional", adding: "Though he was in pain, he was making jokes and being his humorous self when he came off stage."

Some surprised audience members saw Mr Birrell wearing bandages after the show, as paramedics carried him away on a stretcher to an ambulance.

Most stage duelling pistols fire using a hammer which produces a spark when striking a percussion cap. Sometimes the cap fragments into splinters which exit the gun at high speed. It is not the first time an actor has been injured by a prop firearm. If fired at very close range, blank-firing guns can cause serious injury or death.

In April, actor Darrell D'Silva of the Royal Shakespeare Company was injured by a prop firearm during technical rehearsals of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. The production's press night was delayed by three weeks and was adapted to accommodate Mr D'Silva's arm sling.

In 1993, the actor Brandon Lee was killed during an accident with a blank-firing gun on the set of the film The Crow. In 1984, the American actor Jon-Erik Hexum died when he fired a prop .44 Magnum containing blanks into his temple at point-blank range.

Guns used in TV and film are real firearms adapted to fire blanks, and as such remain subject to strict government legislation. A licensed person must be present when they are used. In the theatre, cheaper "top-venting" replica firearms are the norm, which fire with less force and do not require a licence.

In the latter, the flash exits from the top or side of the device rather than the barrel, a safety feature designed to render it impossible to convert the guns to fire live rounds, and to discourage criminals from using them in robberies by making their appearance less authentic.

The Donmar has assured patrons with tickets for cancelled shows who are unable to see the production that they will receive a full refund – but when the play reopens on Thursday it is not clear if Mr Birrell will return.

He is now recovering in hospital, and is said to be in good spirits. He may indeed be drawing comfort from the fate of his character, Ricci: though wounded, the Colonel makes a full recovery.

Exit stage left (bleeding)

* The firearm is far from the only peril braved by the gallant thespian. In 2008, at Vienna's Burgtheater, a German actor suffered a severe cut after accidentally stabbing himself in the throat in a suicide final scene – when he discovered to his horror that the prop knife had been replaced by a real blade. Amid reports of a dastardly and cunning murder plot, it emerged that a female prop manager had merely bought the knife for use on stage and had forgotten to blunt it.

* In 2004, Janette Tough, better known as Wee Jimmy Krankie of the comedy duo The Krankies, was seriously injured after falling 10ft off a pantomime beanstalk during a performance of Jack and the Beanstalk at the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow.

* In September 2009, Australian actress Cate Blanchett, right, was left bleeding from the back of the neck during the Sydney run of Tennessee Williams' tragic play A Streetcar Named Desire, after one of her co-stars accidentally hit her in the head with a prop radio mid-scene.

* In January, Santino Fontana, a cast member in a Broadway production of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge sustained concussion while sparring onstage. He was forced to pull out of the production, in which he had been starring alongside Scarlett Johansson.