When the young British actors George Rainsford and Luke Norris were handed leading roles in the Royal Shakespeare Company production Days of Significance, they knew it was a hard-hitting drama about a group of young soldiers about to be deployed to Iraq.
But shortly after the curtain rose on the play's opening night at the Lighthouse Theatre in Poole, Dorset, this description became all too literal. Rainsford accidentally punched his fellow performer so hard during a stage fight that he ended up in hospital with a gashed fist and damaged tendon.
Although he managed to complete the evening's performance, doctors have now instructed the 27-year-old thespian to rest until the end of the week. Mr Norris was fortunate to escape with little more than a bloody mouth – and the knowledge that his colleague had a perfect impression of one of his front teeth indented in a knuckle.
The play begins with a group of young squaddies binge drinking the night before they are sent on active service in Iraq. The accident happened on Tuesday, during the opening night of the touring play's week long residency in Poole. Although blood was pouring from Mr Norris's split lip, the audience – which had been warned to expect distressing scenes and strong violence – remained oblivious to the fact that he had been genuinely injured.
Lighthouse Theatre spokesman Paul Tucker said: "It was very unfortunate. George and Luke and the rest of the cast are all good friends. This was a just a stage fight that went wrong. George threw the punch but definitely came off worst. He's been told that there's damage to a tendon and will be off for the rest of the week."
Mr Rainsford is expected to be back in time for the play to open in Cardiff on Tuesday.
Written by the playwright Roy Williams, the work – which is partly inspired by Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing – involves a number of graphic depictions of violence. Ironically, the punch which did the damage was not thrown during a scene of combat in Iraq, but a portrayal of a night on the town in Britain.
RSC producer Jeremy Adams said: "The production is fast-moving and very physical. It contains a number of stage fights, during one of which George injured his hand. He received first aid and completed the performance. On Wednesday he was given treatment at Salisbury District Hospital.
"As an ensemble theatre company, the RSC is committed to ensuring every show can go ahead with fully rehearsed understudies.
"Since Wednesday, George's role has been in the very capable hands of his understudy, Scott Hazell, who will continue to play the part of Jamie for the rest of the show's run in Poole. Although George is obviously disappointed to be temporarily out of the show, he is pleased to hear that audience reaction to the play and Scott's performance has been so positive."