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Is that a revolver I see before me?

Explosive moment in Shakespearean drama as lead actor is shot with an imitation firearm

Mark Antony, so the story goes, was a clumsy chap. When, after defeat at the Battle of Actium, the Roman general attempted to fall on his sword – as was the custom – he succeeded only in cutting a gaping hole across his mid-section, and thus spent his agonising final moments dying in the arms of his lover Cleopatra.

Now, in a case of life imitating art, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has been forced to postpone its preview of Antony and Cleopatra, after the actor playing the title role injured himself during rehearsal with a theatrical firearm.

According to a statement issued by the RSC, Darrell D'Silva sustained a "serious injury to his hand from the mechanism of a prop firearm" during technical rehearsals last Thursday.

The press preview scheduled for today has been delayed until next month. Mr D'Silva has since undergone surgery and – with the same stoicism as the character he portrays – has returned to the production.

"He has shown great grit in returning to the show so quickly after a serious injury," said RSC artistic director Michael Boyd, who is directing the show. "But he is still in a sling and playing through pain. We have restaged much of the show to accommodate a one-armed Antony, and have lost a great deal of rehearsal time, so I have taken the decision to postpone our scheduled press night."

The production recasts the play in a modern setting, with the Roman soldiers swapping their sandals and tunics for combat boots and army fatigues. An RSC spokesman said the incident had not occurred during the attempted suicide scene, adding that the company had launched an investigation into what happened.

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 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 model and 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. Here, 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 them to fire live rounds, and to discourage criminals from using them in robberies by making their appearance less authentic. The downside is they can cause severe burns or worse if a hand is placed over the vent.

A leading film and TV theatrical armourer said yesterday that these devices were "dangerous" and that he "wouldn't go near them". It is unclear whether Mr D'Silva was using one of these guns when the accident happened.

The RSC production, which stars Kathryn Hunter as Cleopatra, runs in repertoire at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford until 28 August.

"Antony is quite a physical part," said an RSC spokesperson. "We have restaged the climbing scenes, and hugging Cleopatra has proved quite tricky."

At least it was Antony who died in his lover's arms - vice versa would have been particularly problematic.