Royal Shakespeare understudies to take leading role in cut-price productions

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The Independent Online

Theatre audiences are to be offered a chance to spot the stars of the future this summer after the Royal Shakespeare Company announced that understudies are to take the leading roles in cut-price performances.

From April, there will be an understudy in each new production of the new season, including Macbeth , Romeo and Juliet , Hamlet and King Lear .

Tickets will be priced up to £5. The actors will follow a long line of now-famous names who were understudies at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) at the start of their careers, among them the Hollywood actors Ralph Fiennes and Alan Rickman. Other successful former understudies include Julia Stevenson, Emily Watson and Matthew MacFadyen.

Even one of the RSC's most accomplished directors, Gregory Doran, who is working with Judi Dench on All's Well That Ends Well , was a substitute for a 1988 production of The Merchant of Venice .

Announcing the scheme yesterday, Michael Boyd, the RSC's artistic director, said the innovation would be welcomed by the actors and theatre-goers.

"I think it's giving the public a lovely opportunity to look behind the scenes and to see a Ralph Fiennes in the making," he said. "You might see the new Ralph Fiennes in a major challenging role and you might see the actual Fiennes playing the huntsman, third on the left, just chipping in to help out the others."

For years, understudies have been giving full performances at rehearsals to prepare for the possibility of having to play their major role. But few members of the public ever see their renditions of the great roles. Mr Boyd said: "Understudies are too often the unsung heroes of the company. They put an incredible amount of energy into preparing for major roles, but don't really get acknowledged in their own right. In just one production - Peter Brook's 1978 Antony and Cleopatra with Glenda Jackson and Alan Howard - the understudy company included Juliet Stevenson, David Bradley, John Bowe, Alan Rickman and Ruby Wax." He said the company was full of potential stars but singled out Trystan Gravelle and Meg Fraser.

Gravelle will get his chance as Hamlet and Fraser as Lady Macbeth. Gravelle was "someone people will really say, 'Watch out.' He has passion and lyricism. He is very bright, instinctively bright."

And Fraser, who worked with the Dundee Repertory Company, "treads that knife-edge between being a great comedienne and a great tragedienne".

Knowing that there was a planned performance instead of being thrown in at the deep end because of ill health or an accident was already making a difference to the actors in rehearsals.

The RSC said it hoped that giving actors the chance at leading roles early on would encourage them to stay with the company and develop, instead of departing for the more lucrative fields of film and television.