On the 15th October matinée, Katy Stephens (text in hand) took on the role of Cleopatra in the RSC Antony and Cleopatra when Kathryn Hunter ‘was indisposed’. Though for most of the scenes Katy Stephens held the book in her hand, she only looked at the script now and again to remind herself of odd lines. I felt that Katy Stephens’ portrayal of Cleopatra was much more emotional than Kathryn Hunter’s and she didn’t play the comedy as much. On Antony’s death there were tears in her eyes. At times Katy Stephens was a little uncomfortable in the way she stood. However, watching her demonstrated that two different approaches to a character can work within the same production. I felt there was certainly a lot of chemistry between Stephen’s Cleopatra and Darrell D’Silva’s Antony.
The shuffle that inevitably comes from an understudy taking on a key role resulted in some real treats. My favourite was Greg Hicks taking on the role of the messenger Thidias. It was a lovely performance, and Hicks seemed to revel in the part, flirting with Cleopatra and taking notes in Rome with great relish. Tunji Kasim (normally Mardian) gave a very sound performance as Eros and I felt that this was better casting than the eunuch and even Edmund.
There were a couple of moments that didn’t seem to go to plan. At one point Alexas was not on stage when he was asked to find out information from the messenger and the gun did not go off when Cleopatra shot at the messenger. Maybe the safety catch was still on or because Katy Stephens hadn’t practised that much they didn’t want to take the risk.
When an understudy takes on a role, there is a bit of observing the blocking and some mimicking of the way lines are said by the original actor. On the other hand, there is also a sense of the actor trying to bring their interpretation to the role. The RSC policy is for the ensemble to understudy other parts. It’s enormous undertaking to understudy Cleopatra as well as play Regan and Rosalind. In the past two years I have seen Ed Bennett’s Hamlet, Mariah Gale’s Rosalind, and Dyfan Dwyfor’s Romeo. I have also seen the understudy performance of Twelfth Night. What the understudy does is give a very different perspective of a role in a production. For example, I thought that Dyfan Dwyfor’s Romeo was much measured and quieter than Sam Troughton’s. I was really pleased to see Katy Stephens play Cleopatra and in future she may get the opportunity to really make the part her own.