Alternating casts: a Covid gimmick, or theatre’s chance at survival?


It is no secret that actors sometimes play roles that they are not billed for. Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is famously keen for this (‘let me play the lion’s part, etc., etc.), and a number of plays hinge on what we might call an ‘internal’ case of mistaken identity, where the audience knows that an actor or character is disguised even when the rest of the play’s characters are not (there are usually added comedy points if it’s a very ineffective disguise). Shakespeare is king of this, but we can turn to One Man Two Guvnors, or Sharon Cooper’s Mistaken Identity, for obvious, titular reasons. Aside from the plot, there are millions of reasons why a director might do a last-minute switcheroo, and an understudy rather than the famous lead ends up playing Hamlet. Typically, this means something has gone wrong, and often signifies disaster for that night’s performance, although it’s not uncommon for understudies to have a designated performance night so that they get some time on stage. 

However, the trend for a spiced-up cast has grown, and directors are masterminding theatre that makes deliberate use of the effects that come with a changing cast. The National Theatre did it with the Cumberbatch/Lee-Miller Frankenstein and the Vaudeville has done it with Constellations, which makes use of four different cast pairings. There is, of course, one very obvious reason for this, and it starts with C and ends in you-know-what. In an industry overrun by the ping-demic and dependent on real-time performance for its bread and butter, it makes sense to have a second cast that is just as well-rehearsed as your original group. 

By flipping the script and bending the age and gender dynamics portrayed on stage with each pair of actors, the attention goes to the macro and microeconomics of the play

But it is not a Covid phenomenon to put actors in different roles mid-run. A wonderful benefit of a changing cast is that it keeps things fresh: it forces actors, directors, and audience members alike to pay attention to the way on-stage dynamics can change, and it forces attention to the sheer craftsmanship that goes into this job. It means that you go to watch the play that is billed rather than so-and-so performing the play.

To use the Vaudeville example, four different pairs of lead actors essentially means four different plays. Director Michael Longhurst knows what he’s doing; by flipping the script and bending the age and gender dynamics portrayed on stage with each pair of actors, the attention goes to both the macro and the microeconomics of the play. Most broadly, the play can be expanded in line with its in-text exploration of the multiverse possibilities of a relationship. The ‘what-if’ at the crux of the play extends to the real world of the audience, multiplying the literal possibility of the play manifold. We are tuned into the dynamics of the text rather than the name of the actor giving the performance, subsumed as they are into a shifting cast of others. Their off-stage identity becomes less relevant.

Ironically, at a micro-level, deliberate cast-changing can have the opposite effect. We also become meticulously attuned to the relationship shown in front of us, in that specific moment. Once we know that other actors will be playing the same parts, we become hyper-aware of the performance in front of us: the stakes behind each line are higher. Paradoxically, we become both more and less aware of the individuality of each show. 

We also become aware of the fragility of each performance: the immediacy of each moment is felt anew

This cast-changing works very well for shows that want to put identity at the centre of the piece. It mirrors an increasing cross-genre investment in the ideas of polyphony – we might turn to the narrative style of Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, or Lucy Newman’s Ducks, Newburyport. It certainly is in keeping with the interest in revamping older work by subverting casting expectations – look at the RSC’s all female, all black Richard II

It is widely known that the theatre industry is in crisis. By opening up casting, performances increase security. More actors can be employed, more shows can go ahead, more theatres stay open. But we also become aware of the fragility of each performance: the immediacy of each moment is felt anew. We are inevitably going to have to adapt to a post-Covid way of performing. Multi-casting needn’t be a death sentence. In fact, it might be just what the doctor ordered. 

Image credit: Flickr

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