Understudies at The Globe

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I had originally intended on writing a review for the second Wonder Season production that I finally made it to, The Taming of the Shrew, but I don’t feel I could comment as extensively as I would like. If you were there on Saturday night, you may be aware that someone stood right at the front of the yard fainted (twice) – that someone was me…

So I want to take a quick opportunity to publicly thank everyone around me that night. I was there on my own, so it made things a little more worrying on my part – one very kind girl offered to come & sit in the first aid room with me, but I couldn’t bear anyone else having to miss the show thanks to me, I already felt bad enough at disrupting everyone, including the actors. (As it turns out, there was someone there who knew me, and came to check how I was.) I’m fairly sure it was down to not enough food & over-exerting myself that afternoon – I’ve learnt from this, I hope it serves as a cautionary tale for the rest of you!

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Anyway, back to the main purpose of this post. At my performance of The Taming of the Shrew, there were three understudies performing: Genevieve Hulme-Beaman as Katherine, Ayoola Smart as Bianca & Sean Fox as Gremio. The Globe’s usual policy is to not have understudies, rather to bring people in who will read from the script. From what I can gather, there was a takeover halfway through Friday’s evening performance, making Saturday’s shows their first full turnouts in these roles. And, had we not been told, I’m sure we’d have been none the wiser. Remarkably, on such limited time, the three of them put in pretty much perfect performances.

Considering Smart & Fox are both usually part of the ensemble, performing various supporting roles within the production, it’s amazing that they stepped up to take on named parts with such aplomb – and Shrew is Smart’s professional acting debut! She formed a highly convincing sibling relationship with her new onstage sister, and was particularly entertaining as Bianca played up her innocence to her father. Gremio is often described as an “elderly suitor of Bianca”, however that detail isn’t of the greatest importance. Fox was funny (Gremio’s bidding scene opposite Tranio was a highlight) and eminently believable as a suitor.

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Ayoola Smart and Genevieve Hulme-Beaman in rehearsals for The Taming of the Shrew
Photo credit: Matthew North

Hulme-Beaman normally plays Bianca, the obedient & well-behaved sister – however, the role of stubborn & rude Katherine seemed to be no trouble for her. Whether sat at the side of the stage picking her nose, or dragging her sister (hands bound) by a rope, Hulme-Beaman captured Katherine’s feisty, independent nature to a tee. She really stood out, and led the show strongly alongside her Petruchio (Edward MacLiam). She was great comedy value, but also portrayed the more moving moments with ease, evoking real pathos.

I’m so glad I was able to come back in to watch the second half (seated, thankfully), if only to see them getting pushed forward by the rest of the cast to take their own rapturous applause.

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Genevieve Hulme-Beaman in The Taming of the Shrew
Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Unlike Shrew, the other Shakespeare comedy of the season (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) has had understudy performances scheduled from the beginning. Last Friday afternoon, I was lucky enough to be there to watch Nandi Bhebhe take over the role of Titania/Hippolyta from Meow Meow, with Alex Tregear stepping up to First Fairy, and Tibu Fortes as Robin Starveling.

I’ve seen this show quite a number of times (it’s a definite contender for favourite of 2016), and grown to love every actor’s performance immensely – but you know what that means in my case… I needed to see an understudy performance! When you’ve seen someone play a certain role several times, it’s natural to get curious about how they’d go about a different part.

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Margaret Ann Bain, Tibu Fortes, Lucy Thackaray and Alex Tregear in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Photo credit: Steve Tanner

Usually, Fortes appears as one of the group of fairies (Cobweb), as well as the “roller-skating eunuch” – he’s tremendously funny in these usual guises. However, by giving him some proper lines, his true comic potential is really tapped! His reaction to Bottom saying, “Ladies – spread yourselves!” was priceless, and his turn as the “man in the moon” during Pyramus & Thisbe was an absolute joy. He’s previously gone on as Snug, and I’m really hoping he gets another chance when I’m there in the future…

In comparison with Nandi Bhebhe’s cat-like First Fairy, Tregear is more akin to Puck. Slightly smaller in stature, but with bundles of cheeky energy. It was thrilling to see the joy on her face at leading the finale, and getting to hear her sing solo too.

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Meow Meow and Nandi Bhebhe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Photo credit: Steve Tanner

If you’ve seen the show, I’m sure you’ll agree that Meow Meow is a charismatic presence and has (metaphorically) big shoes to fill – and it was so exciting to watch Bhebhe come in & put her own stamp on things. A definite highlight for me was her transformation into giggly schoolgirl when under the influence of love-in-idleness and confronted with a donkey-headed Bottom. She was delightfully goofy, and very enthusiastic in her dancing to the George Formby-style The Ousel-Cock. And, of course, we still got to hear her wonderful singing voice, but on some different songs – always good for variety!

Hats off to Emma Rice, Caroline Byrne & their terrific companies. I’ve absolutely adored the two productions I’ve seen so far this season; brilliant concepts, expertly done. It can only be a good thing to have ‘real’ understudies on standby at the Globe, just as you do at most other theatres in London – for cast, crew & audience alike.

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