To be or not to be… an understudy

Oscar Wilde, three-quarter length portrait, fa...
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After yesterday’s post, I should tell you there are some perks to being a London lady of leisure.  Today I got invited to a free performance of Acts from An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde, currently on at the Vaudeville Theatre.

It was a chance for the understudy- actors to present themselves to agents and friends, showing off their skills. They only got to present a couple of scenes and in some cases had to rotate parts so everyone got a chance to shine. (A little patronising perhaps but so was the multiple opening and closing of the curtains for yet more applause at the end.)

It must be nerve wrecking and it showed for the poor actor playing Robert Chiltern (the character who is being blackmailed over some misconduct that happened 18 years earlier and that made him his fortune.)  The actor stumbled on one line and then lost his nerve, bless him: his performance never quite recovered. It did not help that a) his button then fell off during the scene and that b) his fellow-actor was so brilliant he just outshone him. We witnessed someone’s nightmare, live at the Vaudeville. Ouch.

His fellow-actor was playing the part of Lord Arthur Goring, Robert’s best friend and confidante – yes, to be fair he has best lines ( Ah, Mr Wilde…) but delivering them in style is the art of the actor.

The set was elaborate and because they only played a couple of scenes the curtain had to come down every time there was a scene change. The horror when the curtain came up again and Lord Goring was replaced by another actor… It threw everyone in the audience, as there was a great uncrumpling of papers: everyone trying to make sense of it by looking at the synopsis and the cast list. Poor Lord Goring II, he had a very hard act to follow.

Why would one do it? I don’t know. They are obviously talented enough to be in a West End play, but there was someone better and they got stuck as understudy.

I can’t imagine it’s for the money. That might come eventually  but I believe most actors don’t reach that point if they wouldn’t be loving what they did. There are easier ways to make money. Fame? There are a lot of unknown actors out there and there are easier routes to fame (

I’d like to think someone who sticks with a difficult path, has a passion for it. Talent is debatable and especially in art unquantifiable, never mind: genius is after all one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

Cynics might dismiss this romantic notion as arty drivel and suggest that all budding thespians should try a real job (whatever that may mean these days) but then as the good Mr Wilde said himself:

What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

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