Posted on 2 February 2018
Actors sharing roles is very common. They usually have an understudy or, in the case of Dreamgirls, multiple actresses sharing one demanding part, however in Mary Stuart Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams share two roles; the title character and Elizabeth I and to make matters even more complicated neither actress knows who they are playing on the night until a coin is tossed in the first few minutes of the play.
Stressful, right? Stevenson and Williams are confident and extraordinary actresses but when you produce a play written in 1800 and based on historical fact how do you make it exciting? How do create tension for an audience that, overall knows what is going to happen? If you are Robert Icke you get a coin.
It is such a simple trick and is being affected in more and more productions, including RSC’s Dr Faustus (Stratford Upon Avon/London) which saw the two lead actors burn a match to determine who would play Faustus and who would play the devil (both understudies were female actresses which also would have created a new and exciting dynamic to a familiar story).
There are plenty of stories where you could have lead actors sharing a role. Shakespeare’s Othello and Romeo and Juliet spring to mind. With many Othello productions going for an all-black cast there is no reason why two actors couldn’t share the roles of Othello and Iago. Actors alternating and sharing roles is nothing new. In John Barton’s 1973 RSC production of Richard II, Ian Richardson and Richard Pascoe alternated as the King and Bolingbroke. Back in the day Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud alternated as Romeo and Mercutio.
In the US Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C Reilly swapped roles in True West and in April 2017 Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternated in Little Foxes. Often a directorial decision can determine the alternative casting. Danny Boyle’s joint casting of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller as Frankenstein and his monster was about the fact that the characters shared similarities.
There is a theme with alternate casting; hugely talented actors. A play can produce more than one starring role, why not give your skilled cast an opportunity to interrupt both interesting roles how they choose. In Mary Stuart, you have two accomplished actresses giving their all. On the night I saw Mary Stuart Williams was Mary and Stevenson was Elizabeth. It was such a strong performance from both actresses that whilst I believe I have seen the best version, I yearn to see what each actress would do with the other role. Whatever version you get to see this Almeida transfer is worth every penny, as Stevenson and Williams along with the rest of the cast give stunning performances in this thought-provoking production.
Shanine Salmon was a latecomer to theatre after being seduced by the National Theatre's £5 entry pass tickets and a slight obsession with Alex Jennings. She is sadly no longer eligible for 16-25 theatre tickets but she continues to abuse under 30 offers. There was a market for bringing awareness that London theatre was affordable in an era of £100+ West End tickets – Shanine’s blog, View from the Cheap Seat, launched in April 2016, focuses on productions and theatres that have tickets available for £20 and under. She is also quite opinionated and has views on diversity, pricing, theatre seats and nudity on stage. Her interests include Rocky Horror, gaming, theatre (of course) and she also has her own Etsy shop. Shanine tweets at @Braintree_.