The problem with large numbers …

Already I don’t like the title of this. It’s not a problem. Why should it be a problem? Let’s try again.

Many characters. Few actors. How could we play?

It’s something we are tackling with Macbeth. And I got to wondering – how have other people approached this … challenge? Come on, let’s stand on the shoulders of giants – or at least get a good look at the view before shimmying down and doing something else.

So I racked my brains. And then asked other people to rack theirs.

The immediate answer that came to my mind was doubling. Lots of doubling. I’ve been in many a production that required me to ‘double’. In my experience it’s meant hours in the rehearsal room trying out various accents or postures, and then hours with design departments trying out different costumes and wigs. To ensure that the characters I am playing seem as different from each other as possible. This inevitably leads to quick-changes in the wing. Endless quick-changes. Endless.

Of course it need not involve all that donning and doffing of wigs. Just a change in … something. Intention. Physicality. You know. A change.

That’s fine. That’s one option, which can be stunning when done well. Many plays involve a little bit of doubling, a servant here with the best friend there. But some really do go hell for leather. ‘Stones in his Pockets’ is probably a famous example of this. Examples othes came up with were:

‘Diary of a Nobody – 4 actors performing 46 parts at The Royal & Derngate, Northampton. So convincing that a large man with a beard playing Mrs. Pooter made everyone feel for her when her son left home and the audience referred to the actor as “her”.’

‘The Tempest at the Globe, circa the early 2000s. A three man job – not three man because the Globe couldn’t afford a full company (my assumption, that is!), just because. I think it started with Mark Rylance performing the entire storm with the ship and everyone on it on his own, using a chess board. It was hilarious, fascinating and moving all at the same time.’

I saw it too, and think I remember (I’m sure I remember) at one point Mark Rylance standing with his head in a noose as one character, then taking it out and talking to the space in the noose as another. And I remember thinking that talking to thin air made total sense – because he wasn’t talking to thin air. He was talking to a man with his head in a noose.

But what else? What else is there?

Cutting characters. That’s another common one. Why do we need both Ross and Angus to tell Macbeth he’s going to be made Thane of Cawdor, just one will do. Why do we need all three messengers, hey, let’s just give first messenger a Blackberry… But where does that stop? Do we need all three witches in Macbeth, won’t just one do? Actually come to that, do we need both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth? Umm, hang on.

Last year I tripped down to the Scoop to see the Pantaloons’ Macbeth with a friend. Their Macbeth was performed with five actors – and much cutting characters, doubling actors and hilarity ensued. They created their witches out of stunningly effective puppets – who could appear, disappear, change their movement from something old and fragile to something inhuman, be fast, be slow, move in and around the audience, fly and were genuinely other-worldy – and these puppets, I think, could be picked up whichever actors were available in any given scene.

So creating characters the whole company can play. That’s another option. Something I’m very interested in at the moment, as it happens.

What else, though.

Something symbolic? I was in a production of Richard III last year and when it came to the final battle sequence we only had a few actors and little-to-no budget with which to play. So we pumped in sound that mixed house music with helicopters and sirens, and played it at the loudest level that was legal (believe me, official-looking people came in with their little boxes and measured the volume precisely). To it we created a movement sequence which repeated and speeded up, over and over again, building for several minutes to the point where the actors were barely able to continue. Then we cut the sound. And there was just us, standing and catching our breath. Battle over.

I guess that was symbolism, right? It was something. A representation of something. A representation of something happening to lots of people. Or something.

Hats, limps, twitches, accents, chess sets, puppets, dancing and more. Lots lots more. There will be hundreds ways people have solved the problem – sorry, tackled the question. In the words of one director I worked with, ‘It’s all makey-uppy’. So what does it matter if one person plays one hundred people, or one hundred people play one person? Baz is going to be tackling this question in October. And I have to say I’m excited.

What are we going to do? Umm … watch this space!

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