Could you give us a brief synopsis of The Understudy?

The Understudy focuses on the intense relationship between an ageing actress and her precocious understudy as they enter a conflict of biblical proportions. The show is about a disgraced protagonist called Delilah - previously one of the most successful and talented actresses of her generation. In her youth, she was widely admired for her grace and was a consistent presence on screen and in theatre but a disastrous accident leaves her physically fragile and makes her a persona non grata in the industry that she has dedicated her life to.

Delilah finally has a chance to redeem her reputation as Lady Macbeth in a second-rate production of Shakespeare. But as she prepares for her first performance, someone knocks on her dressing room door, and threatens to change everything.

What inspired you to write it? Was there anything, for instance, you particularly wanted to explore or dramatize?

I wanted to create a script with an honest, and at times brutal, insight into female characters and relationships. Whilst complex female characters are not necessarily rare in theatre, I sometimes feel that writers are often scared to indulge in the really ugly aspects of femininity. I was inspired by the plays of Andrea Dunbar (herself a very flawed person), as well as golden age Hollywood classics such as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and All About Eve, which weren’t afraid of exploring the conflicted and troubled sides of femininity. I must admit that I also looked towards compelling depictions of women in Shakespeare’s plays (namely Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra) when writing The Understudy. These presentations of female characters were especially useful as I wanted to create multi-layered characters with occasionally obscure motivations.

There is sometimes a desire to portray women in the best light possible, but these kinds of depictions can be very limiting, especially when it comes to writing female characters with depth and complexity. These depictions are often unrealistic, and certainly aren’t true of the women I have known in my own life. I wanted to bring a more honest representation of flawed humanity into The Understudy.

Delilah is an intensely ugly and at times horrific character, but she is also vulnerable and tries to do good in the play. Her rapport with her understudy, Lucy Shoal, is equally difficult. Lucy is more likable than Delilah, but the relationship she builds up with the character ends up corrupting her in various ways.

You’ve also adapted it for radio – why did you want to do this? And what was the process of this adaptation like?

I decided to adapt my script for the radio after my show got cancelled this term. My play was originally due to be staged in the Corpus Playroom in Easter term last year, but due to the pandemic, it got delayed and then cancelled. I wanted to explore another avenue of performance, and so I pitched this show for the ADC online season this term.

“Whilst complex female characters are not necessarily rare in theatre, I sometimes feel that writers are often scared to indulge in the really ugly aspects of femininity”

At first I was not keen on the idea of adapting the script for radio. In the original version there’s a lot of movement and a key moment of violence that I did not think would transfer well to this kind of media. I also was not interested in radio itself since it was never really something that I thought could be as entertaining as stage performance; I used to think of it as being a very limited form. However, after having participated in numerous radio shows last term during the ADC online season, I realised that radio was an extremely valuable theatrical form that could be played with in really interesting ways. I wrote a radio show for the season called Lacuna Ridge that allowed me to be as creative as I wanted with the action, as long as it was conveyed well in the characters’ speech and the soundscape.

Moving the action to radio meant that I also had more freedom in the setting of the play, which allowed for me to include the scene where Delilah is involved in an accident that derails her career. There were a few moments that I had to make clearer, as they were written with theatrical staging in mind, but I think that the adaption worked well and has made me excited to see more from student radio in the future.

“I’ve always trusted my instincts when it comes to writing and other creative pursuits, and I’m glad I did in the case of The Understudy"

Shakespeare’s Macbeth seems central to The Understudy – why this play? Did you want to think about any elements of Macbeth specifically?

I didn’t have any initial reason to include Macbeth in the play when I first wrote it, I just got a feeling that I should include it and have Delilah and her Understudy play Lady - I wasn’t sure why at the time! I’ve always trusted my instincts when it comes to writing and other creative pursuits, and I’m glad I did in the case of The Understudy. I think that Macbeth was ultimately a helpful reference point for understanding the play because both deal with similar themes of overpowering ambition and flawed characters who are lead towards their demise.

Macbeth also features famously arresting supernatural imagery, and although The Understudy does not include these same elements, it does feature characters who are haunted by the past whilst striving towards an unsettled future. Delilah is stalked throughout the play by her own past successes as a famous actress, as well as the accident that damaged her health and career. She’s also troubled by something else that traps her in the past… but I won’t give too much away in case you would like to listen to the play!

The Understudy will be streamed by the ADC online on Saturday 7th November at 19:45pm.