The experience of playing multiple parts in a theatre production has been a part of my career from its very beginning.
My first professional job as an actor was with the now defunct English Shakespeare Company. When I joined them two days after graduating from drama school, they were doing a world tour of 'The wars of the Roses', the seven play history cycle going chronologically from Richard II right the way through to Richard III. My contract was a 'play as cast' contract. This essentially meant that I was obliged to play whatever they wanted me to as well as to understudy. I played a large assortment of servants, soldiers and Lords some (but not all ), with a few lines, as well as having some thirty six understudies to learn.
I loved every minute of it. Even playing these tiny parts I relished the challenge of making them all different . It made me focus on ways in which they were different from me. Their different energies, their voices, the way they moved. I loved it at the time and I've always relished it when I've had the opportunity to do so since.
I am currently rehearsing 'Mouthful' at the Trafalgar Studios, written by six different playwrights, in which I play four very different men. As with my first ever job back in 1988 I love thinking about what's different about all the characters. In this instance I don't have to work too hard at that! They are wide range of ages and come from very different cultures and backgrounds - I play a Columbian man on the verge of retirement, a Tunisian man driven to distraction by not being able to provide for his young family, a passionate scientist and finally a man pushed to his emotional limits by trying to get water in a world where there is none.
Each brings with them their own challenges. As each narrative within the play is short - the evening lasts over two hours but there are six narratives to tell - you have very little time to establish a character. The audience must be clear who you are from the off so we must all of us - my three fellow cast members and I - hit the ground running. The tricky part is being believable instantly without presenting a caricature. The Colombian (Roberto in 'Organica'), feels like a warm centred man. I'm trying to keep him still and centred, with both feet firmly planted. The Tunisian (Tahar in 'Bread on The Table'), who is despairing and hopeless, also has a Tunisian accent and I think the trick there is not to get too caught up in sounding different and losing sight of the man's genuine pain, The scientist (Ilkka in 'The Protectors'), is confident and strong but also having to cope with adverse circumstances. I think he should remain confident and in charge even when confronted with his own mortality.
The fourth character 'GoGo' in Neil La Bute's '16 Pounds' feels like an ordinary unexceptional man pushed to exceptional limits he never imagined possible. The challenge with him is not to make his near catatonic state generalised and locked off. Finding ways to keep him 'active' 100% of the time is definitely a challenge. But a challenge that I'm loving.
As with all acting the trick it to be specific and committed. So far it's been a wonderful experience. And the joy of the play - which explores through comedy, tragedy and everything in between the global food crisis - is that with the four of us playing twenty one characters you build a very human and diverse picture of a subject that can sometimes feel remote and inaccessible in its scale, its very global-ness. The different characters, the different stories are very separate from each other in style and tone, and yet they speak to each-other, and the same themes occur across several.
Over the course of an evening we get to dive head-first into the complexity and challenges that our struggling food system is facing. Meaty stuff. One way or another it's given me a lot to chew over and I think for audiences it'll be some really interesting food for thought.
Robert Hands stars in Mouthful at Trafalgar Studios 2 between 8th September and 3rd October 2015. Please visit www.atgtickets.com for further information and tickets.