Walking in someone else’s shoes

Alice Robinson suggests that role-swapping in theatre helps to foster empathy

How did insanely popular TV quiz show Pointless celebrate its 100th episode? Not with fireworks. Not with champagne. No. Instead they marked the milestone by having co-hosts Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman switch roles, realising the somewhat gimmicky idea of role-swapping held something weirdly fascinating for an audience. Indeed, they were merely employing a long-used theatrical technique of stage collaboration. Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco alternated Richard II and Bolingbroke in 1973, and Gielgud and Olivier shared Mercutio and Romeo back in 1935.

The technique, however, was still relatively rare, even in theatre, until the last few years. In Robert Icke’s production of Mary Stuart at London’s Almeida Theatre last winter, the two lead actresses, Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson, began each performance with the spin of a coin which decided which of them would play Mary, and which her cousin Elizabeth. Williams is used to this: she starred alongside Kristin Scott-Thomas in Old Times on Broadway in 2013, swapping roles once a week.

The RSC’s Dr Faustus last year started with the two leads simultaneously lighting matches—whoever’s burnt out first played the doomed doctor, the other played Mephistopheles. Most famously, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller become both the creator and the created in Nick Dear’s 2011 production of Frankenstein. It’s even happened in Oxford, when, only a couple of years ago, two students alternated the roles of Orlando and Elizabeth I in an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel.

Although the technique itself has always been greeted with interest by critics and audience members alike, there must be some reason behind its growing popularity: a reason not specific to each one of these directorial decisions, but to the concept as a whole. Perhaps it is partly due to a desire on the part of theatre practitioners to differentiate their medium from other art forms, especially in an age of easily available drama via Netflix, Amazon Prime and iPlayer.

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The casting emphasises the high-stakes nature of live theatrical performance. With two people each having learnt two parts, each part hundreds of lines long, the potential for failure doubles. What if they forget their lines? Say the wrong part? Start performing the wrong role? And of course, there’s the behind-the-scenes possibility for inter-actor rivalry. Just think of the brilliant That Mitchell and Webb Look sketch in which two arrogant actors determined to steal the spotlight become increasingly violent whilst sharing the roles of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. Theatre takes place over such a long time that relationships can develop and disintegrate—and there’s no way of editing out any expression of underlying tensions.

The chance of seeing two different interpretations of exactly the same role on two different nights also highlights a key selling point of live theatre: that each performance is a totally unique event. Like much metatheatres, the technique does not necessarily create something entirely new. It rather emphasises the already present, unique assets of theatre as an art form.

Perhaps there is something further, though, to this particular theatrical technique, linking even to other art forms—like the body swap movie. Yep, that’s right, I’m going to attempt to connect Gielgud and Olivier’s performances in Romeo and Juliet to Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis in Freaky Friday. A feat I doubt has been attempted thus far, but there’s a first time for everything. Hear me out.

In body-swap movies like 17 Again and It’s a Boy-Girl Thing, the swappees start the film hating both each other and their own lives, and finish by understanding the other and appreciating what they have. Role-alternating allows for that same sweet-spot of both empathy and distance.

In the past few years, we have seen an increasing amount of left-wing activism, mostly revolving around identity politics, which uses empathy as a key part of its argument. Being offended is now a reason to protest (against Germaine Greer for example, or even the Cecil Rhodes statue). If only we could walk in someone else’s shoes, we could understand them and perhaps agree with them. This aligns with a belief in nurture over nature: that problems and personality are predominantly created by society and therefore are societal constructs rather than innate characteristics.

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Role-swapping in theatre, particularly the kind of role-swapping based on chance, as in Mary Stuart or Dr Faustus, promotes this belief. It promotes empathy above all, but shows how easy it is to be blind to the underlying similarities between us and other people. This, I believe, is why the technique is growing in popularity—and why, with the backlash against Trump’s seeming lack of empathy, I think Mary Stuart will by no means be the last time we see this technique on the stage in England.