However well he performs at Newcastle Theatre Royal this week, actor Roger Morlidge knows he is going to be upstaged... by a dog!
Dogs on stage are invariably scene stealers and Shakespeare must have known exactly what he was doing in The Two Gentlemen of Verona when he created the characters of Launce and Crab.
“I think Crab, my dog, be the sourest-natured dog that lives,” says Launce, servant to Proteus, one of the play’s main characters.
You have to laugh. Audiences at the Theatre Royal, where the play concludes the RSC’s short but enjoyable Newcastle season this week, will have to laugh.
Laughter is almost guaranteed. The Two Gentlemen of Verona, one of the playwright’s earliest offerings (maybe even his first), is often singled out as one of his weakest. But it has that dog.
People have been laughing at Crab for centuries, although the play isn’t one of the most frequently performed and the Stratford company say this production, marking director Simon Godwin’s RSC debut, is its first on the main stage for 45 years.
Roger Morlidge is thrilled to be a member of the current RSC company.
Born 44 years ago in Bolton, he is a highly experienced actor who has recently finished a stint in the play of The Full Monty – more proof of his courage – and whose film credits include late 1990s blockbusters The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love and East is East.
Of landing the part in ‘Two Gents’ he says simply: “It was just an audition that came up, that my agent managed to get for me.”
Like all the other actors chosen for this season’s RSC plays, Roger had to learn his lines and develop his character. Unlike the other actors, he had to get to know a four-legged co-star.
“We had eight weeks to rehearse for the show and at first I saw the dog once a week – then more often as the opening night got nearer.
“It was a case of the trainer having to train me how to command the dog.”
The dog is called Mossup. She’s a lurcher and she’s actually a bitch – although Crab is a dog – but that isn’t unusual in Shakespeare where characters are always masquerading as the opposite sex.
Roger has been getting on just fine with his co-star and you might think this isn’t much wonder. By an extraordinary coincidence, he has two lurchers of his own at home. They are called Rosie and Rogue.
Could Roger be the first Launce in history to own two dogs almost identical to his on-stage Crab? Quite possibly although there have been a lot of Launces and a lot of Crabs.
Roger says: “Quite often people don’t realise I’m commanding the dog. But what has happened is that Mossup is so clever that she has actually learned the show.
“All her training is treat-based and she very quickly learned that the quicker she did something, the quicker she was going to get fed.
“I have to get her to bark and I had a bit of trouble with some of the performances where she would bark a bit too early because she knew that’s when she would get fed.
“That was quite difficult to deal with. I am in a place with her now when I can predict when she is going to be unpredictable.
“Now every scene and every line where I have to interact with the dog I have three or four potential versions of how it’s going to go.”
In some respects, Roger emerges a winner every time.
“In one performance the dog barked all the time but an audience just loves it when there’s a dog on stage,” he says.
You might wonder if it wouldn’t have been simpler if he’d recruited one of his own dogs.
“I don’t think my dogs have had a good enough basic training,” he laughs. “Mossup’s acting know-how is amazing. She’s not fazed by anything.”
Roger says he has never worked in the theatre in Newcastle although he did have a part in a Robson Green TV film called Beaten a few years ago.
“We had a couple of days filming in an old shipyard on the Tyne. It reminded me of going round the old cotton mills in Bolton.
“I’m looking forward to coming to Newcastle and doing a bit of exploring.
“After this play ends, though, I don’t know what I’m going to do yet. Something will probably come up. I’ve always been very lucky.”
The Two Gentlemen of Verona runs at Newcastle Theatre Royal from October 7-11. Box office: 08448 112121.