The QT

Friday 19 July 2024

Pressure ‘insane’ says Ian McKellen’s replacement

With Player Kings bound for the Theatre Royal, David Semark reflects on the challenge of taking over one of Shakespeare’s most famous roles
David Semark (in red jumper) in rehearsal for Player Kings

It has been a tumultuous few weeks for David Semark – and also, of course, for Sir Ian McKellen, the man whose fall from a West End stage made national news and prompted a wave of concern.

Sir Ian, aged 85, is one of the finest Shakespearean actors ever to tread the boards and a ‘national treasure’ by dint of that and many other achievements during a long career on stage and screen.

His understudy (or ‘cover’ as some in the business term it) is… well, who is David Semark?

He’s happy to fill me in, saying he was born in Lincoln but brought up in Bedford. There was no precedent of acting in his family – his dad was in the RAF – but he was always keen to enter the profession.

“I struck a somewhat Faustian deal with my family where I went and got a degree first,” he says.

“As long as I did that, they were prepared to support me as much as they could. I did English and drama and it made me realise that while I loved the whole world of theatre, being on stage is what I wanted.”

We are talking ahead of his visit to Newcastle in Player Kings, the play incorporating both parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV in which Sir Ian was cast as Falstaff – and which now has David as the roguish knight, not as understudy but as a leading cast member.

It is, by his own admission, a considerable step up.

David trained at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) and has the rich baritone voice you’d expect of a classical actor.

His impressively long CV demonstrates more than a brush with the soapy side of TV (The Bill, EastEnders, Casualty, Holby City, Emmerdale).

There’s a lot of theatre there too but there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s a working actor’s CV rather than that of a ‘star’.

“I’ve been around and had a lot of jobs,” he acknowledges with a laugh.

A scene from Player Kings with David (left) in one of his original roles

“This was my fourth time in the West End but like a lot of actors I take whatever work I can because I might spend the next two years not doing much.

“It’s always a struggle but I’m very proud that over the last 20 years I haven’t taken work that I consider outside acting.

“There has been some corporate work but nowadays that’s how all actors survive.”

It’s the corporate work that has brought him to the North East on occasion but he says he did come to the Theatre Royal once, having landed a small part in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Richard III with Robert Lindsay in the title role.

He had no hesitation in joining the cast of Player Kings where he was to play Sir Richard Vernon (a character non-scholars might have to look up)  and “various other bits and bobs”.

David Semark (red jumper) in rehearsal for Player Kings ahead of the play’s Tyneside run

“I think originally I had eight roles and 10 costume changes but for reasons of time, because we’re putting together two epic pieces here, a couple of scenes got cut. When we opened I think I had seven roles and eight costume changes.”

But that wasn’t the only incentive for the man also charged with ‘covering’ for the actor whose name topped the bill.

“The main reason was knowing I would be in a room watching Ian McKellen work one of the great roles of Shakespeare and with the incredibly talented Robert Icke directing.

“If someone in my profession doesn’t want to be paid money to do that, you wonder if they’re still interested in acting. I’m not a young man (David’s 52) but I always feel one can learn and I learnt everything I could in that situation. It was wonderful.

“Ian McKellen famously never misses shows so it wasn’t a huge concern. I genuinely felt my main role was to be there to ensure he could do his Falstaff.”

Then came the fateful night – Monday, June 17 – when Sir Ian, as Falstaff, lost his footing and tumbled painfully from stage to stalls. The show was halted and the Tuesday and Wednesday performances were cancelled.

David had just exited the stage when it happened on the Monday.

“I didn’t see it but I heard the whole thing and it was incredibly traumatising for the whole company. Sir Ian was its heart and soul.”

Not a young man, of course, but as David asserts: “An incredibly fit and able one. A three-and-three-quarter-hour show six times a week. Trust me… I’m in awe of him. It requires a lot.”

David can speak with authority now, having stepped into Sir Ian’s shoes for the few remaining West End performances and then being handed the role for the subsequent tour. 

After Sir Ian’s fall, David went to work with the assistant directors and then the full cast.

Sir Ian McKellen has had to withdraw from the touring performances of Player Kings

“We still hoped and believed Sir Ian would be back but either way we knew we could put the performances on for the remainder of the London run which is what we did.

“I was very fortunate. The notices, such as there were, were very kind with people saying I’d done a good job. The show must go on, as they say.”

It was Sir Ian himself who called David to tell him the role was now his.

“It was moving and upsetting but he was fantastically supportive. We discussed the role and what it meant and it helped prepare me for the task ahead.”

Speaking ahead of this week’s run in Birmingham (to be followed by Norwich and finally Newcastle), David says of Sir Ian: “He’d love to be on stage and we’d love to have him there.

“I’d step aside tomorrow and happily so; but unfortunately, and for the good of Sir Ian’s health, it’s not to be.”

Sympathetic and effortlessly diplomatic, David Semark would hardly be human if he didn’t relish the chance that has come his way.

Player Kings poster at the Theatre Royal with Sir Ian pictured

“It’s a gift, a tantalising one,” he admits.

“Falstaff is wonderful to play and almost impossibly complex. Every performance I learn more. I wouldn’t have wished it to be in these circumstances but it’s an absolute joy.

“This is the life I was born to lead and I love it. I’m part of an incredibly talented company and it’s a cracker of a show. Playing Falstaff is an actor’s dream and I’m relishing every moment of it. Of course I am.”

Naturally he brings something of himself to the role. “I’m not doing an impersonation of Sir Ian McKellen,” he says.

Neither is he encumbered, as Sir Ian was, by what is known in the business as a ‘fat suit’, required for an actor needing to bulk up for a part.

He laughs when I raise the matter. “You touch on a raw nerve. I was there when Sir Ian was having his costume fitted and the head of wardrobe said they loved me just as I am.

“I tell you I’m very good casting for Falstaff. I’m a man of stature. I’d say Falstaffian is a good description.”

A scene from Player Kings

He admits to nerves when he first stepped on stage as Falstaff.

“A huge West End show was sitting on my shoulders and it was in the news. I got in the car to go to the station and Heart Radio were talking about it.

“The level of pressure, frankly, was insane and it kept ramping up and continues to do so. But Sir Ian has been so generous and continues to be incredibly supportive.”

That first night 12 members of David’s family were in the audience offering moral support. David says he will never forget the look of pride afterwards in his son’s eye.

In Newcastle, his daughter, a student at Leeds University, will see his Falstaff for the first time.

“What I really want is that same look in her eye,” he admits.

Reflecting on what remains of the run of Player Kings, David says: “My world is three weeks long at the moment and I will love every moment of it, although it’s tinged with sadness.”

Player Kings is in Newcastle from July 23 to 27. Buy tickets from the box office on 0191 2327010 or via the Theatre Royal website.


Leave a Comment


We want to hear what you think of The QT – especially if it’s good!


Is there something you think we should know or investigate?


It’s all you need to know.

Sign up for our free Newsletter

Scroll to Top