Monthly Archives: August 2012

War of the Dungeon: Part 2

The complete Dungeon strategy guide – continued! (For interested parties, here’s Part the First.)

5. Torture: The Dungeon’s E-Ticket attraction – now more than ever in the wake of Fifty Shades of Grey (as this article in the endlessly trustworthy Mail Online suggests). The kindest treatment for those unsightly bawds who mouth off about ‘Mr Grey’ is to clap them in the cage behind the torture chair. This cage, more than anything, is emblematic of the Torture show’s primary challenge: digression. The temptation to swell the show with all manner of grisly additions is immense. Why insert the hook up the backside, when you can spear the eyeball too? Why tear out the tongue, when you can mentally slap ’em round the face with it? And why let people stand about like leg-dependent idiots, when they can elsewise sit majestic in your palatial wrought iron cage? Yet nowhere in the Dungeon are the demands of time more pressing. You’re sandwiched between Judge and Turpin. If you go too slow, the audience will flood in from Judge and create an incredibly awkward clash. If you go too fast, the automated section of the Turpin show will still be going – meaning that you’re left gaping like a fish, waiting for an actor otherwise engaged. And that actor will despise you for making their life more difficult. Torture is a juicy show, a sirloin steak of a show – a king-size ham of a show, if you like – so the delight in giving as much as possible is virtually irresistible. As ever, though, these things tend to work better under constraints. It puts a cap on your generosity and prevents it spilling over into egomania. Like Judge, the Torture show has a three-part structure; the three sentences become three tortures. When the Dungeon was still a glorified wax museum, the torture theme spread throughout the entire building: a fragmented parade of gore-splashed vignettes. I particularly remember the impalement of Saint George, whose forlorn corpse now looms above the Torture chair. (Very different to the cuddly psychopath I played in John Kinsella’s Plough Plays a few months back.) In its current state, then, Torture is a microcosm of the attraction’s original design: compressed, and yet still fragmented. It’s the actor’s job to create cohesion. So whilst I find myself shaking my fist at Erik Bloodaxe’s muffled cries of ‘GET IN HERE YOU DOGS!’ (a sure harbinger of yet another group’s approach) and doing myself reprehensible vocal and physical damage (the thumbscrews have several times screwed up my thumbs), it’s mostly from the desire to extend my delight to others. It’s vital to hold on to that and not let exhaustion prevail. When I started at the Dungeon in 2008, my Torturer character was largely a reprise of my Doctor Prospero in Return to the Forbidden Planet. I still have the performance notes I drafted during that rehearsal process:

Prospero is the master actor, ever playing the part of the great villain. The zeal and zest of his evil is implicit in his every elegant gesture, twitching fingertip and raised eyebrow. He goes bow-legged in his villainy, almost stumbling as he contorts into ever more insane poses. He is like the real-life Tod Slaughter by way of Vincent Price and Lon Chaney…

Bloody hell. If I started with that proviso, I’ve no idea what my Torturer’s matured into. My Doctor Prospero was by no means restrained. On balance, the Torturer is probably my favourite of the Dungeon ghoulies. I hate the Torturer at times – he’s by far the most tiring character to play, particularly when the crowds are relentless – but he’s the blackened, beastly heart of the Dungeon. I think he’ll stay that way for some time.

6. Dick Turpin: Highwayman from Hell: I vividly remember the old Turpin show, from visiting the Dungeon as a child. Back then, it must have been quite an ambitious undertaking: not only a projection-effect Dick Turpin who spoke to guests from his cell, but, as I recall, a very impressive town square in which the hanging took place. The climax of the show was the terrifying, lightning-infused apparition of Turpin astride Black Bess – two figures that stood at the entrance to the Dungeon for a while. In my first two seasons, it was also quite different, extending over two large rooms which have since becomes the Witches playing space. Turpin’s now a more economic black box of a show. The original intention for the loading area in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion was that of a boundless limbo of mist and decay, in which the ride vehicles would briefly materialise before fading away. I get a similar vibe from the Turpin room, which represents York Debtors’ Prison (the real cells are located just across the road, in York Castle Museum). The effect isn’t immaculate, but the space does give the impression of unending darkness, which I at least find unsettling. This atmosphere has its pay-off when the lights fade out and Dick Turpin puts in an appearance – via the miracle of carefully placed surround sound speakers and a strobe-lit, twitching body. The nightmare of Turpin on a timescale is getting the damned public into the room, onto the benches, then back on their feet and out of the room. Possibly in response to the room’s forbidding appearance, everyone’s motor skills become savagely impaired, which means they fritter away endless minutes shuffling their feet, avoiding the front benches, sticking far too close together (‘four bodies to a bench!’ you cry – no one really listens), sitting on each other’s laps (a health and safety horror – the very same benches tip forward!) and generally making nuisances of themselves. At moments like this, you think along the lines of Miss Trunchbull in Matilda: this would make for a perfect Dungeon, were it not for the damned visitors! The show’s saving grace is that you’re playing Thomas Hadfield. A real historical figure – the only one you impersonate in the Dungeon – about which nothing pleasant can be said. As a confederate of Turpin, he’s basically a nasty shit, so you can be far ruder to the audience than usual. You can be loud – provided it’s damagingly unpredictable rather than histrionic (as in Judge and Torture). Physically threatening, too – I usually forget what a very tall chap I am (comes from being hunched), but I delight in looming over an audience on Turpin and treating them just as I bloody well please. And that’s the key to the show. The letting go; the not caring. When I first started Turpin, I couldn’t get a handle on the character. I was trying too hard, which meant the effort was making itself shown in all the wrong places. It became one of my patented ‘I’m not quite sure what I’m doing, but I’m also bonkers, so I’ll scream and flail hysterically, and isn’t it all just a little impressive?’ performances. Ugly self-consciousness. Which didn’t make sense. To live a life of real crime, heinous crime, you can’t give a flying toss what anyone thinks of you. The question is irrelevant; baser instincts dominate. It’s definitely a quality I’ve tried to bring to Bill Sikes in Sikes & Nancy, who I consider Hadfield’s spiritual cousin. Too little care is a dangerous thing in theatre (I dislike performers who feel entitled to an audience’s interest), but if adjusted to an end, it can most certainly deliver. The unabashedly nasty characterisation is also wonderful for setting up the last jump scare. Whilst the lights are still out, you sprint like mad to the front of the room and position yourself so you’re right in someone’s face (I tend to go for those who whisper or giggle in the wrong places). It’s the best jump scare in the Dungeon. And more than a bit nasty.

7. Execution: Traitors of York: The Dungeon’s new show for 2012; a vast improvement on 2011’s abysmal (and actorless) Gladiators of York. Execution has lent a pleasing symmetry to the second half of the Dungeon: following their sentencing and torture, the audience moves through three orchestrated deaths. With hanging and burning already taken, Execution turns to beheading. Chopping blocks and giant axes! The iconic Halifax gibbet! Severed heads on spikes! Truth be told, the hoary medievalisms that crop up in such Universal horror films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Raven and Tower of London. Sometimes the secret to producing something really good is to do something thoroughly clichéd. Somehow it’s that bit more surprising – and welcome. Unlike Gladiators, which rooted itself in the most tenuous of historical conjectures, Execution is quintessentially York, taking place as it does at Micklegate Bar – still in existence, and still where the monarch begs admission to the city. (Very amusing watching the Queen do so earlier this year.) What makes Execution stand out is the character. It’s like nothing else the Dungeon’s ever seen: a shambling dervish of performance anarchy; a properly mud-spattered classical Fool; a free-wheeling, head-lopping motor-mouth. The Executioner’s Assistant is insane, no doubt… but not particularly terrifying. Rather, he’s buoyant, he’s Falstaffian, he’s – in the best tradition of Will Seaward – so loud that you can barely think. I would stop short of saying he’s loveable. During rehearsals for Die Fledermaus, I was endlessly requested to ‘be more loveable’. In return, I endlessly argued how senseless that is as a detached abstraction. Execution has allowed me to deliver the kind of Frosch that Die Fledermaus wouldn’t. I’ve taken great delight in realizing this specialised black comedy: bellowing ‘HELLO!’ in distorted cadences as the audience enters the room; using the broomstick as crowd control; letting rip in a cornucopia of whooping, flailing, gibbering and pivoting. The best fun in the world. The Executioner’s Assistant is the flip-side of Thomas Hadfield: once again, inhibition is key, but here in pursuit of festive merriment. This character has proven key to mastering audiences on Execution. If people are onboard with the character’s sort-of charisma and willing to laugh along, then the show is a quick and easy one. If not, it’s a soul-crushing, energy-sapping slog – in which seemingly nothing can lift the resentment. One of the best lessons of the Dungeon is never to try to make an audience like you. As in life, so in theatre: the harder you try to be liked, the more unlikable you become. Patsy Rodenburg’s teachings lean in the same direction, suggesting the actor must strive always to tell the truth. I don’t know where the elevated ideal of ‘truth’ slots into the Dungeon equation (or indeed most forms of theatre that I vibrate to), but where being true to yourself is concerned, Execution insists on it.

8. Witches: Burned Alive: Witches is by far the most tech-dependent of the actor-led shows. So much so that I half-anticipate the day when the actor is usurped by a sophisticated robot. Witches was the new show for 2010, which made it very exciting at the time. The special effects are uneven, but on the whole impressive; most particularly the show’s crowning illusion, in which a hapless audience member – via the miracle of red lighting, steam and a well-concealed turntable – is reduced to a smouldering corpse. The actor doesn’t have a character to play, so much as a series of vivid ‘moments’ – a sneer here, a spit-take there, some jabbings of the needle to even out the action. Whether you’re interesting in fishing for anything deeper is entirely up to you. Personally, I think you’d be mad not to – repeating a show across so many weeks requires some further well of interest. (Those in doubt should witness the legendary Bryan Heeley’s conversion of the show into a Queen rock concert; not for nothing is this man the walking personification of the Dungeonesque.) For me, the show’s most beguiling oddity is the absence of any witches. In every other show, the bogeyman puts in an appearance – whether through the actor or some technical paraphernalia (as with Guy Fawkes, Erik Bloodaxe and Dick Turpin). Here you have only your victim from the audience, a poor (and often unwilling) bogeywoman. Yet your character, the grotesquely named Witch-Pricker, is but a whisker away from a fairytale witch. It’s all there: the black hat with the wide brim; the swirling black cape; the hideous, throat-rending cackling; even the needle with which you test for witches, bizarrely reminiscent of a magic wand (not helped by the fact that the pricker really was a stripped-down, repainted Harry Potter wand for the longest time). I always got the same feeling from Vincent Price’s performance as Matthew Hopkins in Witchfinder General: those who persecute witches come to resemble their prey. It’s a bit of a cheat, of course, owing considerably more to Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz than the Malleus Maleficarum. Speaking for myself, I’d love to play the Wicked Witch of the West on stage someday. For my money, Hamilton’s Witch is one of the all-time great cinematic performances, one that thrilled me to no end as a child and still fascinates me in early onset adulthood. Nature has anyway cursed me with Hamilton’s hatchet-face profile. If Witches can serve as my unofficial Oz audition, then that’s enough to put me in a good mind-frame. Where controlling the public’s concerned, the machines have that one over on me. I simply try not to get caught in the curtains.

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Filed under Essays, Experiences, The York Dungeon

Carry On Don’t (Not) Cho-ose Your Head(shots)

An unusual post, this; less description than illustration. As part of my ongoing battle to masquerade as a professional actor, I had sparkling new headshots taken last week! One of the best decisions I’ve made recently. When I took part in the Marlowe Showcase, I received two token headshots. These were less than stellar: overexposed, low resolution, and displaying rather more body than head. In one, I resembled Hurd Hatfield’s disturbingly waxen Dorian Gray; in the other, I appeared a smirking, heavy-lidded buffoon. Whilst I’m sure that the photographer had the best intentions, none of this came as a surprise: there’s only so much that two minutes of stripped-back, shutter-snapping contact can achieve. In a profession as characterful as acting – and none more than character acting – there’s no excuse for such an impersonal approach. I vowed that next time I would get it right.

Next time came: I took a train journey to Highgate for a session with the ridiculously talented Vanessa Valentine. After a few hours in the local park, great work had been done. I felt completely at ease throughout, which is a tribute to Vanessa’s professionalism and refreshingly no-nonsense approach to photography. Craft first, art second. I think that Vanessa’s approach also solved my concerns that I would gurn without realising and spoil a ton of the pictures. Of course, the easiest thing of all is to do absolutely nothing. When you resign yourself to the task and simply get on. However, conditions must be right. In the Marlowe Showcase, the guiding presence of Max Stafford-Clark left me more comfortable than I’ve ever been doing less and less and less. On the photographic front, Vanessa worked a similar magic. I was heartened, at the end of the shoot, when Vanessa told me that I hadn’t done any pouting. That strikes me as much more odious than the amiable gurn.

So here’s my primary headshot; my go-to choice after trawling through a selection of hundreds! A few qualities swayed this decision. It’s face-on, which is surprisingly uncommon even with so many shots to choose from. It’s clean and presentable, without becoming model-like – although my eyebrows appear to be at the same height for once, there’s still a pinched and pointed character about my head and hair. I like the way the light falls: it liberates my bone structure (pointedness again!), picks out my eyes, and paints some interesting shadows about my cheeks and temples. There are also some less rational factors, extending their semi-transparent tentacles across my reasoning faculties. For example, the slightly high angle reminds me of the way that John Mescall shoots Ernest Thesiger’s bulging cranium in Bride of Frankenstein. It’s subtle, but it’s there.

Here are some other shots that I particularly liked. I don’t think Vanessa Valentine’s capable of taking a bad photo, so you can imagine how difficult it was to extricate these from the general excellence. These will serve as my back-ups, to broaden out the ol’ portfolio!

The rest of my afternoon in London involved scouring the largest HMV branches in the country for Eureka’s newish DVD of Island of Lost Souls, complete with Simon Callow interview. Neither had the damn thing! I’m not opposed to Amazon, but I’ve been sitting on a HMV gift card for so long that I’m loath to waste it on anything that I don’t want. This was followed by a trip to Leicester Square, where I had the pleasure of meeting the always-delightful Quentin Beroud for dinner. I’m now kicking myself for not having booked a later train; a special kind of torture, strolling past the glittering West End pavilions and not quite having time to see anything. I’ll be back before the year’s end, though. I have an unbreakable obligation to see Matilda now that York panto hero David Leonard is playing Miss Trunchbull (Leonard’s Shakespearean villains were one of the first things that made me want to act; moreover, his Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons is the best performance I’ve seen in any theatre). I must also get to the revival of The Mystery of Charles Dickens, the fourth time I’ll have seen Callow in the one-man form.

One thing more. At the end of the shoot, Vanessa suggested she create a portrait of me as Fagin, which triggered full Swanton gurn mode. Sikes & Nancy will be returning in October, for a one-off performance in the West End. I’ll post more details in the near future. For now, enjoy the shot I should have settled on…

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Filed under Experiences, Sikes & Nancy

The Edinburgh Report

That’s right! I managed to escape the dark and the dank for a two-day trip to Edinburgh! Admittedly, part of that trip involved my first ever visit to The Edinburgh Dungeon (easily the most terrifying of the Dungeons – that bloody cannibal boat ride – but let down by some negligent acting). However, Edinburgh’s greater joy was in seeing lots of different shows! Special thanks must go to Jeff Carpenter for braving Eddie Dungers with me (poor Jeff); Andy Brock for lighting the way to the world’s greatest ice cream parlour (reckless indulgence); and, most particularly, Giulia Galastro for letting me spend the night at her palatial Edinburgh mansion (as well as the coffee and toast that she so kindly prepared in the morning).

I saw six shows in all, which isn’t bad going for thirty-two hours of compulsive hill-walking, haggis-dodging and bagpipes. I won’t attempt to weave them into a cohesive narrative. Instead, I’ll distill my thoughts on each in turn. I don’t have enough opinions to review in the traditional sense (or even a basic comprehension of star systems), so I’ll be waffling about that which interested me.

Adolf: My primary reason for going to Edinburgh. At last year’s Fringe, I saw Pip Utton play The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I was fascinated by the production, asked Pip if I could have a go, and wound up as Quasimodo in March. Which was just wonderful. Adolf was Pip’s breakthrough monodrama, and nobody’s ever really questioned that it’s his best work; even a review of the Cambridge Hunchback wasn’t slow to point this out. I would fight off the accusation that the Hunchback script is unduly repetitious and rambling. If these element exist, it’s because they’re entirely appropriate to Quasimodo’s warped mental state. Utton wisely suggests that an ugly exterior will almost always determine the interior. Ugliness is jagged, irregular, distressing to behold. The relentless quality of Utton’s Hunchback builds into a near-transcendent vision of suffering with Quasimodo’s climactic suicide; the piece’s key deviation from the novel. Having absorbed ninety minute’s worth of Utton’s fascinating words, I wanted to hear more of them. Adolf was an excellent experience, even though the cleverness of its central twist has been spoiled by fifteen years of reviewers. Simply coming face-to-face with the swastika is utterly terrifying. Once Hitler himself arrives, you realise that you’re dealing in such high-intensity images that your heart is in your throat before the drama’s begun. Because the piece is a live performance, it rediscovers the terror in that which is so easily taken for granted, a caricature made ridiculous by Brecht and Chaplin and Donald Duck. Utton’s Hitler is a brilliant creation, quite surprising on a few fronts. No German accent, for one. I’m glad of this; it doesn’t make sense when the character addresses the audience in English throughout. Utton does the sensible thing by finding an accommodating vocal equivalent: a high-pitched, metallic bleat. His repeated rants against ‘the Jew, and the gypsy, and the Slav, and the negro, and the communist, and the homosexual’ were both distressing and thrilling: as with the real Hitler, you must condemn his evil, absolutely – but, in the midst of the tempest, you can’t look anywhere else. Damn it all, the man had style. Most frightening was a moment late in the production when Utton abandoned the script to challenge those self-righteous audience members leaving the auditorium. Although Utton used the ‘this is a theatre!’ line common to Patti Lupone’s celebrated diva fit, this was no blaze of thespian ego. This fury came from the best possible place: that everyone understand that the bigotry within the show IS. NOT. REAL. It’s illustrative; it’s educational. My most disturbing memory of Adolf is that some really did believe it was an undercover EDL rally. Discord always arises from bigotry – but it can also comes from that parading, knee-jerk piety that caused those audience walk-outs. Because they’re polarised examples of the same thing: shallow thinking that quickly turns destructive. For me, that really does underline the point of Utton’s theatre: not so much to preach good or bad, but to challenge his audiences to think. In my experience, the absolute hardest thing.

Love and Understanding: Regrettably, the only new work by Cambridge students that I could squeeze into my timetable. Happily, a good time investment. The play was directed by Max Upton, who I know better as a very, very fine actor in a triad of Corpus Playroom shows centered on child abuse: FrozenBash and Doubt. I admire his achievement here, because I haven’t the faintest idea how you direct a piece like this. Before visiting Edinburgh last year, I had never thought about how the impossible limitations of get-in and get-out timings made minimalism an absolute necessity. (I recall watching the Troupe lot pick apart Babushka‘s arcane heapings of set-dressing and feeling desperately sorry for them.) Love and Understanding, like Bereavement, belongs to the black-box-furniture-shortage subgenre. Each scene becomes a new round of theatrical Tetris, with chairs and table endlessly arranged to suggest bedroom, restaurant and hospital. More than that, though, I don’t know how you act in such a piece. Ingenuous naturalism is still a quality that eludes me, so I can’t help but admire it in others. Personally, I’d feel deeply uncomfortable acting in a piece that deals with marital strife. It’s something I know nothing about. I think I’m happy to play things beyond my experience – but only so long as they’re so far beyond it that nobody can pop up and challenge me. Naturalism doesn’t carry the get-out clause of the blatantly fantastic. It’s probably a hangover from GCSE Drama; the dread of that happy-g0-lucky ‘issue’ theatre, in which the participants gleefully discourse on a cocktail of terrorism, rape, alcoholism and spousal abuse without a shred of first-hand understanding. (I hated it then because I found it incredibly boring, which says a lot for my engagement.) As I said earlier, this isn’t a review, and I’m aware this digression sounds like negative criticism. Far from it; the play was much funnier than I expected, and definitely worth an hour of your time. It may be the text, or it may simply be personal preference, but for me the stand-out performance was that of Ben Kavanagh – positively channelling the manic spirit of Rik Mayall, the drama’s anarchic, naturalism-stretching demon.

The Table: I originally planned to see Dracula late on Monday. However, I instead decided to watch Pierre Novellie in the Chortle Student Comedy final, on the basis that I’d much rather see Pierre doing comedy well than some students doing Dracula badly. In any case, Chortle was sold out by the time I got to the box office. (Lucky for me it’s since appeared online: hurrah for organ trouble!) Andy Brock nudged me in the direction of The Table as an alternative, and I’m very pleased that I went. A few months ago, I took part in a mask workshop with Roddy Maude-Roxby – the voice of Edgar in The Aristocats! – and soon realised what a damnsomely tricky undertaking it is to create an artificial life. As intellectual considerations, many of the issues occur to you: adjusting your sight-line for a new pair of eyes, adjusting your arms to the position of the head, fashioning a consistent body language, coining a style that is at once presentational and believable. To pull them all off, though – simultaneously – is the stuff of magic. All of these issues are addressed in The Table, which I suppose aspires to the realm of meta-puppetry. It’s at once a contained drama and an informative discourse on creating life; if I missed a Dracula, I at least gained a Frankenstein. That said, I didn’t find it as riotously funny as most of the people surrounding me. There’s only so many times that the declaration ‘just a puppet… a puppet on a table’ will make me laugh before sinking to the debilitating nihilism of Family Guy at its worst. Although I think that was the point. As with Frankenstein, there’s a primal sadness in creating a life, only to . In this case, that bloody table. Thankfully, the virtuoso fireworks of the puppetry never allow the show to sag. Another one worth seeing.

Churchill: Pip Utton’s second offering of the Fringe; the UK premiere of Adolf‘s biographical alter ego. In many ways, I enjoyed this even more than Adolf (‘enjoyed’ isn’t the right word for Adolf). There’s a contagious warmth and charisma about its subject matter. The somewhat apologetic blurb on Utton’s website provides several clues to his approach to his ‘meet a dead celebrity’ format (which has also taken in Charles Dickens, Charlie Chaplin, Francis Bacon and Roy Orbison). Yes, in one sense, Churchill does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a best-of compilation from a dream/nightmare dinner party guest. But that underestimates the immersive thrill of a live encounter. I felt much the same about performing the Hunchback. You’ll find much better Quasimodos on film; Laughton’s Hunchback is one of the divinely inspired miracles of cinema performance. And nothing can compare with the imagined grotesque of the novel. But that’s not the same as sitting in the shadow of the character’s hump; as feasting on the smells and bells subsidiary to his person; as seeing the white of his gleaming, three-dimensional eye. Churchill capitalises on its live dimension in a relaxed and breezy fashion. There was a healthy degree of audience interaction, energising rather than embarrassing: an audience member called to help the Prime Minister off his plinth; an inflatable globe presented for the audience to blow up; a gentle wheedling of latecomers as they took their seats. I wasn’t prepared for quite how funny Pip would be, based on my experiences with the Hunchback; it’s a rough-around-the-edges performance style that’s remarkably charismatic. But Churchill is deeply emotional too – I found myself welling up at a few moments, although that piece by Elgar might have had something to do with it. Combined with the close of the Olympics only two days before (featuring Timothy Spall… as Churchill), it’s not surprising the play carried that quivery, last-night-of-the-proms atmosphere, evoking a great country that great men may occasionally steward. In the words of Churchill himself, ‘makes you proud to be British!’ (And I don’t often feel the thrill of inherited pride.) I had the pleasure of meeting Pip after both Adolf and Churchill. A very affable gent. I was really impressed that he remembered my name, unprompted, after nearly a year. Hell, I struggle to remember the names of people I see on a daily basis. It’s nice to be able to shake a performer’s hand after a show. With the one-man form as Pip Utton practices it, you find yourself wanting to shake his hand. Better than a bow.

Miss Havisham’s Expectations: I was looking forward to this a great deal: a single-focused study of one of Dickens’s most enigmatic people. I’ve performed two one-man shows drawn from Dickens, but both were multi-character romps, taking their cue from Dickens’s own Public Readings. The other one-person Dickens shows I’ve encountered – Callow’s The Mystery of Charles Dickens and Margolyes’s Dickens’ Women – were likewise multi-charactered, with Dickens’s narrator replaced by a plummy enthusiast. So I was excited to see a Dickensian monodrama of a different streak. Like a great deal of one-person shows, what held Miss Havisham’s Expectations together was its central performer. In Linda Marlowe, the audience was blessed. A very beautiful woman, with her high cheekbones and cracked-mirror eyes. Better still, a woman who uses this beauty to fashion a chain of fantastically memorable theatrical images. I won’t soon forget her stooping over her stick; nor her strides through a supernatural blast; nor her maniacal dancings and dressings-up, gloriously reminiscent of Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Comparing this show to Pip Utton’s efforts was very interesting. Utton has an earthy presence, with little sense of the controlling actor; he leaps on an inaugural image of enormous power and allows the drama to unspool from there. Marlowe, on the other hand, is unashamedly theatrical; her images come in inspired, bewitching crackles, like the frazzled synapses of her subject. A generalisation, I know, but I wonder if it’s the distinction between masculine and feminine approaches to the one-person form. Recently, I read an article on how children create haunted house experiences for their friends. Boys tend to produce a series of sketches, bound by the simplest means; this put me in mind of Utton’s unchanging characters sanctioning a free-wheeling ride through their lives and thoughts. Girls will usher you into a darkened room and tell you a story. This sums up Marlowe’s mad and merry cauldron as well as anything for me.

Bereavement the Musical: As with the Cambridge production, a soul-quenching delight. In my case, that means mild degrees of heartbreak throughout. Joey Akubeze was especially good in ‘Have You Noticed Yet?’, a number that only seems to have deepened and improved in the revival. James I impersonator Jess Peet is also electrifying in her number, which has a new arrangement. I marginally prefer the old tune – something about the slightly uncomfortable speed and pitch put me in mind of ‘Hellfire’ in the Disney Hunchback, heightening the emotion in stretching the performer’s voice. I once heard it said that Peet’s voice is the sound of pain, which I think is a quite wonderful tribute to its effectiveness. Her ‘Not a Day Goes By’ in Merrily We Roll Along was a notch above pretty much every musical performance I’ve seen on the benighted ADC stage. Even her rendition of ‘Why Does Nobody Like Me?’ in Guido! discovered a surprising pathos to the hokum. My favourite song of the lot is still ‘I Believe’, led from the top by Martha Bennett with a stirring openness and compassion. This write-up isn’t about singling people out, not intentionally at least – Bereavement works precisely because it’s an ensemble piece. There’s no sense of a dominating, starry presence – it doesn’t come across as a ‘Jeff Carpenter production’ or an ‘Andy Brock production’. It’s a collective vision of a universal experience; the right attitude to the right material. And it works, dammit. I read over that Cambridge review of Bereavement again just recently. Appalling tripe, it must be said. It seems that virtually no reviewers can write. A problem that spread throughout nearly all Cambridge theatre reviews, except for those that had ‘James Swanton’ and ‘Five Stars’ in the text… That Bereavement was a lightning-rod for audience outrage was much more than ‘the ADC mafia’ (who? what?) ganging up on one poor, unsuspecting student (or, to be accurate, their poorly considered sheaf of text). It was rather a quite timely, quite justifiable expression of rage at how disrespectful student reviews had become. People put a lot of time into doing drama when there are degrees to be getting on with. No matter what the results, they therefore deserve the proper consideration. That occasionally people will create something of real excellence only makes the injustice more apparent. Such was the case with Bereavement.

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Acting and Obsession

I considered calling this entry ‘Acting and Being an Unreasonably Uptight Bastard’ – so it’s appropriate that I start wound-up. Before proceeding, I want to make one thing very clear. This is not a soapbox. This is not a politicised or politicizing tool. This is not a plea for understanding or admiration or compassion. That’s not my type of blog entry. Instead, this is a well for self-absorbed ponderings, all of them particular to Me. The Individual can be effectively analysed, perhaps even effectively cured; never the Collective. I’m not going to be so arrogant as to claim knowledge of other people’s experiences – or what other people may want. Therefore, I am leaving the Collective alone. It is only with this curmudgeonly, slightly snarky disclaimer that I can proceed.

The stimulus for this entry was a recent attack of OCD, an addling of mind that I’ve been weathering for over a decade. First off, then: what is OCD? An anxiety disorder. There are two basic parts to it. First part: obsession (‘O’). Second part: compulsion (‘C’). These are drawn into a reciprocal circuit by the rituals they encourage. Obsession begets compulsion, just as compulsion begets obsession – and, as the circuit draws tighter, anxiety rises. The surest way to quench OCD is to quit the ritual (a strain of cognitive behavioural therapy). But give it a try, in the midst of the delirium! As with drug addiction, it’s nigh-on impossible to defer short-term relief for the long-term gain. My OCD is thankfully very mild. I know this because I’m not sufficiently strong-willed that I can plough through grievous interior upsets. Guilt, for example, will hound me relentlessly when it comes on. Since I appear to be living my life, I must assume that all is well.

At any rate, it’s the ‘D’ that’s most haunting: disorder. But this ‘D’ is perhaps less disordered as a diagnosis of unhappiness (which is self-evident), than as part of a name which itself begets misery. ‘Fear of the name only increases fear of the thing itself’ – so pontificates Hermione somewhere in Harry Potter. But this is wrong; the quick-fix of a name is rightly to be feared. All too often, a label is a front that obscures a deeper understanding. It reduces everything to an easy bitesize fragment: digestible for the Collective, destructive for the Individual (two more ‘D’s for you there). So it goes with OCD. Most people assume it’s all Howard Hughes hand-washing and germ-dodging. Bitesize OCD. But in reality, its manifestations are diverse. My own emerges as a perfectionism regarding books and related papery things. All must be pristine and uncreased. This can make them a high-tension nightmare to handle. (Looking back, I’ve no idea how I coped with three years of studying English!) Now that the term’s been absorbed into popular discourse, it’s even harder to know how to take OCD. ‘I’m a bit OCD about it,’ has become a vanity complaint, devoid of worth. So whilst I’m sure that David Beckham’s choice to come out with OCD was heartfelt, it hasn’t done much to shift the stereotype of OCD as a caprice of the wealthy and successful.

‘Injustice! Injustice! Injustice!’ you want to scream inside. Me being me, though, I remain too bloody moderate to indulge. Too bloody jaded too. In the course of my struggles with OCD, I’ve found it so hard to communicate that I’ve kept quiet most of the time. Because it’s pain without meaning, it’s pain of the most destructive kind. You have to work pretty damn hard to find a meaning in something that you yourself, the sufferer, can acknowledge as desperately trivial. I’ve considered that OCD reminds me of death and mortality (the decay of all things), my inability to get anything right (or, what’s more, to feel I’ve got anything right), my unhappiness with life in general (of which something so petty could be a symptom). But it’s all a bit academic and all a bit distanced from the sheer fluttery urgency of the anxiety. Pain without meaning is virtually impossible to explain.

It’s been this latest encounter with OCD that’s got me thinking about personal baggage more widely. I carry a fair bit of it. Being gay – an entry in itself, there. Love. Religion. The shape of my spine… Nothing earth-shattering, of course. Most of these are second world problems that have become (or are at least becoming) first world. Legitimate, uncontroversial, and therefore somewhat dull. Problems that have passed from the Collective to the Individual. So, monk-like, I have battled them mostly alone.

But, but, but – how have these things influenced my acting? Acting, when done properly, is the point at which the interior goes public. So it’s not fair to say that I’ve fought my devils alone. Acting, as ever, has dragged them out. Besides, you owe it to yourself to become reconciled to your potential disorders. Otherwise you end up twisted, embittered, and – most deadly for acting – debased in self-knowledge. For each of my devils, then, there is a complementary angel. This miniature staging of Paradise Lost in my head and heart has had a few consequences, reflected in my performance choices.

The first-hand experience of gayness has influenced a lot of my acting. Mostly for the better; for a time in my adolescence, it was a vital release for ‘that side’ of myself. From my acting alone, I’ve always considered it blaringly obvious where my preferences lie. I think of the Kenneth Williams/Alan Bennett amalgam of Syme in 1984; the unbridled flamboyance of Schuppanzigh in Black Comedy; the queenly, near-hysterical revelling in grotesquerie that infused my Richard III and my Coupler in The Relapse. I’d also argue there’s an element of it in the bravura multiple character romps for which I seem to be built. It’s a weird, weird conceit, queer on several counts: the sense of a covering-up (a covering-up that should be revelatory, but achieved through coverings reminiscent of closetings); the flamboyance, maintained through sheer virtuosity if not style; the changes of gender (I somehow played all the women in Scrooge & Marley…); the damned sensitivity demanded, as you unspool the drama’s heart and guts alone. Character acting is queer almost by default. ‘Queer’ with a small ‘q’ rather than a large, but queer nonetheless.

One of the things I find most risible in modern theatre is when actors impersonate characters who happen to be gay with dangling wrists, tightly-folded arms, and pallid, weakened voices. Yes, there are such people. But it’s the difference between calling on an aspect of life as simple mimicry versus absorbing it into the self so that the impulse may lead from within. Charles Laughton might have called it the difference between the caricaturist and the painter. Strikes me there’s something so obvious, so masculine – so bloody heterosexual in that blunt approach, that I’ve been bewildered when I’ve seen actors I know to be gay going through the motions. Such is the crisis of the modern gay male: ‘Sure,’ says Society, ‘we’ll accept you – but only if you remain safe, so we know where exactly to have you’. It’s why the beglittered drag queens of La Cage and Priscilla, raised high on their stages, detached beacons of camp, remain resolutely safe – but not the man in day-to-day life who dares to say ‘I love him’. I am what I am is safe; I am what you are isn’t. But this is another entry entirely. In retrospect, I think gayness went some way to releasing my acting. It pushed me in more brave and bold (if not exactly loud and proud) directions. The extreme of that is unwatchably over-the-top, but that’s a small price to pay for liberation.

Gayness remained the biggest shadow on my acting for quite some time, but love, religion and spines follow in roughly that order. My sexuality has only ever made sense to me when it’s erupted into love. Naturally, I must have a fairly low sex drive, because the mild social inconvenience in being gay usually outweighs any pleasure to be derived from it. Until love come a-calling. Oh, good God. I first fell in love shortly before I was cast as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, in October 2005. It really did change everything. For the first time, I realised I could show emotion onstage, achieve some form of catharsis. A twisted love has influenced every non-clowning part I’ve played since: Merrick in The Elephant Man, Syme in 1984, Cleon in Pericles, the Cardinal in The Duchess of Malfi… Over the last year, it became uncomfortably strong. Scrooge & Marley – my return to the Carol, as ghost rather than miser – completed the circle, but became almost dangerous in performance. A great deal of melancholy in Marley’s damnation, Belle’s abandonment and the misfortunes of the poor Cratchits. Meanwhile, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was rehearsed in a period of devastating heartbreak such as I’d never known. Depression, uncontrollable tears, panic attacks – the works. Most painful for me, the death of hope, something that I place in the highest esteem. A much-respected friend, knowing nothing of how I was feeling, accused me of treating the Hunchback as therapy. This troubled me for a while, but ultimately I don’t feel this was the case. I found performing the Hunchback exhilarating, but it was no emotional tempest. Not for me as performer, in performances or out of them. It was the thing that offered me relief from pain, by converting it into meaning; precisely what OCD doesn’t do, can’t do. Looking back at that experience, eight months ago now, the Hunchback remains the only meaning I have derived from it.

(Acting-as-therapy, conversely, is not therapy at all, but a twisted displacement – it does you bad rather than good. I don’t have much affection for the people who do try it, because they’re essentially grown-ups who are clinging, with knowingly picturesque naiveté, to their childhood dressing-up boxes. A nauseous innocence-cum-worldliness. Cambridge had a few of this ilk; something to do with that mingling of cleverness and artistic pretension. A charismatic facade that quickly wears thin. Peter Pan and the Lost Boys should go no further than Neverland. Even there, they were pretty damn infuriating.)

Religion now. I’ve never known why, but it makes me angry like little else. Most profoundly, because it channels my feelings of abandonment, outsiderness, left-outedness. There was a rather terrible Christian youth group that started to infiltrate my secondary school, fortunately as I was on the way out. They’ve now taken over the building, thus transforming a cosy, accepting, quintessentially English Christianity into an unlistening, unthinking, hellfire-for-all fundamentalism. In every way, the opposite of acceptance. It’s for this reason that I can only process the Bible in a state of scandalised bewilderment, awed at the greatness of Jesus, chilled by all those shut out from God’s keeping. The youth group remain a daft, styleless and morally foetid cult of brainwashers, who’ve recently attempted to heal a football injury on the local green by the power of on-site prayer. And all this I could forgive, were they not convinced they were right. A lack of thought never ceases to rankle. My worst moments are those when I cease to think. But nobody should ever be off the hook in this respect. There are good Christians, and they are the ones who keep on asking questions; who really earn their faith. Who appreciate that prayer won’t solve a sprained ankle… That’s just the problem, though. I get Christianity intellectually. But I’m fairly sure I don’t believe. Not really. Just as you can’t fall in love without that indefinable, extra spark of something, you can’t have Christianity unless you believe.

My attitude to theatre remains remarkably spiritual. My surrogate temple, perhaps. I maintain that it’s one of Dickens’s crowning achievements – to evoke an atmosphere of absolute benevolence; founded on the spirit of Christianity, but rejecting the wayward text. I think it’s the principal reason I’m drawn to acting and adapting his works – it explains the eternal goodness of Mr Pickwick, the redemption of Scrooge, the provoking selflessness of a Nicholas Nickleby or a Nancy. It’s served me as an alternative form of pulpit-preaching, bypassing the nonsensical lapses of judgement that arise from a scrutiny of the text. Time and again, acting has demonstrated to me that there’s no such thing as pure textual interpretation. Interpretation is always, inevitably, imposition. It’s why textual cleverness is so often dispensable to a good performance. There’s the odd actor it’s worked for, such as Simon Russell Beale. But then, you could argue that he was destined for greatness no matter what. (David Mamet argues that most drama schools operate on this basis; not so much creating talent as snapping up those who had it in the first place.) And due to a myriad of extra-textual variables – timing, precedent, self-presentation, audience viewing habits – Beale still falls short of Olivier, whose renderings of Shakespearean lines were often, to quote Alec Guinness, ‘meaningless’. ‘The readiness is all’ says Hamlet. The personality even more so. God I find an unreadable personality. My scepticism that any text can be read accurately means that’s unlikely to change.

And finally: onto spines. My genius friend Chrystal Ding hit on an uncanny few truths about spines when she photographed mine – in bilious ultraviolet – for her ‘Give Me Your Spine’ project in October 2010. They are at once a thing of great strength, great defiance and great insult, with turning your back on someone among the most physically powerful symbol of rejection. That casual closure is profoundly assertive; just look at how Orson Welles filmed Hal’s rejection of Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight. Yet the spine is also a thing of tremendous vulnerability. I’d hope that my efforts on The Hunchback of Notre Dame exemplified both qualities. In the first run, it was observed that I wouldn’t need much padding to produce the hump. Partly inspired by Antony Sher’s Richard III, I had always wanted a light accentuation of my natural shape, an exaggeration of the top-heaviness already there. I’m very aware of my hunchback. Still. It can hurt when it’s pointed out. Quite apart from feeling physically unappealing, there’s a significant health risk mixed up in it. In reality, my back has been misshapen since at least 2005; I vividly remember deploying it for Scrooge. Pantalone, too. Doctor Prospero. And a lot of my Dungeon characters. Oh, and Richard III. Reverend Pringle. Coupler. Drugger. Marley… Okay, it’s inevitable that many of my characters will have pronounced backs. Given that it’s a pronounced part of me. But, once again, acting provides salvation beyond the disorder, exchanging vulnerability for strength. Anyhow. I’m taking steps to make sure my spine doesn’t deteriorate. Beyond that, there’s not much to do but get on with my life. A useful enough commitment.

These uniform strivings against straightness (sexually, spiritually, spinally) return me to OCD. As wearisome and unwelcome as it’s always been, it’s hard to deny its links with perfectionism. Here’s where it all becomes difficult. As with my other brickbats, would I be drawn to acting without this aspect of my personality?

I once concluded that acting satisfies me because it forces you to let go of the insatiable drive for perfection. Acting thus establishes a balance. And balance, to me, properly recognised, is the essence of the best acting. The walker of tightropes; the spinner of plates. Although I can’t claim that it’s always made me a better actor, balance has also been my way around my numerous disordered elements. There’s that great scene in The Simpsons where a doctor explains that Mr Burns’s diseases hang in such tension that none can overwhelm his system. Thus, Burns can float off with a rapturous cry of ‘indestructible!’ – even though the slightest gust of wind might kill him. But it might not… We should all be so lucky with our own disorders!

The balance is all. Neither to reject nor accept anything – but to walk the rope or spin the plate that makes my situation personally right for me. And that’s all I have to say on the matter.

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Filed under Acting Theory, Essays, Personal Excavation