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.

1 Comment

Filed under Acting Theory, Essays, Personal Excavation

One response to “Acting and Obsession

  1. Jack

    This is a wonderful blog post, James – thanks very much for it!

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