Monthly Archives: September 2012

Sikes & Nancy: An Exercise in Quotation

In the last entry, I mentioned that I was starting to view Sikes & Nancy as a drama in its own right, with a disarmingly clever structure that had previously escaped me. Yet in its Public Readings form, it remains a kind of fragment – an extended quotation from Oliver Twist. Dickens relied heavily on his audience’s prior familiarity with the novel. For example, Dickens expects us to remember that Morris Bolter and Noah Claypole are one and the same; that the unseen Monks is trying to extort Oliver Twist of his inheritance. Incidentally, Oliver Twist isn’t even mentioned in the Reading. I thought this was a bit much, so I’ve added a few references into my adaptation.

I suppose that my performance also relies on quotation. I trust that my spectators are familiar with the basic plot and principal characters, even if it’s from the Lionel Bart musical instead of the novel. I also get a thrill from shattering the Disneyesque template of that particular musical. The impact of quotation runs down to individual words. Certainly, there are snippets of dialogue – most particularly Fagin’s cloying ‘my dear!’ – that get an instantaneous response from an audience. It can be argued (rightly, in my view) that Dickens pioneered the comedy catchphrase. A hearty ‘prunes and prism!’ to those who say otherwise.

Bearing all this in mind, I thought it would be helpful to return to the novel and see what Dickens missed out in his judicious quotation. I discovered a few interesting fragments, which I’ll share with you now. If you missed the first run of Sikes & Nancy, they might well whet your appetite for that rip-roaring prose style.

Here’s the first bit, rounding out Nancy’s encounter with Rose Maylie and Mr Brownlow under London Bridge:

‘What,’ cried the young lady, ‘can be the end of this poor creature’s life!’

‘What!’ repeated the girl. ‘Look before you, lady. Look at that dark water. How many times do you read of such as I who spring into the tide, and leave no living thing, to care for, or bewail them. It may be years hence, or it may be only months, but I shall come to that at last.’

Shuddery stuff. It extends marvellously on Dickens’s evocations of water as a dank and uninviting pit. One of my favourite descriptions in ‘Sikes and Nancy’ is when Brownlow encapsulates the London docks as ‘this dark and dismal hole’. But decay, as in Poe, is all-encompassing. In her later pleadings for mercy, Nancy speaks of the criminal life as ‘this dreadful place’. Water expresses Dickens’s view of criminality as contagion – and Fagin is always lurking at its centre. So why did Dickens delete this section? Very often, Dickens would prune from his Readings anything that was likely to cause his middle-class audiences offence. The provocative spectres of Ignorance and Want in A Christmas Carol were two other casualties. As far as I remember, Dickens also toned down the implication of suicide – another death by drowning – in his Public Reading of The Chimes. But in ‘Sikes and Nancy’, I believe there’s another reason: quotation. No audience approaches the Reading without an awareness that Nancy will come to a horrible end. I’ve certainly made no effort to disguise it in publicising my show. Dickens made no effort to disguise it in his text either. In the Reading, Nancy is granted the near-comic fatalism of ‘I am drawn back to him through everything, and I should be, I believe, if I knew that I was to die by his hand!’ The fleeting comedy is a more than fair trade-off for what’s gained in singularity. Nancy’s life is being drawn, inexorably, to a fixed point. Nothing funny in that.

Next fragment, a sentence this time:

As they disappeared, the girl sunk down nearly at her full length upon one of the stone stairs, and vented the anguish of her heart in bitter tears.

I find this very affecting. I can certainly picture it. Why the cut? Well, perhaps it doesn’t sit well with the notion of a ‘Public’ Reading. Nancy’s breakdown is a remarkably private thing, a glimpse into a human soul. But when you’re trying to get inside a character, glimpses into the soul are entirely welcome. Eliminating this sentence also helps to create singularity. Rather than diffusing Nancy’s cataclysms across the narrative, Dickens saves everything for a more explosive dramatic climax. The fixed point again; the right decision.

A glimpse into Fagin’s soul next – if the old devil possesses such a thing:

Mortification at the overthrow of his notable scheme; hatred of the girl who had dared to palter with strangers; and utter distrust of the sincerity of her refusal to yield him up; bitter disappointment at the loss of his revenge on Sikes; the fear of detection, and ruin, and death; and a fierce and deadly rage kindled by all; these were the passionate considerations which, following close upon each other with rapid and ceaseless whirl, shot through the brain of Fagin, as every evil thought and blackest purpose lay working at his heart.

Here, the narrator hazards an explanation of why Fagin informs Sikes about Nancy’s ‘betrayal’. Interestingly, it’s a rationalisation that the narrator pulls against. Everything dwindles down to ‘evil thought and blackest purpose’, which implies a quite baseless maliciousness. Fagin as Satan once again. But I also think that terror is key. No character in ‘Sikes and Nancy’ – other than Nancy herself – dares an action stirred by anything other than self-preservation. And terror is the most basic fuel of self-preservation – whether we dub it ‘mortification’, ‘hatred’, ‘distrust’, ‘disappointment’, ‘fear’ or ‘rage’, it amounts to much the same thing. At the bottom of all of us is a tiny, shrivelled, unloved and (most probably) unlovable creature, railing, inconsolable, against a pitiless existence. The greatest dramatic surprise of ‘Sikes and Nancy’ is the care with which Dickens explores Sikes’s downfall. It’s no Rake’s Progress or Newgate novel, though: we have very direct access to Sikes’s terrified, sobbing child. This extends to some sizzling description, again deleted from the Reading, during Sikes’s guilt-stricken romp through the country:

For now, a vision came before him, as constant and more terrible as that from which he had escaped. Those widely staring eyes, so lustreless and so glassy, that he had better borne to see them than think upon them, appeared in the midst of the darkness: light in themselves, but giving light to nothing. There were but two, but they were everywhere. If he shut out the sight, there came the room with every well-known object – some, indeed, that he would have forgotten, if he had gone over its contents from memory – each in its accustomed place. The body was in its place, and its eyes were as he saw them when he stole away. He got up and rushed into the field without. The figure was behind him. He re-entered the shed, and shrunk down once more. The eyes were there, before he had laid himself along.

Let no man talk of murderers escaping justice, and hint that Providence must sleep. There were twenty score of violent deaths in one long minute of that agony of fear.

This passage fills me with memories of my very worst nightmares – dark figures in hallways, shadows in rocking chairs, screaming corpses reflected in mirrors.  Any Daily Mail-pushers still haggling for the death penalty should spend a night with this book. I imagine that both Sikes and Fagin’s mental workings were deleted from the Readings text in deference to its dramatic form. Drama is action, seldom reflection. But the act of reflection – that plunge into dark waters – is an absolute necessity if you’re hoping to do justice to that action. Make no mistake: I’ll be returning to Sikes & Nancy, fresh-stoked with reasons to perform it.

A coda. I’ve been looking at a number of Dickens’s non-Christmas Carol ghost stories recently. They’re yielding up some colourful material; I’m discovering The Haunted Man, Dickens’s final Christmas Book, to be weird beyond my best expectations. Now and again, the best of these texts have shed new light on ‘Sikes and Nancy’.

Here’s some of ‘A Madman’s Manuscript’. It’s the first Dickens piece I have any memory of reading, as part of Wordsworth’s Gothic Short Stories collection (still in print, still available from Amazon). It was long before I got to The Pickwick Papers (serialised 1836-37), where it crops up as an inset narrative. ‘Manuscript’ is a demented dramatic monologue, in the best tradition of Edgar Allan Poe:

Straight and swift I ran, and no one dared to stop me. I heard the noise of feet behind, and redoubled my speed. It grew fainter and fainter in the distance, and at length died away altogether: but on I bounded, through marsh and rivulet, over fence and wall, with a wild shout that was taken up by the strange beings that flocked around me on every side, and swelled the sound, till it pierced the air. I was borne upon the arms of demons who swept along upon the wind, and bore down bank and hedge upon them, and spun me round and round with a rustle and a speed that made my head swim, until at last they threw me from them with a violent shock, and I fell heavily to the earth.

To me, this reads like an alternate universe version of Sikes’s flight through the countryside just outside London. The main difference is that Sikes is chased by his demons (he cannot turn around without the spectre of Nancy turning with him), whilst the Madman romps with his demons in jubilant conspiracy.

Here’s some of ‘A Confession Found in a Prison in the Time of Charles the Second’ from Dickens’s editorial Master Humphrey’s Clock (which ran 1840-41). It’s a macabre, claustrophobic story of a man who becomes obsessed with his stepson. The man bumps him off because of his neurosis that the boy despises him (which puts me in mind of the ‘vulture eye’ of the old man in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’). Dickens shows the sensitivity to the twin complexities of blood and light that lifts much of ‘Sikes and Nancy’:

His mother’s ghost was looking from his eyes. The sun burst forth from behind a cloud; it shone in the bright sky, the glistening earth, the clear water, the sparkling drops of rain upon the leaves. There were eyes in everything. The whole great universe of light was there to see the murder done. I know not what he said; he came of bold and manly blood, and, child as he was, he did not crouch or fawn upon me. I heard him cry that he would try to love me, – not that he did, – and then I saw him running back towards the house. The next I saw was my own sword naked in my hand, and he lying at my feet stark dead, – dabbled here and there with blood, but otherwise no different from what I had seen him in his sleep – in the same attitude too, with his cheek resting upon his little hand.

The story improves yet further in the next section. I keep talking dimly about the ‘eye of God’ hanging over ‘Sikes and Nancy’ – and crikey. With a passage like this, I’m starting to think I’m on to something. Until next time, then…

I buried him that night. When I parted the boughs and looked into the dark thicket, there was a glow-worm shining like the visible spirit of God upon the murdered child. I glanced down into his grave when I had placed him there, and still it gleamed upon his breast; an eye of fire looking up to Heaven in supplication to the stars that watched me at my work.

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Sikes & Nancy: Re-Rehearsals Underway

First off: a production note. Enormous thanks are due to Mr Edward Quekett, who was kind enough to refresh the Sikes & Nancy publicity materials – and patient enough to answer my persistent calls for tweaks. Unlike the vast majority of people who’ve been implicated in Cambridge theatre, Ned always knows exactly what he’s doing: an absolutely top man and a pleasure to work with. Ned previously worked miracles on the publicity for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, transforming my face into an entirely fitting sliver of monochrome gargoyle (and this a good two months before the makeup was decided). Here’s the London design for Sikes & Nancy, garnished with the original Cruikshank illustrations (click to enlarge):

Let it serve as a reminder to book your tickets forthwith! The first two performances are at York’s Golden Fleece Inn on 3 and 5 October (8pm); the third is at London’s Tristan Bates Theatre on 8 October (4pm). Scurry away to their respective websites and nab yourself a place…

Now: the acting business. Rehearsals have been a little more challenging than expected. As I hinted last time, the desire to change things for change’s sake is strong for me. The triangular formation of rehearsals, performances and now re-rehearsals sets up an unsettling chain of call-and-response. ‘Why am I changing that?’ you ponder, upon scrawling some new direction on the script. ‘Because I did it this way last time,’ replies the old noggin. ‘Well, why did I do it that way in the first place?’ you ask; a question to which there can be no right answer. If you find a reason, you’re forced to reassess, measuring past assumptions against an ever-shifting vision of the play. If you don’t find a reason, you’re in a troublesome bind. You can attempt to reverse engineer, moving backwards from the action to the initial impulse. I only ever get a vague ‘ah, well, you know, that sort of ish-ness, thingy-ma-bob, a-hm ha?’ type response. Death. More tempting is to quietly berate yourself as slapdash, fraudulent and thoughtless, a being too flighty to hold an opinion for more than ten minutes. In seriousness, though, I’m finding I’m much more secure when I don’t discover some shrewd gobbet of pragmatism informing a character’s every word. Surely it’s better to let them breathe a bit?

Morris Bolter is a case in point. In the first run, I pretty much let rip with him. I had a grand old time: winding my highly flexible teeth and gums around a slab of imaginary bread; allowing my flesh to flop lazily from my skull; stuttering, whooping and otherwise hollering with (S)wanton abandon. Further consideration now threatens to put the stopper on these happy excesses. Which I’m not sure is right. I’ve an instinct that, as with Shakespeare’s clowns, the best way to execute Dickens’s grotesques is to keep them resolutely unaware of their oddities. Yet that isn’t the same thing as playing the text deadly straight – or cavalierly pruning out the oddities. It’s more complex than that. The tactic requires a kind of accommodation. Silly voices, silly faces and silly walks are entirely necessary – imperative, even – but the actor must reach a point at which the silliness feels absolutely natural to them. (Like ‘ham’, ‘silly’ is a term that receives too much flack; rehabilitation is needed for both.) Mannerism must be thought of as a seed-bed from which the textual element sprouts. A seed-bed necessarily skewed and crooked, but one taken for granted as the performance’s natural origin. You’re not watching yourself to confirm your hilarity. You’re there, you’re in the moment, and you’re moved by forces beyond your conscious control. (I must add that I don’t think I’ve ever managed this with 100% success – but on good days, I would hope I’ve got close.) Yes, the occasional genius will hit upon a startling new way to infuse a clown with life. But if they’re successful enough, this characterisation will itself join the mythos of mannerism. Witness the usually appalling results when the Fool in King Lear is made a punk figure – an approach that can’t very well predate the eighties. Mannerism, improperly worn, is ugly indeed. But when it really and truly works, I think it’s among the bravest and most successful forms of theatrical expression.

Now, Shakespeare and Dickens are starkly opposed in the way they create their characters. So the presence of this continuity suggests a m0re general overlap – a more general truth about acting, in fact – and something that’s come to increasingly interest me: the art of the extra-textual.

I vividly remember a question-and-answer session with Simon Russell Beale at Cambridge. First, a very good actor (morally and otherwise) asked Beale whether he ever struggled with the temptation of ‘playing up to his audience’. Beale appeared to frown on the question; after all, this is the actor who claims to have built his career on plodding micro-analyses of play-texts. But that’s not to say that Beale doesn’t get up to such things under a different name. Nobody can deny that Beale is possessed of a enormous, generous, near-inscrutable stage charisma. Witness his show-stopping rendition of ‘Everybody Ought to Have a Maid’ at the BBC Proms. The best description of charisma I’ve ever heard is ‘the ability to influence without logic’. It’s a quality that defies intelligence. Furthermore, when a very bad actor (morally, which renders the ‘otherwise’ uninteresting) suggested that Beale must pooh-pooh rehearsal games as a result of his vast swathes of intelligence, Beale seemed a good deal more concerned. Nothing in the rehearsal room can be dismissed. Everything is potentially of use – and almost anything can, quite unpredictably, provide a path into a character. Whatever else Beale gets up to – consciously or unconsciously – you can be certain it’s more than microanalysis; after all, an English professor couldn’t manage the same. It’s not a question of vainglorious showboating. Such people are always found out. It’s more about approaching each task as a precious anomaly, and calling on every skill in your repertoire to coax it into life. And ultimately, it’s always a question of context. In the dressing room, prior to the talk, Beale himself described London Assurance rehearsals as an opportunity to strike dramatic poses. All texts require adornment. Some (much) more than others.

The other thing that’s resolving Morris Bolter is, funnily enough, inherent in the text. I’ve been discovering a series of patterns that I hadn’t previously grasped, which is certainly keeping the interest up. I previously perceived the Public Reading of ‘Sikes and Nancy’ as a very juicy fragment, rather than a drama complete in its own right. Yet a closer study reveals that Dickens crafted the piece with an understated brilliance. Or else got very, very lucky.

Since I always assume everyone’s as familiar with the Reading as me, here’s a brief outline of its structure:

Commission: Fagin, Morris Bolter
Flight #1: Fagin, Morris Bolter, Nancy
Interview #1: Nancy, Mr Brownlow, Rose Maylie (Morris Bolter watching)
Interview #2: Fagin, Bill Sikes (Morris Bolter dragged in)
Cataclysm: Bill Sikes, Nancy
Flight #2: Bill Sikes (Nancy as a ghost)
Absolution: Bill Sikes (Nancy as a ghost, Fagin interpolated in my adaptation)

There are many things worth noting here. With Bolter, it’s fascinating to see how his peripheral roles in each ‘interview’ subvert and therefore support each other. In the first, Bolter is voyeur to Nancy’s interrogation by Mr Brownlow. Although Bolter does not personally intervene in the scene, he enfolds it by his appearances at its start and end. This gives an impression of power over the destinies of fellow humans. Illusions of power are central to the construction of the Reading. Fagin’s countless evocations as devil transform him into the source of evil power amongst his associates; meanwhile, Bill Sikes’s swaggering boasts of physical power define him as fairytale ogre. Then there’s the metaphysical imagery that Dickens uses so effectively: the eyes, the ghosts, the darkness and, above all, the light. (Not forgetting the blood, which mediates between the human and the metaphysical.) Such images suggest the presence of higher powers.

In the second interview, Bolter is unmasked as a fool figure, bereft of any real power. To Fagin, Bolter is only a tool in his wider machinations; to Sikes, Bolter is a physical weakling, easily crushed (‘I’d grind his skull under the heel of my boot into as many grains as there are hairs upon his head’). Bolter departs the drama abruptly – humiliated and diminished. It’s not Richard II, but it’s still a removal of power that’s surprisingly poignant.

And it’s poignant because it’s important. The rest of the Reading is an unravelling of power, devastating to behold; Sikes meets an end that makes Bolter’s humiliation seem a charming reverie. ‘Sikes’ has a complementary two-part structure. Bolter dominates the first half, in however elided a form. Even when the audience isn’t consciously reminded of his presence (as in the lengthy scene between Nancy and Brownlow), they view this world through Bolter’s eyes. Sikes takes over in the second half, appropriating Bolter’s structure whilst subjecting it to a much greater darkness. If Bolter wields an influence over the audience’s outlook, then Sikes warps and fractures that outlook in the killing of Nancy. The Reading descends into nightmare territory, and we come to see the world more and more from Sikes’s unhinged perspective. Think of Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth doth murder sleep’ and you’re about there. When the ghost of Nancy causes Sikes to plunge to his death – with the supreme melodramatic bellow of ‘the eyes again!’ – the slide into the supernatural is complete.

My inclusion of Fagin’s ‘strike them all dead!’ rant, just before this climax, seems to me an extension on Dickens’s original intentions. In the novel, the scene occurs when Oliver Twist goes to Fagin in Newgate Prison, finding him demented with fear before his execution. Fagin has entered a world of complete fantasy, in which he’s still trying to escape responsibility for his wickedness. By placing this guilt at the drama’s end, Fagin may not receive his comeuppance, but he does provide Sikes with a justifying symmetry.

As I predicted early on, much of the struggle of Sikes & Nancy has been to keep my emotional engagement alive. No play is an essay. But personally, I find this sort of analysis to be indispensable. It’s like a relationship. The first spark of passion may fade, but there remain abundant, sometimes more persuasive reasons for sustaining an acquaintance. With the intellectual map laid out, the emotions usually follow; the ‘why?’ makes the ‘how?’ simple to action. I’m reaching Dickens saturation point at the moment. Not an unhappy experience, by any means. I’ll explain a little further in the next entry.

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Sikes & Nancy: First Re-Readthrough

With two weeks until the first Sikes & Nancy performance, I yesterday took a thorough look at the script. Whilst reading, I cobbled together my thoughts on the material. Personally, I find it absolutely vital to remind myself what the play’s all about; moreover, to see whether I’ve anything fresh to bring to the table. If you’ve ever needed proof that I do more than read the lines and gibber a bit – I like to have such proof to hand – then have a read of the below. At the very least, you’ll make this lonely rehearsal process a little less so!

Archetypes. Fagin instantly identified as ‘the receiver of stolen goods’, Morris Bolter ‘his new associate’. The vocations of characters are morally black; ambiguities work beneath these banners.

Dickens’s very long sentences. The establishing line is forty-two words – an entire paragraph, essentially. This requires a leisurely reading. An attempt to ‘breathe’ the text and explore its nuances without grabbing for them. Later on, Brownlow speaks in paragraphs exclusively.

Fagin and Bolter in conversation. Will require sensitive restaging to make it work end-on. Some fluid pivotings on a fixed point, as with Gollum and Smeagol – or a less frantic ‘Confrontation’ in the musical Jekyll and Hyde. The same goes for the very long scene (roughly three pages) in which Nancy, Brownlow and (occasionally) Rose Maylie converse.

Anti-semitism? This reading’s doing nothing to shake my idea of Fagin as the piece’s most malevolent character. A joyful revelling in villainy, as with Barabas in The Jew of Malta. The very devil (from Nancy: ‘devil that he is, and worse than devil as my teacher in all devilry’). I’m striving to find a more complex Fagin, but I’m not sure it exists. I want to avoid the ‘he’s Jewish, and therefore more sinned against than sinning’ approach. It’s by now more radical to have a wicked character who also, funnily enough, happens to be Jewish. The two aren’t necessarily connected. I suspect Dickens wrote Oliver Twist in such a mania that the implications didn’t cross his mind. It’s stylistic villainy, not cloying social commentary.

Bolter. Was never very happy with my Morris Bolter characterisation. Seems mentally deficient; the prototype for Jack Wild’s Artful Dodger less glamorous when revealed as a petty and bullying adolescent. Must refine rather than complicate. Simplification best. And present the character’s pathetic deficiencies in a way that’s less self-aware.

A cinematic shift of locations. The transition from Fagin’s den to the public-house, accomplished in a sentence. The freedom of pure storytelling. Fluid yet evocative arrangements of chairs to suggest these landscapes – especially in the Golden Fleece, where space will be limited.

A voyeuristic thrill to the public-house scene. Same sensation as when watching a film with someone sneaking where they shouldn’t. Hitchcock’s Marnie great for this. Would like to convey some of this – must never forget that Bolter is watching all of Nancy and Brownlow’s transaction. And the audience is always watching a chain of shadowy underworld events. Making the actor/audience positions interchangeable is a gift of the one-man form.

Sublime passage. Dickens counterpoints two cityscapes for Nancy’s flight: the first minutely observed, offering geographical and physical detail; the second transcendent, charting the city as echo-chamber of life and death, light and dark both (two very important relations). Magnificent writing here. The chill of standing alone at midnight… I think of Dickens’s essay ‘Night Walks’. And the boat ride in The Night of the Hunter.

Water. Emerges with the River Thames. A key image. I devised a soundscape for the piece inspired by the Thames, as a place in which even the most heinous crimes are hidden forever. Figures in certain versions of The String of Pearls, the inaugural Sweeney Todd myth. Dickens aware of this too; the start of Our Mutual Friend. In devising how this show should sound, I’ve been inspired by the song ‘Dog Eats Dog’ from Les Miserables. Especially in the 1985 recording, with the neve-shredding iron clatter of electric synth and Alun Amstrong caterwauling as only he can. To perform ‘Sikes and Nancy’ in an open sewer would probably be its best release.

Nancy as ‘the girl’ versus Rose Maylie as ‘the young lady’. Calculating Mr Dickens. An astoundingly compassionate account of Nancy – needs to be played absolutely straight, as open and as vulnerable as can be managed. No reference to her as streetwalker, aside from the most glancing (‘I am chained to my old life’). Yet she remains ‘the girl’, cast out and utterly helpless. As Smike says, ‘no hope’; Nancy herself says ‘I am past all hope’. I’d quite like to see the 1941 Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde again; Ingrid Bergman’s performance provoked similar feelings in me. Nancy bears her bleeding heart for all to see. It’s compelling.

Reassessing Brownlow. Too easy to think of Mr Brownlow as a Samuel Pickwick or a Cheeryble Brother. Perhaps he is – in Oliver Twist. But not ‘Sikes and Nancy’. The text yields up an untrusting and judgmental tyrant. Verges on the mad priest type at times (preaching ‘flames and vengeance’): Angelo in Measure for Measure, Frollo in the Hunchback, Mrs White in Carrie. Patronising (‘you see I am willing to humour you’); probing (so many questions); failing to love (his mission in the original is not to save Oliver, but punish Monks). Shouldn’t go to far – a man in a desperate and unusual situation, and a man who does offer Nancy redemption – but shouldn’t cut him any slack either.

SIKES. The dread aura of Bill Sikes has remarkable textual support. First mention of the name italicised and accentuated by dashes. Spoken by Nancy… Tender and terrifying.

Doomed love. Nancy’s devotion to Bill Sikes – through everything, everything – is so immediate, so easy to relate to, for anyone who’s ever been trapped in a narcissistic romance. Narcissistic in the psychological sense: the ‘I need you’ coupled with the ‘but only at a distance’. It’s almost psychosis in Nancy’s case. Is her relationship with this monster based on any discernible action? And how can she stand by him as she predicts her own death? It’s something out of Greek Tragedy. It’s Zabina braining herself against the cage in Tamburlaine. It’s a martyr’s death – must take in Dreyer’s film of The Passion of Joan of Arc – but Nancy is martyr only to a twisted love. For my money, the greatest crime of Oliver! is turning this desperation into the dreamy ballad ‘As Long As He Needs Me’. It’s a diminishment of something much more frightening – the very darkest places to which love can carry us. As Nancy says to Rose Maylie, ‘when ladies as young and good, as happy and beautiful as you, miss, give away your hearts, love will carry even you all lengths’. Chilling.

The white handkerchief. One of the few props that warrants inclusion on stage. I’ll have to buy one of these; the Cambridge run used an artfully trimmed pillowcase (my eternal thanks to Ailis Creavin). Must also remember to find a new coat for these performances (last one was hired).

Filmic passage. Another transcendent cityscape, as Bolter bolts home. Cinematic again – dwindles down, suddenly and without warning, to ‘Fagin sat in his old lair’.

Cue the entrance of Bill Sikes. How to describe this unholy presence? He’s a fairytale ogre, in many ways – proclamations such as ‘I’d grind his skull under the hell of my boot’ smack of Jack and the Beanstalk (‘I’ll grind his bones to make my bread’). Our modern fairytale ogres are the bogeymen of the slasher film (Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddie) and, much worse, real-life monsters such as Josef Fritzl. There is humour to Sikes (‘Hallo! He’s gone mad…’), but none of it redeems him. He would be one-dimensional – were it not for my belief that fear is one of the most uniting cultural experiences. (If in doubt, read David Skal’s The Monster Show. Excellent book.) My Thomas Hadfield (Dick Turpin’s hangman) at The York Dungeon embodies a lot of Sikes-like aspects: brutish masculinity, a careless attitude to human life, an addiction to terrifying for the sheer hell of it. After the murder of Nancy, Sikes is more Macbeth after slaying Duncan. The links between Macbeth and ‘Sikes and Nancy’ is something I’ll explore further on…

Fagin worst of all. Yet isn’t it interesting how Fagin rises to the gauntlet that Sikes flings down? He’s just as evil, but in a different way: the wheedling provoker rather than the combine of wicked energy. In this scene, Fagin becomes rather like other Dickens villains: Uriah Heep in David Copperfield (the physical sliminess), Skimpole in Bleak House (the inner sliminess; one of the most overlooked fiends in literature). The relentlessness with which Fagin pushes Nancy’s guilt – a linguistic temple of ‘which she did’ repetitions – is supremely frightening. As is his parting sentiment: ‘You won’t be – tooviolent, Bill?’ The character sweats perverted evil, much like Boris Karloff in The Body Snatcher (whose ‘never get rid of me’ repetitions are spritual ancestor to ‘which she did’).

Bolter at his most clown-like. A clowning that comes from a real place – terror at Sikes and Fagin both – but clowning nonetheless. The laughs will only come if Bolter is genuinely pathetic. Bolter’s comical perception of his empowerment skewed, deflated, frayed and fractured. Must never forget the danger, though, the fact that Bolter seals Nancy’s damnation – if there’s laughter, it’s horrid, horrid laughter.

One of my favourite lines. ‘The day was breaking, and there was light enough for the men to see each other’s faces. There was the same fire in the eyes of both.’ A moment of calm after the frantic bombast of the argument before. The coming of the light a vital motif in ‘Sikes and Nancy’… Here, you can’t help but link it with Dickens’s god-like narrator – that overwhelming force that sees across cities, through walls and into the soul of man.

Excruciating build-up to the murder… ‘The girl was lying, half-dressed, upon the bed.’ This is where murder is most shocking – not in the power of the perpetrator, but the fragility of the victim. In the murder itself, Nancy is tossed and ripped asunder like a rag-doll. Her submission to destruction is this relationship perfected. She knew she was doomed in conversation with Brownlow, and she knows she’s doomed here as well. ‘Bill, why do you look like that at me?’ is an empty question. Her ‘it is never too late to repent’ is also hollow – a paraphrase of It’s Never Too Late to Mend, a then-popular melodrama. (The 1937 film version steals more than a few elements from Oliver Twist.) There’s submission, submission, submission. And an almost-willingness that violence be done.

Horrific. Few cries in drama ring out more appallingly than that of Nancy: ‘Bill, Bill! For dear God’s sake, for your own, for mine, stop before you spill my blood!!! I have been true to you, upon my guilty soul I have!!!’ (Dickens’s italics/exclamation points). It requires a near-operatic style of acting. There is nothing subtle about falling to your knees and pleading for life. It would be a hoary cliché had Dickens not perfected it.

Two more vital images. The blood pouring out and the light bursting in. A hearty splash of stage blood is needed here; against the white of Rose Maylie’s handkerchief, it looks quite striking. Evocative, too: the story’s essential filth and contamination – of innocence; of salvation; of goodness, love and purity. The light entering into the room is practically the eye of God… This section of the show is a theatrical endurance test if ever there was one. It demands a heap of energy and prodigious reserves of breath (two things of which I’ve no shortage). The scene’s sheer bloody relentlessness also requires a degree of vocal colour and variation. It can’t just be shouted (always the temptation). But provided the emotion’s there, I think the scene resolves itself. Never, never, NEVER forget: I AM PLEADING FOR MY LIFE. I AM DESTROYING A HUMAN BEING. I AM BEING MOVED BY A FORCE BEYOND MY COMPREHENSION; BEYOND MY CONTROL.

The uncanny. Sikes’s post-murder romp through the fields outside London is the most sinister bit of text I’ve ever performed. It moves like a nightmare. It’s the inexplicability that does it – most particularly the apparition of the gravestone. It reminds me of the dark phantom of the Groke that haunts the Moomins. Yet it also has a contained logic – the scene makes absolute sense as the mental workings of a man out of his mind. The passage is evocative of other Dickens works – ‘A Madman’s Manuscript’ from The Pickwick Papers is essentially Dickens’s version of Edgar Allan Poe, so I’ll return to it for help in this scene. It’s also ideal that this passage follows directly on from the murder. I don’t subscribe to ‘The Method’ in any serious way (you can tell by the really sketchy way I just referred to it), but feeling positively knackered forces me, by necessity, to rein in the melodramatics. The scene’s more effective for it.

Sikes doth murder sleep. Earlier, I said that I see ‘Sikes and Nancy’ as Dickens’s version of Macbeth. Why? Light. Dark. Revenge. Guilt. Ghosts. Madness. Violence. Murder. And blood. So. Much. Blood. Dickens was greatly impressed by a performance of Macbeth he saw as a child; the moment he realised that Duncan turned up in a variety of other guises post-murder was revelatory in his understanding of theatre. This also strikes me as an antecedent of the polymonologue form that Dickens adapted for the Public Readings. And, lest we forget, Macready described Dickens’s performance of ‘Sikes and Nancy’ as ‘two Macbeths!’ Excellent! I must return to the Orson Welles film of Macbeth (it’s uneven, but captures Shakespeare’s Hollywood Gothic spookiness better than anything), as well as return to the blinkin’ text (something I haven’t done since pre-GCSEs).

Mob justice. The end of the Reading, in which an angry mob surrounds Sikes’s hiding-place, puts me in mind of the 1931 Frankenstein, with Karloff’s poor monster trapped in the burning mill. Dickens seemed to have James Whale’s sense that people, working as one, could never come to any good. Sikes’s demise is no catharsis. Nobody gets out of this story cleanly.

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Two Goodly Announcements

A newsy-type update this time round. Can’t tell you how nice it is to be writing about current affairs for a change! (I’ll be making up for that in future entries, I’m sure.)

My first important message: Sikes & Nancy is at last coming back! To be fair, it’s only been two months since the Cambridge run – but virtually everything related to that blasted institution seems a lifetime away. Three dates for your diaries, then:


A few things worth commenting on here. The London performance is, fairly transparently, a showcase intended for industry figures. Unfortunately, this is a necessary evil if I’m ever to fulfil my dream of playing a barrow-boy on EastEnders in twenty years. However, I’ve always been determined that these slimy concessions receive support from an ethical framework. Sikes & Nancy is much more than a negligent monologue/duologue mash-up. Where I’m concerned, it’s a labour of love. And pervasive love, not self-love; it’s a theatrical construct I’m eager to share rather than parade myself in. The vital distinction with the one-man form.

Sikes & Nancy unites many a thing that makes me gibber and foam with excitement. I love Dickens with a passion quite indiscriminate, but I’m a particular acolyte of his early works. Sikes is drawn from Oliver Twist: Dickens’s second novel, sandwiched between The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby (which together formed the basis for Pickwick & Nickleby, my first one-man show). Yet Sikes was also the Public Reading that formed the terrifying final act in Dickens’s performance career. Youthful anarchy fused with the obsessive mania of age. An appealing theatrical cocktail. I’ve always had a special affection for Oliver Twist (originally through David Lean’s remarkable 1948 film) and it’s a thrill to bring it to the stage in some form. A large part of my affection for Lean’s picture was due to Alec Guinness’s infernal performance as Fagin. As ever with Dickens, it’s the characters, the very best characters in English prose, that draw me in. Their hold is so great that they demand impersonation; a direct incarnation! I relish entering into these people, so far removed from my everyday self: whether the brutishly masculine Sikes, or the pathetically defeated Nancy, or the disgustingly wicked Fagin, an overgrown sewer rat in his filth and cowardice.

Yet a sharply etched grotesque is nothing without an emotional pulse. Sikes & Nancy has that going for it as well. I find it emotionally stirring, in the same way that A Christmas Carol, properly told, will bring me to tears of joy. But where the Carol is moving – by its light, its hope, its redemption – Sikes grips by its pitiless streak. By its darkness, its hopelessness – its damnation, of each and every character. I enjoy performing something unrepentantly dark, provided there’s an emotional justification. And Sikes, unlike the vast majority of Victorian melodrama and Gothic horror, really does earn its emotional engagement. Now, I love melodrama and horror even when poorly handled – witness my adoration for carnival ghost trains, Tod Slaughter’s barnstorming and the lesser Hammer films. But not once does Dickens extort or manipulate. He extends a hand – with belief, with compassion – and, provided you’re willing to go with him, he’ll transport you to extraordinary places. If that’s not the point of worthy theatre, then I don’t know what is.

Passion’s the heart of my argument. I can only persuade you to attend Sikes & Nancy by my very great affection for the play. It doesn’t work because of my performance. It works because it’s bloody good theatre. With good theatrical bloodiness. Another thing I adore. Eager parties can book for the London performance on the Tristan Bates website (tickets for the York performances will be available on the door). I’m sure I’ll wind up posting something on the process of revisiting a one-man show (an experience that’s entirely new to me). If you’re after more lively updates and reminders than the ponderous world of blodgering allows, then I suggest you join the obligatory Facebook Group.

My second bit of news: I’ve received some awards for my work with The York Dungeon! At the end-of-season party – the delectably titled ‘Rotten Corpse’ – I collected the 2012 gongs for ‘Best Actor’, ‘Scariest Actor’ and ‘Ego of the Year’ (the last for the highest number of public votes). In result, two exquisitely crafted voodoo dolls and a resplendent gold skull have entered my inventory. I’ve also extended my Dungeon contract to Bonfire Night. (So if you fancy coming to see me, you’ve got an extra two months for it!) The very great excitement here is that I’ll finally get to spend another Halloween at the Dungeon! My last Halloween was also my first season, way, way back in 2008 – nearly four years ago now. This year, we’ve been promised a seasonal revamp of the Witches show to incorporate a Mother Shipton theme. Just how we’ll defame the benevolent old hag to fit the Dungeon brand remains to be seen… Beyond that, though, the Dungeon’s atmosphere becomes highly charged at Halloween. It’s the actor’s dream: the public flock in, so you can entertain the belief that the world revolves around you… And pumpkins! The Dungeon will be crammed with pumpkins. That means enough pumpkin soup to last till Christmas… And Christmas! Everyone likes Christmas! And Halloween! By God, we’re onto a winner here.

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Filed under Announcements, Sikes & Nancy, The York Dungeon