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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