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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Filed under Acting Theory, Experiences, Sikes & Nancy

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