Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Other Half

As the year draws to a close, it occurs to me that I’ve been tinkering on this blog for six months. That’s half a year documented – in some sense at least. My writings have seldom recorded real-life events. Instead, they’ve recorded the thoughts and feelings to which those events gave rise. Which I would hope is rather more accurate. The first half of my year has been untainted by my writing. Now, though, I feel it is worth documenting those first six months – before they fade from my memory for good. I’d like to see what little wisdom I can derive from them.

My January was distressingly bipolar. The first half was at least tolerable: forcing down medieval literature and piecing together multiple dissertations. Few images come back to me from that text-intensive time. It was all drudge and toil – a drudge and a toil that I’m now reliving as I revise my script for Dracula, guttering within the precincts of that endlessly depressing character. But the second half of my January – almost to the day – became, without doubt, the worst period of my life. I have no interest whatever in explaining why this was the case. Those who need to find out have already found out; those who didn’t can rest assured that it’s not at all deep or impressive. Unsurprisingly, it’s this horrific time that positively explodes with images. Stumbling through the streets in the early hours, for hours and hours on end, and tormenting myself with soul-lacerating music. Having sudden attacks of panic – ghastly new experience – in all-too public places. Feeling, in direct consequence, ugly even to look upon, let alone be with. Coming back to my room from the library one night and collapsing in the darkness, clinging to the floor and crying very hard, quite determined never to leave the spot. These are the darkest moments; those when I feel terrifyingly alone.

Then there are more constructive moments. Those spent in the company of others. There is the photo-shoot for the poster of The Hunchback of Notre Dame; then there is the first read-through, contorting my face in a pool of lamplight in the confines of Trinity College. Now, at no point did I feel that I was Quasimodo. It’s a tempting assumption, but too simplistic. I did feel worthless and hideous and cheated of my hope and bereft of any kind of personal happiness. But in spite of these emotions – or perhaps because of them – I felt a traitor to the agony of the character. Time and again, I found myself haunted by Quasimodo’s dream, in which Esmeralda finally turns round and loves him:

You touch me and stroke my face, you kiss my eyes and mouth and you caress my body with your hands, wanting me, needing me. And I kiss you, all of you. I kiss your lips and I kiss your naked breasts. And you give yourself to me and I take you. And as I take you I wake trembling, sweating, my sheets wet and soiled, and I feel filthy and ashamed, for I know that even in my dreams: it is wrong.

It’s the last three words that devastate: It. Is. Wrong. Unequivocal. No indulgent whine at being different, but confirmation of exile from the human race. I was convinced that to merely sympathise with Quasimodo’s plight, to pretend that I somehow understood it, would be vain, presumptuous, wholly unacceptable. Experience was teaching me that even a short span of pain is bitterly isolating; one who suffered as Quasimodo did – and there are precedents – is made unearthly. By virtue of their pain (dubious virtue). Ugliness breeds ugliness; very sad, very hopeless. But there you go.

I wrote the following after messing up my time commitments – so hard was I finding it to function – and, in the process, letting other people down very badly. It unleashed another bout of panic. I knew this would never do, and that it was in my best interests to improve myself:

I intend to beat this and emerge stronger the other side. It’s going to be fucking difficult. It is. So easy would it be to withdraw from my tasks, my commitments, my responsibilities, and descend into a structureless, debilitated stupor. Easy for others, maybe – but not for me. The Work must come first – no matter how petty or trivial or meaningless. It may restore my soul – it will then acquire a meaning, absolutely. There may be a design emergent: boring myself into contentment. For these reasons, structuring and ordering – a keeping of appointments, no matter how dead you feel on the inside – is ESSENTIAL. It is your lifeline – irreplaceable in value. Friends are the other lifeline. Not quite as reliable as The Work; there will doubtless come times of aloneness, and that is when there is the danger of grief – paralysing grief. Stop that. I will resent hearing it from others, but I am satisfied to – Yes! BE MEAN TO MYSELF. In this one vital respect. If you must indulge, do it to a set structure. Less of these sloppy meanderings. But do fall in on people, when the moment arises. When the opportunity is there…

Taken in context, I consider this one of the most admirable things I’ve ever written. Proof that I can function, if only a bit, in an absolute crisis. Many advised me to be kind to myself. I’m still convinced that would have done me in. (I even wrote two not-bad essays within a few days of my devastation, a drudge and a toil that became a satisfying ‘fuck off!’ to sentiment.) Clinging doggedly on to life yielded surprises, the most wonderful surprises: principally, the soul-restoring goodness of a number of close friends. The wisest person I’ve ever met offered a shoulder to cry on. But that seems too flippant a description: here was a warmth of complete understanding and acceptance, which makes me cry even in recollection. She gave to me Damien Rice, who became a constant companion through the year to come. I will never forget the first time I heard ‘Rootless Tree’ – the sound of the soul being ripped from the body. I still considered people lucky not to know how black and how terrible I was on the inside. But I was so glad they were there to put up with me.

As if all that hadn’t been enough (it had), the month wound up with an exquisite weirdness. There was my appointment with Max Stafford-Clark, who was directing myself and eleven other prodigals for the undergraduate showcase. I had dreaded meeting him, convinced that the man bound up with Joint Stock and the Royal Court would despise my rank ridiculousness as actor-human. I’d also failed to read the play from which I’d taken my monologue. A snotty afternoon in Waterstones ensued, frantically scribbling down notes from The Holy Terror. On the day itself, at the Out of Joint rehearsal rooms, I went in fearlessly enough. What point in fear, after all, having found out about the dark? I then enjoyed the most effective half hour’s direction I believe I’ve ever had. It may be that I’d found a speech that spoke to Max: certainly, he had much to say about relationships built on fantasy, as well as Simon Gray’s sense of being cast out of the theatrical establishment. But when Max allowed me to give some of my Quasimodo, it felt like a most genial acceptance. Exactly what I needed – and what I’ve so rarely felt from directors.

Stranger by far was the morning I was told I would be interviewing Simon Callow that night. I assembled my questions in another panicky delirium; I recall breaking down completely when collecting a dictaphone from a friend. Simply ridiculous. Callow was everything I’d hoped he’d be in person. When I threw myself in front of him, gangly tangle of flailing limbs, announcing I was there for an interview, his response was a dream: ‘Really! … Well! … How FANTASTIC!’ We moved for a dimly lit side-room, Simon eschewing the leather armchairs by the fireplace for some nearby computer chairs. Thus passed our meeting with many a squeak and swivel. The interview mainly consisted of Simon speaking (and quite rightly), so I had chance to reflect on how lucky I was to be in the presence of this man I had admired for nearly six years; this man who I knew, from reading Love is Where it Falls, to have suffered far in excess of anything I’ve been through. And yet here he was: affable, at peace with life and intermittently quaffing red wine. I pushed my luck at the meeting’s close, and asked Simon if he had any ‘life philosophies’ to impart. He laughed at this, only half-mortified. But he then produced a pearl of insight:

There a phrase that I read recently, in a painting by Dürer: ‘We must live for the spirit; everything else belongs to death.’ One must always go towards the inner richness of experience, and therefore the positive, and convert the negative, which is death, into life…

I am certain now that these words marked the beginning of my return to the human race. It was only about a week after I entered the dark. I think of the 1948 film Arch of Triumph, when Ingrid Bergman defends her recovery from an unrequited love in the same span:

It’s an eternity if you’re really unhappy. I was so filled with unhappiness that nothing else existed… When nothing else exists, there is nothing left with which to compare it. All one can do is to start to live again.

You can’t help but feel that something’s been lost, though.

The rest of the term never really recovered. It was still a kind of hell. My role in Die Fledermaus was a debasing experience – humiliating, in truth – in which I magnificently filled out the stereotype of the demoniacally sad clown; in which I wound up shouting at people who only partly deserved it. I never had a chance (or craved one, to be honest) to explain my bad behaviour. However, the term was relieved by light spots. These light spots appeared always from the dark, before disappearing back into it. But light spots they remained. Performing the Hunchback was the big one. My favourite moment was the preparation that came before each performance. I would spend two hours staring at myself in the mirrors beneath the Corpus Playroom. Trying to work out who I was. As I applied, meticulously, a false face on top of my own. Which I would in turn present to an audience, who I’d be unable to see without my glasses. Theatre is human contact made safe.

Then there are warmer, funnier, more human scraps of recollection; a softening from images into anecdotes and sketches. Being told by Guy Ritchie’s mother, just after the showcase, that I would work more than Mick Campbell – although I would never star with Mick in a Guy Ritchie film (Mick was decreed ‘Guy material’). Standing by Boris Karloff’s plaque in the Actors’ Church, and feeling a great wave of emotion as I read its wonderful legend: ‘He nothing common did, or mean, / Upon that memorable scene.’ Listening to Damien Rice’s ‘Dogs’ on a compulsive loop as I thunder through Cambridge, lingering on after that horror-term; perhaps off to Sainsbury’s or for a walk on Parker’s Piece; shaking off the bloody dissertations whilst preparing myself for the next attack. Again and again, I take in the devastating sweetness of ‘Dogs’, thinking on all we give up in exchange for stability:

Oh, and she’s always dressed in white
She’s like an angel and she burns my eyes
Oh, and she turns, she pulls a smile
We drive her round and she drives us wild
Oh, and she moves like a little girl
I become a child and she moves my world
And she gets splashed in paint and turns away and leaves me standing…

In time, the memories soften further, becoming all the sweeter. When summer rolls on, the old Cambridge magic is restored. I remember being on Parker’s Piece again, the sky glorious in pink and blue, with George Potts maniacally pushing a bicycle about. I remember the Midsummer Common Fair, and laughing like a fiend at George Potts being maniacally pushed about by various outsize fairground attractions. I remember romping through the Botanic Gardens and reflecting on my visit there with my sister, when I’d still been caught in the middle of the drudge and the toil. I remember Grantchester Orchard at the time of the Plough Plays, slumbering in the long grasses on an evening, with parti-coloured Morris dancers jumping at my feet – I remember long rehearsals for Ecumenical in Churchill College Chapel, and feeling glad that I was finally involved in a play being performed for all the right reasons. I remember sitting on a bench with the wisest person I’ve ever met, cast in the light of the full moon, and the both of us deciding to fail to say goodbye. And then I graduate. And it’s all gone from me. And it so often feels as though it might never have happened. I still haven’t returned to Cambridge. A part of me doesn’t want to. It might feel like a proper goodbye.

The first half of my year was truly anomalous. It was a point at which I resolutely failed to cope, only to discover reserves of strength that I hadn’t known existed. It was a point at which I crystallised what I wanted to do with acting: to illuminate certain types of human experience on which I felt qualified to comment, rather than swipe the flashiest entrances and the choicest lines. It was a point at which my passion for Simon Callow, previously a kind of running joke, matured into something more serious. Even life-shaping. But on review, I’m not sure I’ve gleaned much wisdom from all that went forth. There was barely time to think. Perhaps the mere endurance amounts to a kind of wisdom. I still don’t feel I have a lot of my old hope back, and hope is what I value beyond anything. Allied as it is with simplicity, with innocence – with love. But what can you do? I no longer hope for unconditional love – that is, if we take love to mean acceptance. I feel I’ve too much in me that’s messy and chaotic to make that a fulfilling pursuit. Unconditional life, though… that seems to me something to aim for. And yet that seems a very meagre wisdom.

Perhaps, in the words of The Simpsons, ‘it’s just a bunch of stuff that happened’.

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Horror of Draftula

Having watched two Yuletide episodes of Keeping Up Appearances – there may be more, I’m really not certain – I’m forced to concede that Christmas is upon me. This has been stonkingly pleasant on the whole. It’s meant a merry jaunt to London, to take in Will Seaward’s one-man extravaganza The Exotic Adventure of Michael the Christmas Pudding. I’ll be furious if the Seawardian monodrama doesn’t take off as a yearly tradition: it delivered a funniness intoxicating, paralysing and near-supernatural. I took advantage of the train ride to read The Cricket on the Hearth, Dickens’s third Christmas Book. This was so much better than The Haunted Man; I particularly enjoyed evil toymaker Mr Tackleton, likened to ‘the concentrated essence of so many ravens’. I’m now sat listening to ‘Fairytale of New York’ on a compulsive loop: shedding the odd tear, but mostly feeling very content. Christmas is a time of great happiness and sadness for me. I think of all the people I’ve lost, and then all the people I haven’t, and the effect is quite breathtaking. A Christmas Carol has summed it up best for me these past seven years, so it’s natural that I’m off to see Simon Callow performing it at the weekend. Busy, busy, busy, busy, busy!

My only nightmare before Christmas has been Dracula. I’m a little over halfway through my first draft, and hoping for a complete first draft before the twenty-fifth. It’s shriekingly awful at the moment, glutted with clunker lines, pompous neo-symbolic description (which reads like so much New Age hogwash) and turgid, non-dramatic situations. However! There seems to be promise in it. To complement my piece on Frankenstein – a post-text post – here are my developing thoughts on Dracula‘s developing text.

In the one-man play (as opposed to the one-man show), character is the principal, arguably the sole focus. Dracula is proving a desperately unlikeable character. Not because he’s a blood-sucking demon from hell, though. Dracula is unlikeable because he’s so bloody narcissistic. Not for nothing is ‘narcissist’ virtually synonymous with the word ‘vampire’ – a word, incidentally, that I’m fiercely reluctant to have Dracula use. I’ve been wrestling with this vision of a supremely narcissistic Dracula since almost the project’s inception. So I was recently very pleased to come across this passage in Dibble and Zayn’s Narcissistic Lovers (‘N’ stands, of course, for narcissist):

N’s have been compared to vampires. This analogy makes a lot of sense when breaking down the characteristics of the disorder. The vampire is considered to be damned and cursed with his fate, just as the N is cursed with his disorder. Neither the vampire nor the N willingly chose his fate. The vampire uses people as tools and sources of supply to continue his existence… his constant, futile search for deliverance. The N uses people as supply as well; he needs them to keep his ‘false self’ alive while he continues his futile search for ‘ideal’ love and deliverance of the disorder which enslaves him. The vampire cannot see his own image in a mirror and neither can the N. This is because the N has worked so hard to keep his real image hidden. He spent years trying to create and cultivate his ‘false’ self; he has pieced it together from bits of supply to which he was attracted. Therefore, when he glances into a mirror, he sees his supply staring back at him. He sees a cracked and plastered vision of several people, none of which are even remotely similar to the ‘vile and disgusting’ real self he has carefully hidden. Vampires are considered ‘soulless,’ doomed to roam the earth, snatching souls from innocent victims. Many people consider the N to be ‘soulless’ because he seems to have no conscience or pity for his victims. Victims of N’s often say they feel as if their soul has been raped or even robbed by the N. Like the vampire, the N seems to roam the earth acting as a victim of his own disorder, gathering supply, almost unwillingly as he searches for some sort of cure or deliverance. Destruction of the vampire comes about when he is exposed to light, and the N will cease to exist when his ‘true’ self is ‘brought to light.’

Two main points here accord with my own thinking. First is the idea of a creature without a soul. To my mind, Frankenstein is the story of a being who wins his soul, through suffering and trial. Dracula, meanwhile, is the story of a man whose soul has left the building. One moves for life, the other moves for death. And this is all the more interesting for springing from antithetical contexts. The Creature, stitched together from different people, is intensely bodily – yet lays claim to the spirit. Count Dracula is so much spirit that he dissolves into mist – yet is forever denied the ultimate spiritual consecration. Increasingly, I believe that our sensitivity to monstrosity stems from some fatal disconnection: an arrangement unexpected and therefore threatening. There is nothing obvious in a truly effective monster.

The second point that excites me is that of an ‘ideal’ love, perceived as antidote for the vampire curse. This seems to me the most convincing basis for Dracula’s attraction to Mina. She’s not unique, after all – Dracula’s three brides are ancient proof of that. And in Stoker’s novel, the entanglement is never perceived as romantic (except by the most tenuous extrapolation: Francis Ford Coppola, toiling in the wake of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, worked this angle to the hilt). But that doesn’t mean Dracula wouldn’t delude himself or the audience about the true nature of his feelings. When you’ve been about for 500+ years, God knows you need something to occupy you. More to the point, you need to create meaning for yourself, to keep vivid the illusion of a personal fulfilment. What meaning is possible for a creature deprived their soul is a tantalising open question.

One of the most potent expressions of narcissism I know is the song ‘Meadowlark’ (worth a listen). It’s the Act One finale in The Baker’s Wife, that criminally underrated Stephen Schwartz musical about learning – in the words of Friar Laurence – to ‘love moderately’. Moved by my idolatrous passion for Alun Armstrong, the first song I listened to was ‘If I Have to Live Alone’ (also worth a listen). Which is exquisitely painful, for being so earnestly delivered. I came to ‘Meadowlark’ later, and found it exquisitely painful in a different way. The song has returned to me often enough in the last year – the legacy of hurt and confusion in love – that it’s worth analysing now.

‘Meadowlark’ is an ambitious fragment of storytelling, spilled out by the heroine as she wrestles with leaving her kindly older husband for a sexy younger man. The tale of the meadowlark unfolds as a gloriously rich intoxication: a cloud of voluptuousness worthy of Sir Epicure Mammon. First, a warty old king calls on the meadowlark: a blind songbird with a voice of transcendent beauty. He offers her ‘fruit and nuts from an ivory chalice’, ‘a priceless jewel and cloth of brocade and crewel’ – along with the promise of love everlasting, should she only sing for him. The meadowlark consents. Later on, though, the god of the sun is so moved by the meadowlark’s song that he bestows on her the gift of sight. He then makes his conquest, promising ‘a feast of the plums and peaches, just as far as your vision reaches’ – if she’ll only fly with him. It’s all quite brilliant. There’s a simply gorgeous richness, a sense of luxurious adornment, to Schwartz’s lyrics. Schwartz may never rise to Sondheim’s intricate clockwork precision, but his lyrics here, as in the animated Hunchback, are gratifyingly generous and evocative.

The meadowlark declines the god’s advances, choosing instead to stay faithful to the king. Then comes a tragic sting worthy of Oscar Wilde’s fairy stories: the meadowlark dies of grief. Here is the heroine, Genevieve, as she pulls out of the narrative:

And now I stand here starry-eyed and stormy
Oh, just when I thought my heart was finally numb
A beautiful young man appears before me,
Singing ‘Come – oh, won’t you come?’
And what can I do if finally for the first time
The one I’m burning for returns the glow?
If love has come at last it’s picked the worst time
Still I know
I’ve got to go…

It’s remarkably powerful. Souls are being wounded here. Someone else has always to be hurt, as we home in on our emotional and romantic fulfillment – or at least what we perceive that fulfillment to be. For how many really achieve it? There’s a fantastic full-blooded eroticism in Schwartz’s lyrics (another quality indispensable to an effective Dracula): not only in ‘a beautiful young man appears before me’, but the description of ‘this beautiful young god so proud and strong’. Men in particular aren’t called beautiful often enough (who knows, there may be a shortage of beautiful men). It seems a cultural taboo. Yet at the same time, it’s a word that’s been dulled and made worthless by overuse. But it is the duty of any Dracula – good, bad or indifferent – to gender-bend for all he’s worth. It suggests sexuality perverted into an offensive weapon, and that’s certainly always been a notion that’s got under my skin. So perhaps language is a way to get at that. The word ‘beautiful’ was spoiled for me in childhood; only much later has it been redeemed. I think of Dickens’s inscription on the tombstone of his sister-in-law, who he loved far more deeply than his wife: ‘Young, beautiful and good.’ Need we carve such words into gravestones to reclaim them?

As I chip away at Dracula, I’ve found myself wondering if there are any likeable narcissists. Lord Henry Wotton, bitchy Mephisto of The Picture of Dorian Gray, is the only one that springs to mind. Lord Henry feeds on a very particular aspect of gay culture – still veiled at the fin de siècle, but nonetheless socially evident. It’s the sad fact that social attentions, at almost any gathering of gay men, are polarised by the most camp and bitchy and the most sexy and beautiful. Lord Henry is the former; Dorian Gray is the latter. (Poor Basil Hallward is left dithering somewhere in the middle.) But despite his resplendent narcissism, Lord Henry and Count Dracula are entirely different animals. Lord Henry shows that England secretly loves its homosexuals, provided it knows where to have them (it was inevitable that John Gielgud would play him). Dorian Gray is the dangerous one – because sexually unknowable, sexually threatening. Dracula must embody aspects of both. I am of course the world’s worst casting choice for a Dorian Gray, though not, I flatter myself, for the Nosferatu-style walking corpse of Stoker’s novel. And Hurd Hatfield’s frighteningly waxy performance in the 1945 film goes to show that Dorian need not be particularly sexy.

One reason that Lord Henry’s so likeable is because he’s a version of Oscar Wilde. Wilde himself made this clear in one of his letters: ‘Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be – in other ages, perhaps.’ Wilde has been instrumental to writing Dracula so far: an admirable man, though guilty of countless misdemeanours. Mainly bred of narcissism: his off-hand cruelty to his wife; his casual dismissal of lover after lover after lover. It’s the narcissistic conceit that others are only worthwhile as an aspect of the self. Hedonism was the order of the day, not the good of others, and this is why I struggle to acknowledge Wilde as a gay saint. I’m not questioning Wilde’s suffering. But he worked like hell in the dock to avoid owning up to his nature. And this after being hubristic enough to start the proceedings that entrapped him. Anyway. I’m purloining many a Wildean characteristic for Dracula. As first conceived, I wanted my Dracula to mimic the style of An Evening with Quentin Crisp, but it simply wasn’t dramatically free enough. (Crisp was every inch the gay saint that Wilde was not. And his books are just as witty.) I’m now listening to a semi-legal recording of Diversions and Delights, Vincent Price’s one-man show based on the life of Oscar Wilde. It’s wonderful, but it’s also little more than a cascade of epigrams, cunningly knitted together. (Which is still quite a lot, especially with Price’s overripe, trilling voice to bring them into being.) The audience roars throughout, but it seems a near-mechanical response to thoughts beautifully phrased. Nothing wrong with that, but I’ve always felt Wilde’s epigrams work best when you have time to reflect on them – and realise how true even the most flippant and scurrilous of them are. But the laughter itself suggests the instantaneous seductive power of the narcissist. Even Wilde’s greatest enemies fell in love with him.

It troubles me to write about narcissism, because theatre is an inherently narcissistic profession. At its finest, of course, it is narcissism redeemed. Narcissistic reflection is converted into an extrovert communication, inward-looking ranges suddenly outward. But no actor or production has ever reached this ideal with an absolute purity. Those that come closest are the ones worth celebrating.

In light of Frankenstein, I can say that the Creature is the one I identify with. Dracula is the one I fear.

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