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’.