Monthly Archives: January 2013

Sikes & Nancy: Character Sketches

Whenever I connect with a character, it’s through an image. A year ago, I wrote a long-ish essay on this subject, reflecting on my experience with the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet. It remains the closest I’ve come to a personal theory of acting. So, in returning to Sikes & Nancy, it’s been my special desire to find a vivid image for each character. There’s such potential for mindless virtuosity in the one-man/multi-character form that a strong sense of who you’re playing – the instant you start playing them – is absolutely essential. To this end, I’ve been re-reading a few classical texts, scouring their little room for infinite riches. I found this, for example, in The Jew of Malta (Act II, Scene 1, Lines 1-6):

Thus like the sad presaging raven that tolls
The sick man’s passport in her hollow beak,
And in the shadow of the silent night
Doth shake contagion from her sable wings,
Vex’d and tormented runs poor Barabas
With fatal curses towards these Christians.

Barabas’s shameless malevolence, breaking forth like a ghost from a tomb, provides a wonderful template for Fagin’s delight in his own wickedness. It’s also a necessary antidote to Shakespeare’s compassionate yet joyless depiction of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. However, Shakespeare has been helpful in other ways. I’ve long believed that Macbeth fired Dickens’s imagination in the creation of ‘Sikes and Nancy’. (As Macready exclaimed after watching it: ‘TWO MACBETHS!’) Macbeth’s near-throwaway observation ‘light thickens’ is one of my favourite Shakespearean fragments; it vibrates with such atmosphere that I’m instantly in the mood for Sikes & Nancy. Here’s something else from Macbeth that excited me (Act II, Scene 2, Lines 56-60):

What hands are here? Hah! they pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

This perfectly articulates the almost wordless terror of Bill Sikes. Blood is everywhere in Sikes & Nancy, becoming ever more surreal as the piece wears on. It not only saturates the chamber of death – ‘how those stains were dispersed about the room!’ – but it invades Sikes’s addled brain, assuming form in the far-off countryside as ‘a human gravestone with its epitaph in Blood!!’ (Dickens’s punctuation). Not even the dog escapes; Shakespeare would have approved.

Examining old works can be very helpful. Using Sikes & Nancy to stimulate new works is a quite different activity. In this case, the new work is an image; the activity is drawing. I’ve never thought in great depth about the links between acting and drawing. On the surface, there’s a basic pleasure in the two acts emerging from the self. A simple mediator is required: on the one hand, the infrastructure of a theatre; on the other, pen and paper. Yet both remain largely free modes of expression: offered up to an audience, with no guarantee of their acceptance or rejection. This reception is the least important part of the process. A truthful work will always retain its integrity – the act emerges from the self, and, quite rightly, represents that self.

Most types of acting are dependent on a text. This makes it a form of interpretation, which many would argue is a semi-creative activity only. How can you truly ‘create’ when someone else has made up all the words? Michael Chekhov, however, was unbending in arguing for the actor as a supreme artistic creator – and nowhere more than through their command of images. From To the Actor:

The images which I see with the mind’s eye, have their own psychology, like the people surrounding me in everyday life. However, there is one difference: In everyday life, seeing people by their outer manifestations alone and not seeing behind their facial expressions, movements, gestures, voices and intonations, I might misjudge their inner lives. But it is not so with my creative images. Their inner lives are completely open for me to behold. All their emotions, feelings, passions, thoughts, their aims and innermost desires are revealed to me. Through the outer manifestation of my image – that is to say, of the character I am working upon by means of my imagination – I see its inner life.

Chekhov offers one particularly relevant example of an artist inspired by an image: ‘The whole morning, wrote Dickens, he sat in his study expecting Oliver Twist to appear.’ Certainly, there’s consolation here for outside-in actors such as myself, who too often feel like frauds for starting with a voice, a gait or a facial configuration. There’s also a protective megalomania in claiming this definitive grasp of your character’s inner life – in a medium as maddeningly uncontrollable as live performance, it’s very reassuring. All the same, I haven’t been into Chekhov quite as I’d imagined. The abiding lesson, I think, is that truths in acting are intuitive. No matter how good the teacher. This has struck me often while I’ve been working on my voice. My spine is far too idiosyncratic to square with the majority of breath-release, throat-salvaging stratagems. I’ve returned to my old techniques, won through experience, and I’ve been quite happy in doing so. There’s what works in the abstract and what works for the individual.

This lesson is also apparent in a survey of that rare species of actor-artist. The one who instantly springs to mind is Antony Sher. Drawings of every kind figured heavily in his preparations for Richard III, as shown in his tremendous book Year of the King. Yet Sher also took a year out of acting to focus on his painting. Which suggests art as an escape rather than an aide. But the enormous canvas that resulted – entitled ‘The Audience’ – is riddled with theatrical persons. For Sher then, acting and art are wholly integrated; ‘The Audience’ proves that there’s no set hierarchy or even any meaningful separation. Edward Petherbridge is another actor-artist, who’s placed many of his works for display on his self-maintained website. Petherbridge returns again and again to the self-portrait. Now, what can this mean? Is it an effort to more clearly visualise the fusion of actor and character? Or is it a kind of exorcism ritual, a reassertion of the self? (Last year, I took part in a mask workshop led by Roddy Maude-Roxby. He was adamant about the importance of a ritualistic separation of the personalities of actor and mask.)

Then there’s Charles Laughton. He was heavily influenced by Japanese art, often losing himself in a canvas for hours before solving some problem with a character. Yet Laughton wasn’t an artist himself, and likely had such refined sensibilities that he was unable to even doodle. That Laughton went on to play Rembrandt, in Alexander Korda’s meditative 1936 film, is somehow more appropriate for this lack of straightforward artistic ability. Rembrandt saw the soul revealed in flesh. And so did Laughton, in his acting. Sher, Petherbridge and Laughton all relate to the aesthetic world in very different ways. It seems, however, to release the right energies in all of them.

Let’s have a look at the drawings then: the six characters of Sikes & Nancy, etched in fine liner. The doppelgänger aspect of Sikes & Nancy has come to fascinate me recently, so I’ve paired each character with their uncanny ‘other’. (Click on each picture to get a substantially larger version.)

Fagin and Mr Brownlow

Fagin and Mr Brownlow first. Both aged, both mentor figures, both morally questionable. And yet both have redeeming qualities. Fagin’s salvation is his diabolical sense of humour. Like Barabas in The Jew of Malta, he only half-heartedly pretends to be other than what he is. And, like Barabas, he whole-heartedly revels in his wickedness, conducting himself with all the shambolic trappings of stage villainy. Brownlow’s redeeming qualities are those for which he’s generally recognised: his desire to save Oliver Twist and persecute Monks. Yet in ‘Sikes and Nancy’, taken as a fragment of the novel, Brownlow is the least sympathetic character. He’s scornful, patronising, mordantly ecclesiastical and – to Nancy, at least – downright cruel. (Conveniently enough, it escapes an audience’s notice that this is how most sensible people behave when lured under a bridge at midnight.) Brownlow is safeguarded, though – by being on the ‘right’ side of society – whilst Fagin is doomed from the outset. I really like how Fagin’s turned out: a misshapen, hook-nosed worm in a cowl. It’s more than a little Arthur Rackham (whose illustrated version of A Christmas Carol was the first that I owned). Brownlow is ruled by verticality: rigid and unbending, with a ramrod for a spine.

Nancy and Rose Maylie

Nancy and Rose Maylie now. The women of the piece, united by a shared compassion. Maylie barely appears in Sikes & Nancy, having only five lines. All are breathless exclamations of pity. Like most of Dickens’s slightly wet heroines – Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, Bertha Plummer in The Cricket on the Hearth, Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities – Maylie is valuable primarily for what she represents. Save one interjection, Maylie is silent during Nancy’s interrogation by Mr Brownlow. Yet Nancy speaks to her often, as an icon that represents all that she could have been – a Coventry Patmore style ‘Angel in the House’ – and, inevitably, all that she has lost. Maylie is also the character who provides my production’s sole prop: a white handkerchief. When that handkerchief is dipped in Nancy’s blood, the women experience a physical intertwining. It works as a confirmation – that Nancy is a fallen woman, doomed to this fate from the beginning. But it’s also a contamination – connecting the purest of women with the monstrous Bill Sikes. In the manner of J. B. Priestley in An Inspector Calls, Dickens tries to remind us of the following:

We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will come when, if man does not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.

Fire and blood and anguish all figure heavily in Sikes & Nancy. Speaking of fire, these drawings were both modelled on a candle-flame (thus all the tapering away and arrant leglessness). But there’s a difference. Nancy is festering, the personified contagion shed by the raven in The Jew of Malta; Rose Maylie is much more elegant, more akin to an angel in a medieval tapestry.

Bill Sikes and Morris Bolter

Bill Sikes and Morris Bolter last. These characters are linked by a structural point: midway through the story, Sikes takes over from Bolter as the instrument of Fagin’s revenge on Nancy. This exchange begs a larger question: at what point does a Bolter turn into a Sikes? Bolter is arrogant, dim-witted, absurdly rude and easily manipulated. But he’s never actively malicious. Sikes, meanwhile, is a walking wall of frazzled synapses, exploding into rage at the slightest provocation. And yet, if we believe the musical whimsicalities of Lionel Bart, Sikes had humble roots:

Take a tip from Bill Sikes
He can whip what he likes.
I recall he started small
He had to pick-a-pocket or two.

Part of the fun of Bolter is that he’s not quite a child. He’s a perverse, stunted adolescent, the negative reversal of Kit in The Old Curiosity Shop. But the possibility that this comic stooge might eventually transform into Sikes is remarkably frightening. In my drawing, Bolter looks a little like Phiz’s illustration of the Goblin who stole a Sexton in The Pickwick Papers; all that’s missing is the gravestone. Sikes looks bloody terrifying (to me, at least), with a Kabuki war-mask instead of a face. The coat reminds me of the ever-terrifying Mr X in Resident Evil 2. Many’s the time I hid beneath a computer chair, rather than survey that game’s hellish progress. Many’s the nightmare that followed.

In closing, I must once more remind you to book your tickets for the Colchester run of Sikes & Nancy! If you need further persuasion, Simon Callow’s now given the show a fiendishly lovely endorsement. You can read it at the link attached, while I plunge my burning cheeks into a pot of porter.

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Doing a Professional Theatre

At the climax of The Flesh and the Fiends – John Gilling’s sterling 1960 body-snatching melodrama – William Hare is hounded through the darkened streets of Edinburgh. His last-ditch hideout is an abandoned old house. As he barricades the door, the mob lights its torches. As he canters ineffectually up a staircase, the mob beats his feeble defences down and throngs inside the building. And as he lunges for some iron bars, his terrified face is thrust at once into startling close-up. It’s an unforgettable image: Donald Pleasence, slime personified. The ravening mob takes hold of Hare, and drags him off into the dark.

By this time, The Flesh and the Fiends had become a film event for me. This had nothing to do with Peter Cushing (here, as always, the Olivier of horror), nor the admirable work of director John Gilling (who helmed Hammer’s superlative Cornish horrors The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile). Instead, this conviction came from an eerie sense of recall. Here again was the murderer running fugitive from the mob; here were all the old feelings of terror and guilt and a strange exhilaration; here was what looked suspiciously like (and, as it turned out, was) stock footage from David Lean’s Oliver Twist. That last close-up of Hare came almost as a premonition.

‘Hullo,’ I thought. ‘That’ll be me again next month.’

It gives me very great pleasure to announce that Sikes & Nancy is coming back. For three nights in February, I’ll be evading the torch-wielding mob at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester. To ensure that the details are branded on your memory, here are the precise times and dates in the boldest of bold capitals:


And while I’m at it, here’s a lovely new publicity image. Flocked wallpaper and blood spatters in bilious harmony:

Sikes & Nancy Publicity

Just marvellous. In the modern tradition, tickets can be booked online at the Mercury Theatre’s website. All manner of concessions are available, so it’s worth looking into. At the very least, do ‘Like’ the page and boost my fragile ego on Facebook!

But wait! Why should you bother coming to Sikes & Nancy at all? My arguments for the piece’s merits are well rehearsed by now. Sikes & Nancy is pure theatrical storytelling: I speak out to the audience and unfold the tale, without resorting to any artifice beyond myself and a few chairs. It has a clutch of the greatest characters in English literature – Fagin, Nancy, Bill Sikes – all of whom make a powerful plea to the emotions. Yet it’s also straightforwardly entertaining, deriving its thrills from blood-and-thunder melodrama as much as the fact that it polished off Charles Dickens.

More widely, Sikes & Nancy has received stonkingly good feedback. There have been five stars from TCS and Varsity both; student journalism and I don’t always get on, but I bow to the eminently correct appraisals of these particular critics. It’s been warmly received by audiences as far-flung as Cambridge, York and London’s West End. No less a legend than Simon Callow witnessed and enjoyed the West End rendition, before hurtling off to kill his own Nancy in The Mystery of Charles Dickens. And whilst Sikes & Nancy has never been short of interesting venues (not least Lady Peckett’s haunted mead room), the Mercury is a beautiful theatre with a glowing reputation, well worth visiting in its own right. Add to this the sheer length of time I’ve been working on Sikes & Nancy – ten months thus far – and you can rest assured it’ll be coming back stronger than ever. The script is being refined; the thought processes are bubbling up and strengthening; the acting is growing more distinct, more precise. I personally rank it among my two or three best performances.

My engagement at Colchester is significant in another way: I consider it my professional stage debut. ‘Consider’ because I’m not sure precisely when an amateur credit becomes professional. What of plays with professional directors, after all? Or those staged in professional venues? And where exactly does the Dungeon fit in? Nonetheless, this revival of Sikes & Nancy is a personal milestone. It’s providing me the first glancing possibility that I might be able to do this for a living. There’s some way to go yet, but the hope is very welcome.

I’m not sure how much I’ll be blodgering on the rehearsal process, since I’ve covered a lot of this ground before. Here are links to five previous posts, all of which focus on different aspects of Sikes & Nancy. Lest the play seem scarily well documented – or (God forbid!) ‘professional’ – bear in mind that each post is littered with digressions.

Two Goodly Announcements: My announcement of the play’s 2012 engagements in York and London. It also contains my all-time best argument for attending Sikes & Nancy. Digressions include EastEnders barrow-boys, Rotten Corpse and the Dungeon Halloween that was so cruelly stolen.

First Re-Readthrough: My thoughts after a close reading of the script. Inevitably in-depth, so if you have a copy of Oliver Twist, you’re advised to dig it out. Digressions on Christopher Marlowe, Alfred Hitchcock, Sweeney Todd, Ingrid Bergman, Stephen King and the Groke.

Re-Rehearsals Underway: A more general update, focused on the umpteen problems of restaging a play, from change for change’s sake to the art of the extra-textual. Also includes Edward Quekett’s gorgeous poster design for the original. Digressions: ‘Macbeth doth murder sleep’; ‘everybody ought to have a maid’; ‘ah, well, you know, that sort of ish-ness’.

An Exercise in QuotationA study of the original text of Oliver Twist, coupled with Dickens’s accounts of murder in The Pickwick Papers and Master Humphrey’s Clock. In other words (Dickens’s, to be precise), an opportunity to quote some rip-roaring prose. D: comedy catchphrases, social niceties, the Daily Mail (only two of those go together).

The London Adventure: My almost debilitatingly thrilling account of staging Sikes & Nancy in the West End. Dahl, Gish, Leonard, Sanders, Zucco, Seaward, Callow.

Of course, these foundations will count for nothing without continued development. My primary rehearsal aim is to make Sikes & Nancy as truthful as possible. Not by searching for a naturalistic truth, but an emotional truth. And not a naturalistic-emotional truth, but a more intuitive emotional truth, geared at all times towards heightened expression. I’ve been inspired in this regard by Charles Laughton. The BBC quietly aired a season of Laughton films over Christmas, marking fifty years since the actor’s death. His performances have been a highlight of the last few months: I’ve happily devoured The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Rembrandt (1936), Captain Kidd (1945), Arch of Triumph, The Big Clock (both 1948), The Strange Door (1951) and, yes, even Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952). Laughton is at his best when he breaks your heart, as demonstrated in his towering Quasimodo. I’ve found myself deeply moved by two performances especially: the eye-rolling, cuckolded grape farmer in They Knew What They Wanted (1940) and the pathetically defeated schoolmaster in This Land Is Mine (1943). The latter should be compulsory viewing for anyone possessing a heart and a soul.

Laughton’s genius was to discover an intensity in his characters, so overwhelming, so breathtaking, that he often transcended the limitations of the dramas in which he appeared. Yet Laughton seldom achieved this by imposing on his text: his gift was to convert his text into a dazzling, extrovert projection. This seems to me a sensible approach to Sikes & Nancy. Never to impose, but always to find where the energies of text and actor unite to the greatest expressive end. I’m accordingly reading Michael Chekhov’s To the Actor; his belief in the imagination as an ever-expanding resource is wonderfully freeing:

A sensitive body and a rich, colourful psychology are mutually complementary to each other and create that harmony so necessary to the attainment of the actor’s professional aim. You will achieve it by constantly enlarging the circle of your interests. Try to experience or assume the psychology of other eras by reading period plays, historical novels or even history itself. While doing so, try to penetrate their thinking without imposing upon them your modern points of view, moral concepts, social principles or anything else that is of a personal nature or opinion.

Chekhov states that physical and vocal physical freedom are imperative to this regime. Imagination is pointless, after all, when not permitted to get out. To this end, I’m going to be working at my voice. A stable grasp of my natural voice has long eluded me. In Sikes & Nancy, it’s essential that the narrator speak cleanly and economically, so a study of Cicely Berry and Patsy Rodenburg will be a great help. I’ve been up to a fair bit of physical ‘training’ recently, to counter my long-standing back problems, so I should be performing in a state of resolutely improving health.

Otherwise, I’m seeking to immerse myself in Dickens’s world (no, not this Dickens World) as much as is humanly possible. I recently finished The Mystery of Edwin Drood for the first time. Its shameful murder, Gothic streak and transcendent descriptions of light will all be very useful. (Dickens was performing ‘Sikes and Nancy’ for the last few times as he was writing Drood.) The moment I finish A Tale of Two Cities, I’m going to plunge into The Old Curiosity Shop, steeped as it is in the Victorian obsession with young, beautiful, dead girls. (Nancy has retrospectively fallen into this morbid tradition, thanks to her glamorisation in umpteen stage and film adaptations.) I’d also love to get round to Barnaby Rudge, having heard so much about its depiction of the mob, but I doubt I’ll have time. Meanwhile, Malcolm Andrews’s terrific Charles Dickens and His Performing Selves has been renewing my education in the Dickens Public Reading (a storehouse of knowledge long since banished to the murky realm of dissertation). There are also two classical plays that I’ve been meaning to get back to for ages: The Jew of Malta (the most positive statement that hilarious Jewish criminals need not be anti-Semitic) and Macbeth (in my view, the dramatic ancestor of Sikes & Nancy, and a play that Dickens revered).

I’m still refining the scripts for Frankenstein and Dracula (one more draft for each), so my workload will be intense in the weeks to come. But I’m utterly delighted that that’s the case. So please: do me that best of services, and make an effort to see Sikes & Nancy. I promise you won’t regret it.

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