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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Filed under Acting Theory, Sikes & Nancy

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