Monthly Archives: March 2013

Night Thoughts

My nights are passing very strangely at the moment. If I’m not basking in the shameful joys of The Amazing Transparent Man and Attack of the Giant Leeches, I’m sure to be barking and caterwauling as Sikes and Fagin in a candlelit medieval college. There is tremendous fatigue – and yet, still more tremendous, an all-possessing excitement about the future. After one of those (inevitable) periods of drought, the globe is spinning for me once more. I’m left only with the concern of where I might stand on that globe.

Titles, I’ve found, are a good way of rooting oneself. What follows is the end result of the midnight madness: a list of five aspirational titles. Each encapsulates a role that I hope to fulfil as time rolls on. As ever with such ponderings, I feel I’ve gained a few grains of self-knowledge. What future capital these titles have remains to be seen. But they certainly give one something to aim for.

To work then! The first of my self-appointed titles is…

A bloody amateur. Charles Laughton insisted on calling himself an amateur. Given that Laughton’s top-shelf performances – particularly The Hunchback of Notre Dame and This Land Is Mine – are anything other than amateur, this self-effacement seems faintly courageous. The sense in which Laughton really meant ‘amateur’ was in its deeper, all but forgotten meaning: that of an enthusiast (from the Latin ‘amator’, meaning ‘lover’). I would always hope to pursue acting out of enthusiasm, interest, curiosity, excitement; as a good compulsion rather than a bad one. But, in another sense, flying the flag of the amateur is a way of defending one’s performances from serious criticism. Laughton faced criticism in spades – particularly when he played King Lear at Stratford towards the end of his life, an audacious conclusion to a life of virtually no Shakespearean roles. I’m aware that I’ve failed the Shakespeare ‘test’ as an actor. My most notable Shakespearean character remains the Porter in Macbeth: one scene and no verse whatever. I’m even more aware that I’m an untrained actor, and, given my financial straits, that’s likely to remain so. I know my limitations inside out – and yet I retain this bitter renegade streak, which is violently opposed to anyone pointing them out. Instead, I’ll beat them to it – by labelling myself an amateur. Thus do openness and defensiveness walk hand in hand. I’ve little idea where this mammoth persecution complex erupts from. Ever and always in my acting, I’ve sought to be…

A picturesque grotesque. I coined this phrase a few years ago, when searching for nonsense to slaver across my Facebook profile (as if a Facebook profile should be slavered in anything else). I think it’s more than a convenient rhyme, and actually a pretty accurate summation of what emerges in my acting. I can relate it to the words of theatre critic James Agate, in his comparison of the Lears of Laurence Olivier and Donald Wolfit: ‘Wolfit’s Lear is a ruined piece of nature’ whilst ‘Olivier’s is a picture of ruins most cunning presented’. I’m almost dangerously in love with the brutish, elemental power of Sir Donald Wolfit – an actor who seemed to have been cleaved from the muds of the earth. I know that, untrained or not, I’ll probably always be a rough actor; Dionysian, not Apollonian. Yet despite my prodigious energies as an actor – that ability to stagger on and on and on – I feel I lack the truly indomitable power of a Wolfit. The grotesque energies in me are therefore more staggered, more gestural; offered up, with Olivierian calculation, rather than unleashed on an unsuspecting audience. ‘Acting with Wolfit,’ observed Coral Browne, ‘was like being a speck of dust approached by a hoover.’ Despite my singularity as a performer (a mixed blessing), I don’t believe I’m capable of dominating as Wolfit did. I always put my singularity to work in a context that won’t damage others. Where Wolfit headed a repertory company with tyrannical ferocity – a role with which I would be incalculably ill at ease – I’ve most often headlined in the one-person form. I don’t think I could produce the elegant yet cissified Lear of Olivier – a rose among the ruins, essentially – any more than the smouldering lead crucible of Wolfit’s Lear. I exist uncertainly between the two: grotesque, but dysfunctionally picturesque in it. And while we’re on the subject of Wolfit, another of my aspirations is to be…

A curator of the cults of crackpots. I revel in being a simply massive fan. Of so many different people: the great dead, the less-than-great dead, the living legends, even a considerable number of friends. And, quite often, these people are actors. Within the confines of my own head, I’ve created a constellation of performers that inform the way I live and breathe the theatre. The constellation’s examples are largely spiritual. After all: how many twenty-something actors genuinely count Edmund Kean and Henry Irving among their heroes? This would reek of pretension if it wasn’t so bloody sincere. Wolfit, for example. For the longest time, the most noteworthy Wolfit performance I’d seen was his Dr Callistratus in the ignominious Blood of the Vampire. That might remain so. His Lear, Volpone, Tamburlaine and Overreach are lost to the sands of time; it was Ronald Harwood’s exemplary biography of Wolfit that really stoked my passion. It’s worth noting that this discovery of heroes comes mainly through reading; theatre in the passive rather than active state. There are exceptions: some quite off-the-wall film performances have influenced me. Only recently, it struck me that the one-two punch of those late thirties, schlock-Gothic, Technicolor witches – Lucille La Verne in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz – was more responsible than anything for my youthful interest in acting. But text remains the medium through which I most deeply connect with past actors. Now: what’s all this about? Is it simply the search for a role model? That’s a little too simplistic; as much as I revere them both, I know I’m not Olivier and I know I’m not Wolfit. So perhaps it’s more an effort to authorise a tricksy performance art – this bedeviled singularity that I’ve mentioned – by seizing on individuals through which it’s been shown to work. Perhaps there is a mighty line running from Thespis to the present day – and therefore a pool of energy in which every generation may share. This spiritual dimension to theatre never ceases to thrill me. And perhaps, like love, it reflects the desire to vanish inside the overwhelming otherness of an extraordinary human being. Which reminds me of why I’d like to be…

The cause that wit is in other men. Perhaps Shakespeare’s most memorable description of Falstaff – as delivered by Falstaff himself, in Henry IV: Part 2: ‘I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.’ I’ve long wanted to play Falstaff, but I’m the first to admit it would be a strained arrangement. The physical disparity could be bridged with some monstrous padding; rather more worrisome is the core of the man. I’ve never considered myself a particularly funny person. If I’ve ever been a funny actor, this has been an incidental (and sometimes unwelcome) effect; unrepeatable for being uncontrolled. There seems to be no purely easy wit in me: it’s either deftly mechanical or comes totally out of the blue. (Or perhaps these things do actually constitute wit, and I lack conviction in my capacity.) I’m sure there was a time when my dourness bothered me (a facet of my more general persecution complex?), but I came to accept it a long time ago. This was at least partly to do with the manifest superiority of becoming ‘the cause that wit is in other men’. I may not be very funny most of the time, but I dearly love to provoke funniness in others. I rarely achieve it. But if I can ever do as Dickens did, and elevate those around me by crowning them with wit – by laughing too long and too hard at their jokes – then that at least will have been worthwhile. If we take wit to mean quickness, keenness or cunning, this idea makes more sense. I, lacking in natural humour, might yet provide the raw material for a joke. So often in this life I feel as though I’m skirting round the heart of matters. One of the principal reasons I feel like…

A Victorian in orbit. Sir Cedric Hardwicke coined this wonderful phrase for his autobiography. I haven’t got round to the book, but the phrase has stayed with me. I had a fantastically long conversation with a friend recently, in which I pretty much concluded that I’d missed out on so much that is playful and youthful in adolescence and just became ME at an early stage. This feeling that others got the best of it is by no means new. A good example is how I felt, as a child, about children’s television. I wasn’t especially hard to please (I so wanted to be pleased!), but there were certain programmes that I never enjoyed. Now. It never once crossed my mind that the programmes were bad. Oh, no. I thought instead that the fluorescing garbage of CBBC’s 50/50 was unspeakably mature, and that one day – one glorious day – I would be bright enough to ‘get’ it. Of course, I would see clips of the damn things years later, and realise that I was now too old to ever really ‘get’ them. Whatever became of that golden period in between, when seer and subject were in sync? Odd that I never considered that such programmes would never appeal to me. I felt instead that I’d been cheated of a separate world of joy. (Involving the unspeakably base 50/50? Unbelievable!) This of course is the experience of love: the looking in on a garden of playful and youthful delights. And always from the outside. Only recently have I brooked the notion that those within the Wildean garden might look out through the bars at ME – in all my grey mundanity – and feel cheated of a universe of plodding stability. We go on desiring what we can’t ever have. I’m sure that some have wasted a lifetime in this way. For most of us, though, I imagine it provides a charge of romance. Bittersweet, but not unwelcome.

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Preparing for Death

It’s just over a year since I played Quasimodo – so I feel it’s high time I wrote something about that.

Actors ranking their own performances is a pretty distorted and nauseating business. Nonetheless, I consider Quasimodo the best performance I’ve so far foisted on the world. I hope I’ll surpass it in the future; there’s otherwise little point in carrying on at this craft. Increasingly, though, I’ve come to realise that the reason Quasimodo worked was because it brimmed with personal resonance; a prism for that which effects and affects me. Really great actors are men (or women) of the moment: those happy few who perfectly suit – or, better yet, challenge – the dramatic requirements of their age. Each generation turns out only a handful of great actors (and let’s be honest: in this brave new world of digital encapsulation, there are many much-admired performers whose reputations won’t hold up). For mere mortals, it’s not within our power to bestride our age, Colossus-like. But there’s nothing to prevent us locating the ‘moment’ within ourselves – by finding the role that sounds most deeply within our souls. If I’ve ever found that, it was with Quasimodo: a part that started an echo that went on and on and on. I am not all Quasimodo – not by any stretch – but I certainly think that Quasimodo was all me.

The most obvious connection is purely physical: I am a hunchback myself. It still feels odd to write such a thing. Is that because the condition itself is uncommon or that the subject remains taboo?

In answer to the first, I can’t believe the condition is as uncommon as is generally assumed. To start with, a hunch is nothing as gruesome as it sounds. Only rarely is it an Elephant Man-like heaping of agitated flesh. Most often (and certainly in my case), it’s an unshakeable stiffness of spine; an exaggeration of a curve which is entirely natural. To be perfectly honest, I imagine that most kyphosis sufferers are undiagnosed – or simply find it more trouble than it’s worth to speak out on their condition. How many dentists or accountants or teachers really need to step outside the kyphosis closet? As an actor, of course, your body is your work – so it’s strange (or perhaps all too understandable) that so few actors are open and honest about it. As far as I’m aware, my spine has never lost me a role. Indeed, like other physical peculiarities – facial hair, extremes of weight, especially picturesque scars – it’s probably made me more ideally suited to many roles. Certainly the grotesque and macabre characters that I enjoy best.

As a person, kyphosis is a pretty rotten condition. As an actor, though, I’ve never considered it a particular disadvantage. The world has no doubt lost my Romeo. The world is remarkably fortunate. Too many young actors get suckered into trying to stay pretty, pert, and often, unintentionally, deeply uninteresting. Reality has always pressed down on me too forcibly, and always in making a mockery of my spine. But at least it’s spared me the humiliation of discovering that a straight-backed James Swanton would make for an almost equally pompous, drippy and ungainly Romeo.

As for the taboo surrounding kyphosis, I’m sure that’s connected with this prevailing climate of hush-hush embarrassment. You don’t have too many role models for this sort of deformity. If you do, they’re invariably negative, at least on the surface – mirror images of the hunchbacked old man staring at the young lovers in certain versions of the tarot (a fascinating read, that article). Quasimodo wasn’t real, of course. Yet historical figures are generally useless. Like the fabled Hunchback of Notre Dame Cathedral, Pepin the Hunchback is a man defined by his deformity. Moving into the present, I was recently ticked off to find that Richard III’s excavated skeleton bore signs of scoliosis – not kyphosis at all. Damn! What a loss. On review, I suppose the best kyphotic role models are those who don’t draw attention to their impairment. Which is precisely why they’re not known in the first place.

Despite all this, though, Quasimodo was no public airing of my neuroses. If anything, it was testament to my grandiose inability to make the connection. I performed the character without giving the least thought to my spine, except as some vague qualification for impersonating the character, as some vague arbiter of difference. Only afterwards came the medical appointments and the exercise routines and the feelings of crossness and confusion. My mind is so sneaky in other respects – but when it comes to personal truths I am often blinded to the most trouncingly obvious links between things. The first time I fell in love, I was in love for at least six months before I realised I was. For someone who spends an inordinate amount of time absorbed in writings like this, I’m appallingly slow on self-knowledge.

OCD can sometimes force my mind into action; I wrote at great length on the subject here, so I won’t go over too much old ground. Just recently, my mind has recently been flicking between my spine and my teeth. It’s an uncompromising dual struggle of ‘I must get these damned teeth straightened’ (they’ve relapsed a bit after some arduous orthodontic work) and the ultimately more pressing ‘ah, but you should probably do something with that dreadful back’. It’s a preposterous situation – in which, ultimately, nothing gets done. No doubt if there was a war on, I’d be bothering myself with that instead.

These are first-world problems. But then, they also link to a universal problem. I’ve flattered myself that my lot is similar to Stephen Fry’s ‘bent nose’ theory of the British monarchy: ‘The trouble with doing a thing for cosmetic reasons is that one always ends up with a cosmetic result – and cosmetic results, as we know from inspecting rich American women, are ludicrous, embarrassing and horrific.’ But I know, deep down, that that’s not it at all.

Mortality is at the root of it. Of that I am certain. I stare at my back and I stare at death. Shades of Andrew Marvell:

But at my back I always hear,
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

This is an expansive (somewhat petulant) statement, so it bears development.

Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

I’ve long revered the classic horror film. What separates it from the modern horror film is the actor’s contribution – the dying phenomenon of the horror star. And I’m convinced that what the great horror stars did was to prepare us for death. In their performances, they offered up reflections of death – but, in doing so, they made death bearable. Lon Chaney’s Erik, the title menace in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), was the character that first drew me to acting. In the best sense possible, the character is the essence of theatre. The character is also obsessively steeped in death. Erik bears the face of a skeleton, earning him the carnival epithet of ‘the living corpse’. Chaney’s self-applied makeup is unsurpassed: a monolithic memento mori; a nightmarish concoction of tragic clown, Anton Phibes and post-op Michael Jackson. Erik even sleeps in a coffin, which gives rise to a gloriously melodramatic intertitle: ‘It keeps me reminded of that other dreamless sleep that cures all ills – forever!’ I think now of Ray Bradbury’s words on Chaney, which sees actor and character overlap:

Chaney died when I was ten years old. It was the end of the world. I thought at the time that if death could die – and he personified death – if death could die, I wasn’t safe. So his death threatened me. It was the first real outside death in my life that was a terrible event.

Funnily enough, the most famous of Chaney’s other characterisations was Quasimodo – in the 1923 film of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I think playing Quasimodo inevitably brings you back to death. Quasimodo is so much a part of the cathedral that he becomes the cathedral (a vital personal maxim when I rehearsed the character). And the cathedral is a theatre that exalts death into life – whether in stone gargoyles, plaster saints or the blood-charged wine of the Eucharist.

A survey of horror cinema turns up countless reflections of death. There’s the reluctant ‘king of horror’ Christopher Lee – a distant ancestor of Pepin the Hunchback, incidentally, who was Charlemagne’s oldest son. Lee is no hunchback, but due to advanced age (ninety-one this year) he has lost a few inches of his formidable six foot five figure. Where teeth are concerned, Lee possesses some splendidly crooked gnashers – always has, a very strange grace note for the screen’s most prolific Count Dracula (wonder at his lower teeth in the close-up on ‘this was a Dracula indeed!’). Lee’s Dracula always returned from the dead. Indeed, it’s much fun recalling the ludicrous ways he was killed off from 1958 to 1973: burned by the sun (Dracula), drowned in a moat (Dracula: Prince of Darkness), impaled on a giant crucifix (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave), falling from a balcony in a deconsecrated church (Taste the Blood of Dracula), struck by lightning (Scars of Dracula), collapsed into a pit of stakes (Dracula AD 1972) and pricked by a hawthorn hedge (The Satanic Rites of Dracula). But these stupid, stupid deaths came with the vital disclaimer that Dracula would always return. Even after Lee had left the Hammer fold, Dracula returned in the guise of John Forbes-Robertson for 1974’s The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires.

In life, Lee also seems immortal: the living statesman – however reluctant – for a bygone age of screen horror. On receiving his knighthood, Lee privately said that Peter Cushing should have received the honour. Despite his outward protestations, Lee is aware of his legacy. It is a fine and mighty one.

There’s one other moment that warrants mention: Boris Karloff’s Monster, reaching for the watchtower skylight in Frankenstein (1931). It’s an unforgettable, breathtaking scene, and embodies the sublime verticality – the ascent to the heavens – that I also consider integral to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Karloff’s leading lady Mae Clarke had this to say on the scene:

It was like when we die, the beatific vision, which makes people understand the words: ‘Eye has not seen, nor ears heard, the glories that God has prepared for those who love Him.’

Horror cinema rarely broaches theatre directly. There are a few outstanding exceptions – usually involving Vincent Price, the most eminently theatrical of horror stars. But in what ways does theatre broach death? How is theatre like death?

Well, it ends – and it doesn’t come back. Yet in that ending, it secures a kind of immortality. There’s that wonderfully eloquent phrase from Prospero in The Tempest: ‘our little life / Is rounded with a sleep’. Theatre provides a graceful rounding off: the closure that life, with its infinitely tangled and troubled partings, constantly pulls against. The close of a performance is steeped in formality: the lighting changing, the players bowing, the audience clapping, the curtains closing. These trappings endow the chaos of the drama with order. They provide a bearable closure, a perfect closure – and, if the drama wasn’t much good to start with, a very welcome closure. Enacting the death of Quasimodo was no bereavement. It was catharsis, plain and simple.

Death is no doubt a preoccupation of mine. The working titles I have for my one-man Frankenstein and DraculaFrankenstein’s Fate and Dracula’s Death – also prioritise mortality. But I think it’s theatre, drama, storytelling – in whatever form it might take – that makes it all okay.

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