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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Filed under Acting Theory, Essays, Personal Excavation

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