Monthly Archives: May 2013

A Letter to the Friar

Tomorrow I travel to London to start rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet and Love’s Labour’s Lost. Full details can be found on my website, as well as the Grassroots Shakespeare page. To get my thoughts in order, I thought I’d take a break from writing letters to myself and instead write one to Friar Laurence. This entry might also mark a two-month hiatus from bloggery: I haven’t worked out if I’ll have the time and energy and consistency of internet connection to go on through June and July. I’ve no doubt at all that I’ll be back in August. And in any case, thirty blog entries for a year isn’t bad going…

Dear Friar,

Is that going to work out? ‘Dear Friar’? I think Juliet calls you ‘dear father’ at some point, but this seems grossly impertinent coming from me. I don’t know what shoes you wear. I don’t know what you eat for breakfast. I don’t know the Bible at all that well. And I don’t know any Latin – save what I’ve learned by rote for Love’s Labour’s Lost. I know I’ll feel like a ghastly traitor until I’ve at least thought about these things – even though the towering likelihood is that you’ll emerge wearing my shoes, happen to eat what I eat for breakfast, and know precisely as much about the Bible and Latin as the play dictates I know. At the moment, I don’t know where to have you.

Small wonder that I’m not sure I deserve to have you. I’ve never had much luck with Shakespeare. I’ve acted in both of these plays before. I was Dull and Mercadé in Love’s Labour’s Lost in 2010; the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet in 2011. Tiny characters, existing on the fringes of their worlds – just as I’ve dithered about ineffectually on the fringes of classical acting. Dull was a prism for the parade of clowns, buffoons and lunatics I’ve been saddled with in most of my Shakespearean delvings. That sounds dismissive, I know, and no doubt reflects on my limited gifts to do something original with such characters. The end result always took me out of the play: any ‘humour’ was applied to the text with a trowel, rather than emerging from that text. On the other hand, Mercadé was played on that knife-edge of terror I’ve had whenever I’ve tackled a ‘serious’ Shakespearean role: the terror that everyone’s going to laugh at my voice before I get the first line out. In 2009, when I played Cleon in Pericles, this led to my only ever experience of stage fright.

Now, the Apothecary felt like a crystallisation. But of what exactly? Impossible to say. I’ve written and thought about the character a great deal – producing, on one occasion, a dissertation-length essay; my last word on acting at that particular time. The best I can say is that the Apothecary encapsulates my belief in the value of Romeo and Juliet. A belief founded on the ‘spirit’ of the play, as Donald Wolfit might have expressed it. For the spirit of the play is self-evident. Romeo and Juliet is, quite transparently, a play about love.

Love, dear Friar. Love, love, love. That elusive atmosphere of love is my quarry for the next few months. I’m ransacking so many golden memories for where it might be found. In books: in the sun-splashed endings of Dickens, or the rain-spattered ending of Wilde. In music: in Tchaikovsky, in Beethoven, in Michael Crawford, in the theme tune to The Animals of Farthing Wood. In times and in places: in a day spent in Knaresborough, or a summer spent in Cambridge.

I seek it everywhere but in people. I’ve been shut out of romantic love most of the time. All of the time, if I’m honest. It could be worse. It’s not remotely desirable to become the individual that others worry about constantly: ‘Is he alright? Did you notice how quiet he was today? Do you think we should call him up?’ Better always – always! – to be the individual that everyone assumes is alright, content, at peace with their lot. In time, it becomes the truth. And while I’ve never dived into another human being – in the sense that a full-comprehending love allows – I’ve always been permitted to dive into acting. Into characters. (Into you most recently, Friar.) It’s not that work is more important than life. Or that work is a life substitute. Work is the life. It has to be – and I’m not sure it wasn’t a choice either. I think this suspension follows on naturally from my heightened sensitivity to love.

The programme for that 2011 production of Romeo and Juliet contained a note by Tim Cribb (a wonderful man). After expanding on Tybalt as a symbol of hate, Cribb writes the following:

As well as being fully physical, their love is intensely ideal, a dream of human perfection, of what kinship, of what a family, a whole society could be. This is what begets the most wonderful poetry of the play, but it ends in the tomb, and Tybalt is there too. The repentant parents promise to erect a shrine to the lovers in pure gold, but that is in some future world after the play has ended and we have yet to see it.

To my mind, the most unheralded aspect of Shakespeare’s genius is his use of minor characters to suggest the world beyond the scope of the play: such characters as the Porter in Macbeth, the Clown in Titus Andronicus, and the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet. That ‘future world’ beyond the play stretches across all time periods, across all locales, into all manner of winding and convoluted human hearts. The Apothecary is emblematic, to me, of all of these sad, drifting, marginalised creatures, shut out of a world of more serious emotions. I’m harshly reminded of my first reading of Stephen Fry’s Moab is my Washpot, wrestling with my unwanted sexuality at age fifteen. One of Fry’s most breathtaking observations is that homophobia has almost nothing to do with disgust at the idea of anal sex – which is, after all, no more than the playground caricature of what gay people might do:

There are plenty of other things to be got up to in the homosexual world outside the orbit of the anal ring, but the concept that really gets the goat of the gay-hater, the idea that really spins their melon and sickens their stomach is that most terrible and terrifying of all human notions, love.

That one can love another of the same gender, that is what the homophobe really cannot stand.

I believe this to be true. It’s the inconvenient truth that’s ignored by the opponents of gay marriage: never do they dare to breathe the l-word. Fry’s buried suggestion is that love is always, always, always more powerful a force than sex. I believe this to be true as well: love is the meaning, sex can be (but, usually, isn’t) love’s expressive mode. It’s probably also the reason that I’m so reticent in discussing these matters. Sex doesn’t make any sense to me without love. I’m not a being of sex, but I am a being of love. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m still fifteen and frightened to death about how life and love will work themselves out.

I think this recollection will certainly inform my playing of Holofernes and Katharine in Love’s Labour’s Lost. I’m determined that neither becomes an attention-seeking comic ‘turn’. Both are different kinds of eccentrics. And an eccentric is nothing more than someone shut off from convention. Holofernes is bound to a love that won’t reject him, in his book-learning and pedantry. The tragedy is that it’s a love that takes him further and further from humanity, rendering him almost incomprehensible. Katharine is frightened into cynicism by her sister’s death at the hands of Cupid. She does receive a love beyond the scope of the play – but, as with that golden shrine, ‘we have yet to see it’. (Copies of Love’s Labour’s Won are not forthcoming.) I can see into that in how I go about with acting. I can also see the sadness of it.

But you, Friar… You mean something different to me. You do not quash or deny the love in your heart. You certainly can’t get at it romantically; your holy orders make that so. You are, to put it crudely, married to God. But I wonder whether it’s something more deeply engrained in your soul. It’s not for everyone to discover a fulfilled and fulfilling romance in their lives. And it’s wasted time to reflect on what wasn’t there in the first place. You’ll balk at this, Friar, but I feel the same way about the divine. Wonderful, if it exists – unashamedly wonderful. But unwise to place faith in it. For all I know, the kingdom will never come. But even you’re shut out of romantic love, Friar, you encourage it in others. You stand as an idealistic facilitator of love. A man stationed at the gate to the garden of youthful and playful delights: never to enter, always to peep in through the bars.

Now that I find profoundly moving. Not simply because it’s the most gracious service one human can do another. But because it’s an expression of the impossibility of a fully requited love for so many. A friend sent me this piece by Carson McCullers, saying it reminded her of how I prattle on about the subject from time to time. She wasn’t far wrong:

First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons – but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. Often the beloved is only the stimulus for all the stored-up love which has lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. He comes to know a new strange loneliness and it is this knowledge which makes him suffer. So there is only one thing for the lover to do. He must house his love within himself as best he can; he must create for himself a whole new inward world – a world intense and strange, complete in himself.

Never have I read an account of love that more closely parallels my own thinking. So many points here border on my own experience: the loneliness; the fact that that loneliness drives the lover to a kind of narcissistic introspection; the ultimate solution of ‘housing’ the love within the self. Shakespeare touches on the same in Sonnet 31: ‘Thou art the cave where buried love doth live, / Hung with the trophies of my lovers gone…’ That this passage comes from The Ballad of the Sad Café – a novella in which someone falls in love with the hunchback for a change – only makes it more precious.

I see you, Friar Laurence, as a shining example – for getting by in a world where love is by no means guaranteed. It’s only through acting that I have been assured a glance into the garden. I pray I might one day get past the gate. The brutal likelihood is that I won’t. The loneliness of the actor is sacrosanct. It’s rather like being a monk.

It’s on this basis, then, that I’m happy to come to you, Friar. The ‘dear’ can wait. For now, though, there is much to think about.

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Fantasy Noir II

I so enjoyed writing the last entry on the nascent subgenre of fantasy noir that I’ve compiled a sequel. So much of what drives my writing is the fanatical belief that most of my time is squandered, wasted, frittered away. Prizing up these decaying films consumes such a lot of my time that it’s refreshing to convert it into something of substance. Here, then, is the next kaleidoscope of uncanny cinema. Points of focus include theological uncertainty, coded colour, and, surprisingly often, new beginnings.

FAUST (dir. F. W. Murnau, 1926)

Faust (1926)

Images are central to my relationship with acting – and cinema, at its best, is a treasure-house of images. Murnau’s Faust is a film in which unforgettable acting and images converge. This is largely due to Emil Jannings’ matchless performance as Mephisto. Jannings, later a star of Nazi propaganda films, is a difficult man to love; the Wagner of silent cinema. Yet there’s no denying his visual majesty as an actor. His Satan goes through three distinct incarnations, beating out Pazuzu in The Exorcist (1973) by half a century. There’s the bewinged, blackened demon of the opening – very similar to Chernabog in Fantasia (1940), as it looms over the plague-stricken village. There’s the filthy peasant – a mud-spattered, pedlar-like figure – and finally the more natty Mephisto in black silks. All are exquisite: nightmare beings who stand with Max Schreck’s Count Orlok and Lon Chaney’s Phantom as the silent cinema’s finest grotesques. In its live-action visualisation of demonic forces, Faust‘s only serious rival is Häxan (1922), Benjamin Christensen’s wild and woolly ‘Witchcraft through the Ages’. Christensen, however, fashions a Boschian nightmare of oppressive, unrelenting darkness, in which the Devil’s only serious rival is Freudian pseudo-psychology. Murnau’s demons gain by their relationship with the forces of light. The opening clash of Angel and Devil, sweeping away the skeletal spectres of the Four Horsemen, is Miltonic in the best sense. There’s no doubt a salient point here about silent cinema being nothing other than the clash of light and dark. But Murnau’s visual instincts are also thoroughly medieval, creating a sense of primary sources; one can imagine Milton taking in Faust before composing Paradise Lost. The out-of-the-kit trickery of the magic carpet ride is a perfect example: you know you’re looking at miniatures, but they’re exquisite for their unreality. Like a cathedral reaching for the heavens, Murnau’s film is a non-reality (or unprovable reality) breathtakingly visualised.

DOCTOR X (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1932)

Doctor X (1932)

A bafflingly weird film, this – on several counts. There’s one of the most disturbing scenes of the thirties: an achingly long sequence in which the killer applies lumps of repulsive ‘synthetic flesh’ to his head – which resolve, bit by bit, into a horribly scarred new face. There’s also the two-strip Technicolor, which accentuates the film’s sickly atmosphere by granting it the caste of toxic waste. Even elements that were hackneyed in 1932 seem otherworldly today: Gothic mansions, lightning storms, hooded maniacs, mad scientists with fitting laboratories and skeletons in cupboards (furthermore, the climax seems to be drawn from Paris’s Grand Guignol). These stock horror components prove strangely refreshing, confirming the power of these archetypal films. The screenplay is drawn from one of the long line of ‘old dark house’ thrillers that stormed Broadway in the twenties. Other mythic titles from this period include The Bat, The GorillaThe Cat and the Canary, and, of course, Dracula. Although Doctor X (1932) has never had a remake, its immortality was confirmed by Richard O’Brien’s lyric in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975): ‘Science fiction double feature / Doctor X will build a creature…’ But despite Doctor X‘s peerless weirdness, the careers of its principal creatives became steadily more conventional. Doctor X crowned Lionel Atwill as the most perverse of Hollywood’s horror actors, paving the way for such kinkily suggestive classics as The Vampire Bat, Mystery of the Wax MuseumMurders in the Zoo (all 1933), and, best of all, Son of Frankenstein (1939). It’s a far cry from Atwill’s sad final roles – inevitably consigned to dishwater-dull red herrings and interchangeable police inspectors in such Universals as Night Monster (1942) and House of Dracula (1945). Director Michael Curtiz did rather better, eventually graduating to The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Casablanca (1942). He never returned to the spook-house seediness of this melting-pot movie; its sister film, Mystery of the Wax Museum, is comparatively streamlined. Doctor X shines as a beacon of weirdness for Atwill and Curtiz alike: an artefact that could only have existed for a couple of months in the early thirties.

HERE COMES MR. JORDAN (dir. Alexander Hall, 1941)

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) invites comparison with Portrait of Jennie (1948) as a thought-provoking supernatural fantasy – dwelling gently, even elegiacally, on the nature of mortality. Portrait of Jennie, however, is no comedy. Here Comes Mr. Jordan reminds me a little of Robin Williams’ Bicentennial Man (1999) in its tonal confusion: part brain-free hilarity, part intense fatalistic brooding. Their plots are also similar: a man is forced through multiple changes of body, eventually gaining a deeper humanity, but reaching no easy answers about the place of the soul. It seems likely that contemporary audiences were hardened to such questions: it may have been the background presence of the Second World War that reduced Here Comes Mr. Jordan to a basically unthreatening screwball fairytale. Still, it’s hard not to be perplexed by a film that treats bathtub-based homicide and hiding a corpse in an icebox with such light-hearted ease – and then, in only a wink, have the protagonists stare into each other’s eyes and fall in love with each other’s souls. But maybe in that sense, the film has its priorities right: it’s the purity of the spirit that matters, not the ravages done to the body. Quite a few bodies contribute to this film’s appeal. Claude Rains is predictably splendid, and his unreadable, cat-like facial arrangements keep the story’s secrets locked tight. His role as God is an amusing balance to his part as the Devil in Angel on My Shoulder (1946) – another theologically knotted fantasy, in which Rains delivers the immortal line ‘What in my domain is that?’ It’s curious to find Edward Everett Horton playing a character other than a butler – although his function as Rains’ prissy underling ensures he remains butler in spirit. And fortunately, there’s also Halliwell Hobbes, that other eternal butler (and unrecognisable from 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), on hand for regular duties. There’s a great charm to this film, and a sweetness that seems sincere, but also an imbalance in its secular, no-nonsense, not-quite-Christian doctrine. Here Comes Mr. Jordan wasn’t built to be analysed so coldly – but such analysis does keep it fascinating.

THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (dir. Terence Fisher, 1957)

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

The first of the Hammer Gothics; a cracking film. It’s some sort of heresy, but I’ve always preferred The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) to the (justly) vaunted Hammer Dracula (1958). The traditional argument is that Dracula was Hammer coming to full, bloody fruition; The Curse of Frankenstein, by contrast, shows Hammer holding back a bit, not quite certain what they’ve gotten hold of. It might be that modicum of restraint that leaves me preferring The Curse of Frankenstein. There’s a veneer of elegance to the film – a pokiness, a staginess, a gloss, a polish – that threatens at all times to give way. The film’s colour scheme rarely strays beyond light pastels. Yet there are intermittent flashes of red: from laboratory beakers and electrical pulses, from carefully painted leaves and lurid splashes of blood. The film enters Nicolas Roeg territory at times, anticipating Don’t Look Now (1973) by sixteen years. As with The Body Snatcher (1945), there’s the positive sense that ninety percent of The Curse of Frankenstein would work as a taut and tense stage play: the literate script (clever without drawing attention to itself) and marvellous supporting cast (even the dog is good!) make it so. Given that Hammer’s decline came when they went full-frontal – with sadism, gore and nubile peasant girls – there’s much to be said for The Curse of Frankenstein‘s frosty British reserve. This finds its truest expression in Peter Cushing’s peerless performance as Baron Victor Frankenstein. I’ve long thought that Peter Cushing was the single best thing about Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948). The Curse of Frankenstein cements Cushing’s reputation as the Olivier of horror. In my view, it’s Cushing’s best performance in the six-film series – narrowly edging out the heartless sadist found in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969). Taken as the sum of those six parts, Cushing’s Baron adds up to the most brilliantly conceived and realised character in all of horror cinema. It’s a sixteen-year mosaic of a genius’s decline from Byronic narcissism (The Curse of Frankenstein) to chillingly doddering insanity (in 1973’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell). And all this without mentioning Christopher Lee’s underrated, career-making turn as the Creature. The film demands to be seen.

HOUSE OF USHER (dir. Roger Corman, 1960)

House of Usher (1960)

Now that I’ve introduced the first of the Hammer Gothics, it would be remiss to ignore their American cousin: the Roger Corman Poe film. House of Usher (1960) was the first, and, in my opinion, the very best of a distinguished bunch. Each entry in the series had its highlights – the frenzied torture devices in Pit and the Pendulum (1961), the lavish photography in The Masque of the Red Death, the picturesque abbey ruins in The Tomb of Ligeia (both 1964) – but none improved on the cohesion achieved here. Corman’s style borders on the camp at times (early Hammer never did), but this gives the necessary lift to a story that would otherwise be unbelievably depressing (all but one character dies). Visually, the film is immersive, enveloping: all dark curtains, red candlesticks, bronze sculptures, and the occasional Daliesque portrait of an Usher ancestor. Even Mark Damon, an undeniably weak actor, is visually the part to perfection. Supreme among House of Usher‘s visual highlights is the dream sequence, which unfolds in incandescently colourful fogs, as the ghosts of the Usher ancestors make themselves known. As in The Curse of Frankenstein, the onslaught of colour signifies the belly of the beast; an evil undercurrent granted glorious eruption. The impact of the dream is heightened by Les Baxter’s use of a ghostly choir – in broad Halloween style, they even make little ‘woo!’ noises – a musical detail that would resurface in Tales of Terror (1962). Baxter’s lush symphonic score – littered with heraldic motifs, echoing dissonance, and heart-piercing romantic strings – is another of the film’s strengths. As Roderick Usher, Vincent Price gives the best horror performance of his career. Like the film in which it resides, its impact is profoundly sensual, perhaps taking its cue from the character’s hypersensitivity. It might best be described as syphilis personified. Price offers up a desiccated voluptuary wrapped in garish red velvet; his bleached hair and clean-shaven visage create a Price unrecognisable from the mustachioed rogue of House on Haunted Hill and The Bat (both 1959). There’s such unwavering belief in what Price does with Usher that it overshadows the tongue-in-cheek, Phibes-like villains he would play as his career progressed. As he lights his candles and plucks at the strings of a lute, one wonders at the great Shakespearean career Price might have had. (1973’s Theatre of Blood is sadly no indication.) Luckily for us, the fates sorted things differently. House of Usher is perhaps the most unheralded American horror film of the sixties.

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