Monthly Archives: March 2014

Fires of Industry

Much to my surprise, I’m feeling very content at present. I think because I’m immersed in abundant work. Everything’s expanding wonderfully after the minor annus horribilis of 2013. Whilst last year was soothed by the fulfilling dual tonic of Dickens and Dungeon, it sagged appallingly over the summer. This was principally the fault of some reprehensibly mediocre Shakespeare: low budget, low preparation, low ambition, low care for the company’s feelings, low everything to be honest – except misery (high). These stillborn productions are encapsulated in Lear’s words: ‘Nothing can come of nothing’ (and not for lack of trying from an admirable cast).

So: after mourning for what should have been, I feel I’m finding my feet again. As an aged Bette Davis said, bleakly but honestly: ‘It has been my experience that one cannot depend on human relations for any lasting reward. It is only work that truly satisfies.’ Which can leave you in the shit when the work goes wrong – but that’s a worthwhile trade-off for the moments of satisfaction.

In the spirit of nourishing work then, I have three events to announce: the eagerly awaited (by me, anyway) nationwide tour of Sikes & Nancy; my West End appearance as part of In the Penal Colony; and the bustling preparations for the Tyrannical Tudors show at The York Dungeon. I’ll go through them one by one…

Strangling Fagin

Last week, I received final confirmation that Sikes & Nancy will tour the country – from September through November this year. Just me, a long black coat and six wooden chairs, attempting to do justice to the darkest tale that Charles Dickens ever wrote. I find Sikes & Nancy an utter joy to perform. It’s a play that taps into so much that I revere: it demands huge reserves of energy, a relish for vocal and physical transformation, and that monomaniacal desire to step onto a stage and create an entire world (essential, I believe, for any one-person performance). Best of all is the direct contact with an audience: the chance to meet them head on, lock eyes, and give them a story. Magic.

In one light, ‘Sikes and Nancy’ exemplifies Dickens’ passionate devotion to work. It’s all over Dickens’ letters to friends. This, for example, in relation to his domestic strife:

I do suppose that there never was a man so seized and rended by one spirit. In this condition, though nothing can alter or soften it, I have a turning notion that the mere physical effort and change of the Readings would be good, as another means of bearing it.

Or this:

I must do something, or I shall wear my heart away. I can see no better thing to do that is half so hopeful in itself, or half so well suited to my restless state.

And not forgetting:

Too late to say, put the curb on, and don’t rush at hills – the wrong man to say it to. I have now no relief but in action. I am incapable of rest. I am quite confident I should rust, break, and die, if I spared myself. Much better to die, doing. What I am in that way, nature made me first, and my way of life has of late, alas! confirmed.

With ‘Sikes and Nancy’, Dickens’ work ethic spiralled, uncontrollable, from the manic to the purely maniacal. He worked himself up to multiple strokes – and died only months after renouncing the acting drug. Terrifying. Along with the blood-spotted Gothicism of The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Dickens’ final, unfinished novel), ‘Sikes and Nancy’ can be seen as the baroque climax to Dickens’ tempestuous life.

As with the show’s previous revivals (it’s just over a year since I last performed it), I’m hoping to engage more deeply with the material. Previously, I’ve looked at images, at Dickens’ other texts of crime and murder, and at the script itself, with microscopic intensity (a study which culminated in reintegrating fragments of the novel). My plan this time is to look outward rather than inward, and approach the piece as an echo chamber. Everything I study will resonate, no matter how faintly, in the final performances.

For Fagin’s sake, I want to look into how the nineteenth century created its Jews. There’s the uneasy, reactionary double-standard in allegedly sympathetic literature: Maria Edgeworth wrote the Jew-happy Harrington after she was criticised for the anti-Semitism of Castle Rackrent; Dickens himself tried to diffuse the impact of Fagin with an unconvincing Jewish philanthropist in Our Mutual Friend. Henry Irving’s production of The Merchant of Venice, today famous for its sympathetic Shylock, may have been equally manipulative: less political protest than a warping of text and audience emotions to command attention. Irving’s private belief about his performance – that ‘mine is the only great Shylock’ – suggests self-investment before genuine sympathy.

There’s also the Victorian popular obsession with crime, which broke out in a trail of forgotten sensation novels. These works memorialise dread criminals reminiscent of Bill Sikes: Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford and Eugene Aram, for instance – or William Ainsworth’s Rookwood and Jack Sheppard (the latter was published in Bentley’s Miscellany at the same time as Oliver Twist). Then there are the works of Poe (the first-person murder narratives) and The String of Pearls, that inaugural eruption of the Sweeney Todd legend, which good-naturedly plagiarises Oliver Twist‘s slew of beadles, bloodshed and persecuted orphans.

I’ll also be looking at the piece through a theatrical lens. There’s Henry Irving in his numerous crime melodramas: The Lyons Mail, The Iron Chest, but particularly The Bells, which in places reads like a transcript of ‘Sikes and Nancy’. But there’s also the exalted precedent of Edmund Kean in such lightning-crack roles as Sir Giles Overreach, Richard III, and – surprise, surprise – Shylock the Jew (the ferocious interpretation that Irving pulled against). Bernard Masters has usefully described such performances as Dionysian – ‘they make one feel the power of trance and hypnosis, that splendid but anxious sensation of being possessed’ – and this attack is indispensable for ‘Sikes and Nancy’.

The idea of touring is very exciting to me. It’s in the spirit of what Dickens did in the nineteenth century. By the end of the tour, I will have performed the reading more often than Dickens himself (Dickens gave his ‘Sikes and Nancy’ for the public on 27 occasions – albeit to audiences of thousands apiece). In what may be another milestone, this will also be the first time that ‘Sikes and Nancy’ has toured since Dickens’ time. None of my ‘Sikes and Nancy’ forbears – the Williamses Bransby and Emlyn, Donald Wolfit, Simon Callow – have taken the piece on tour. And whilst figures such as Dickens’ great great grandson Gerald Dickens continue to perform the Reading, it still hasn’t toured in isolation. (Not even Dickens did this, to be fair – he constantly changed the bill, and always paired ‘Sikes’ with a mood-lightening afterpiece.) So I owe it to this sensational drama to do it as well as it can be done.

As soon as I have details of dates and venues, I’ll post them up here and on my website. Stay vigilant!

In the Penal Colony

Moving on, I’ve been cast in a production of In the Penal Colony at the Arts Theatre, West End. The production is from the short story by Franz Kafka, reframed as an opera by Philip Glass. I primarily know Glass from his revisionist score to Tod Browning’s Dracula – and, like much of Glass’s music, it’s surrounded by controversy. I like Glass’s Dracula score well enough, but I agree with those who claim it plays better in isolation, divorced from the film that provoked it. This may shed light on the development of the Gothic. Browning’s Dracula stands less for the tradition of Stoker (which is disarmingly rationalistic) than that of Walpole and Radcliffe. Theirs is a heavily medieval Gothic, founded on fustian layering: tapestries, cobwebs, shadows, fogs. Layer upon layer upon layer – and all of these elements (crystallised in Bela Lugosi’s heavy, Kabuki-like performance) are present in Browning’s Dracula.

By contrast, In the Penal Colony represents the modern Gothic: a stripping away of layers; the search for the monster beneath the skin. I imagine Glass’s music is ideally suited. This penetrative quality is distilled in the torture device at the centre of Kafka’s story. Which is so unbearably horrible that it rattled even me. It’s a sensation that I only reliably get from H. P. Lovecraft. For Penal Colony, I’ll be reading not only Lovecraft, but as much Kafka as possible. I don’t know his work at all well, and given how often I’m splashing about in the grotesque, that’s quite an omission. (Have I even read The Metamorphosis? Don’t remember. Shameful.)

The Arts Theatre is where Waiting for Godot had its English language premiere; and, much more recently, where Simon Callow performed A Christmas Carol two years running. In the Penal Colony will play a two-night stand during the run of Ghost Stories. I’ve done one-day stands in the West End – my showcase at the Actors’ Church, Sikes & Nancy at the Tristan Bates – so two feels like a minor progress. It’s also worth mentioning that I’ll be acting, not singing.

So scribble down those dates: 16th and 30th June. Two Monday evenings. Be sure to book your tickets soon, via the Arts Theatre website. A sell-out is expected!

Henry VIII in Glass

Thus, long-windedly, do we reach the third point of interest. It’s the constant Gothic in my life: The York Dungeon. There’s a new show going in – ‘Tyrannical Tudors’ – which opens t0 the public on 4th April.

The Tudor show is a strong one, seizing and extending on a number of the Dungeon’s stocks-in-trade. As expected, there are the atmospheric (and heavily Gothic) sets and lighting – this time recreating St Mary’s Abbey, one of my favourite York landmarks. There’s gag after gag after gag – with some low-tech, pleasingly tactile elements jostling with more advanced tricks of light and sound. There’s also the timeless premise of a faceless monster hunting down the audience. This time, Henry VIII has been recast as the bogeyman. Like our Dick Turpin, we hear rather than see him; and like our William Brown, he can be glimpsed, but only at a remove (stained glass for Henry; Pepper’s Ghost for Brown). For the Easter period, there’s also going to be a disenfranchised monk entertaining the queue. To complete the effect, my comrades and I are being supplied with some monkly padding. Improbable in my case, but eagerly anticipated: it’s as close as I’ll come to playing Falstaff for the foreseeable future.

The Tudor show has been created on the former site of the mouldering dock scene, which formed the entrance to the plague surgery. So that means goodbye to the last bastions of the plague-ravaged street scene – something I fondly remember scarring me in childhood. I and a few other acolytes have salvaged the severed fingers of Clive, the old plague surgery’s notorious ‘jumping man’. This exemplary plaster digit lives on my desk now, a holy relic of a recent past.

The Dungeon’s slow transformation fascinates me. In part, it’s been organic, adapting to suit public demand: thus the transition from a humourless Chamber of Horrors to an immersive horror-themed pantomime. But the Dungeon’s transformation has also been crazy, fitful, uncharted; it’s gathered up the same crinkles and accretions as the histories represented within. The only places in the Dungeon that have stayed the same from my arrival (way back in 2008!) have been the Golden Fleece and courtroom sets, as well as a few spare oddments – the mannequins for Guy Fawkes, for example, or the writing-desk in Dick Turpin’s cell. Like Clive, these bastions of the past will one day be gone. But echoes will remain. If only in finger form.

The Dungeon remains dear to me for so many reasons. It may be the last attenuated gasp of repertory theatre. Where else do you get the chance to act with the same company of actors, sometimes for years on end? Or encounter so many different audiences? Nothing comes close. The Dungeon been (and continues to be) an ideal training ground. And a wonderful surrogate family. For all that, I honour it.

I’m hopeful that this year’s summer – and everything to follow – will be uncomplicatedly great. I’ll be hanging fire on the ol’ blog for at least the next month, to try and batter Henry Irving into shape. I’ll let you know how – and if – it all goes…

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Devil Music

I’m ever more convinced that the villain song is the modern equivalent of Victorian melodrama: that wonderful tradition of plays that set a dazzlingly charismatic evil-doer at centre stage. The villain song accomplishes this, if only for a few minutes. A villain song is a set number in a musical (or movie musical) where the villain explains and justifies their wickedness, or puts some wicked scheme into practice, or simply gloats over the joys of being wicked. The opening soliloquy in Richard III – ‘I am determined to prove a villain’ – accomplishes all of the above; were it set to music, it would prove the most comprehensive of villain songs.

But that does little to explain the unexpected complexities that turn up. ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ from, er, The Phantom of the Opera disperses its villain’s aura across an overture, umpteen orchestral reprises, a twisted love duet, and the hysterical cries of chorus girls. The result is, to put it mildly, distancing. In like fashion, villainy is transferred to the crowd for ‘The Mob Song’ in Beauty and the Beast and ‘Savages’ in Pocahontas. As echoes both of James Whale’s Frankenstein, this transference makes sense: angry villagers are the real villains, not the so-called Monster. And a song such as ‘Die unstillbare Gier’ from Tanz der Vampire builds sympathy for the villain out of all proportion to the story’s alleged goodies, completing the monster’s conversion to tragic hero.

Trouble with the Fireplace

‘Hellfire’ from The Hunchback of Notre Dame is also atypical. Judge Claude Frollo is certain that he is ‘a righteous man’, and his song is angst-ridden wail rather than moustache-twirling villainy. Yet I’ve never really doubted that ‘Hellfire’ is the greatest of all villain songs. It stills floods me with deranged elation. I can’t conceive of a time before ‘Hellfire’ entered my brain; like most of the highlights of childhood (or a Lovecraftian Elder God), it feels as though it always existed.

I can try to deconstruct ‘Hellfire’, but it’s a very tall order. So many elements make it ignite. At the centre, there’s the acting: the Shakespearean villainy of Tony Jay. In my estimation, Jay possessed the greatest voice of all time: a tight-coiled spring, crackling with dark, sepulchral majesty. It’s about the only voice that could make ‘the common, vulgar, weak, licentious crowd’ ring true (Frollo surely has the most literate vocabulary of any Disney villain: ‘Why invite their calumny and consternation?’ is another favourite). That Alan Menken raised the pitch of ‘Hellfire’ to make it a slight strain on Jay’s voice may account for the performance’s tattered emotion.

It’s vindicating to know that Frollo was Tony Jay’s salvation from a lifetime of junky (if fun) roles in Western animation. As he said at the time: ‘It’s my bid for immortality.’ Jay also had some outspoken views on the Hunchback, as this rare interview makes clear:

It’s a marvellous movie, you know … Disney pushed the envelope there, in an evolutionary sense. They took it a little farther than they normally do, and a lot of people stayed away because of that. There were things they couldn’t understand, but it wouldn’t maim them for life … It only made $102 million. By Disney standards, that is disappointing. It was not as much as Pocahontas made, but it was ten times the film Pocahontas was.

Jay’s voice completes the remarkable character design of Frollo, derived in part from the formalised paintings of van Eyck: the incredibly complex head (Frollo has to be the hardest Disney character to draw; his face has the emaciated complication of Peter Cushing circa Twins of Evil), the black-and-purple robes ever-swirling (a classic Disney colour combination, imported from Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty), the spindly legs. It’s wonderful, perfect. All credit to supervising animator Kathy Zielinski, a more powerful actor than the vast majority of actors. I can hang up my performing shoes in peace once I’ve achieved anything as incendiary as Frollo.

She Will Burn

On top of that, there’s the sound design. The roaring fire and the howling winds; the Latin chanting; the full-blooded organ-heavy orchestrations. And the art direction is glorious. We are privy to nightmare figures: a disarmingly sensual Esmeralda (reanimated by a worried studio, to make clear she’s wearing at least some clothing), a choir of red-robed monks. It’s also profoundly disorienting, with stone walls shifting – in seemingly every other shot – into a cycloramic expressionist void. The climax of the song is especially powerful. What’s casting these trailing shadows? The red-robed monks again? Knight paladins? Crusaders? Figures plucked from burial tombs – or Notre Dame herself? It’s never explained (how could it be?), and more unsettling for it. There are select moments where Disney enters onto the sublime – tracts in Fantasia, the evocation of St Paul’s in Mary Poppins – and this is certainly one of them.

God Have Mercy

There are so many other gems in ‘Hellfire’. There’s fact that the Latin comes from the Confiteor (the ‘mea culpa’ refrain also opens Judge Turpin’s ‘Johanna’ in Sweeney Todd, a likely source for ‘Hellfire’). There’s the way the song’s full perversity only insinuates itself when children turn adult, having lost their primary innocence, and entered, in a sense, into the Frollo way of life. But most thrilling of all? The fact that ‘Hellfire’ is a minor-key reprise of the Hunchback‘s title song, ‘The Bells of Notre Dame’. For me, that locates it at the dark heart of the melodrama. For all of its wisecracking gargoyles – an ill-conceived effort to wrest stone monsters into inoffensive play – it’s the purely Gothic that dwells at the film’s core.

I remain adamant that The Hunchback of Notre Dame was the last glorious laugh of the Disney Renaissance. The next year’s Hercules is tremendous fun, but a few steps down in my reckoning. I think largely because it no longer takes its villain seriously (or provides him a song, a trend that continued in Mulan and Tarzan). A good melodrama needs something to pull against.

Really, it needs the Devil.

It strikes me that ‘Hellfire’ has an exalted precedent – in the Brocken scene of Henry Irving’s 1885 Faust. The Brocken scene was a shameless and spectacular reimagining of the Witches’ Sabbath found in Goethe’s original Faust (Irving’s play was the work of Lyceum stalwart W.G. Wills). The scale was breath-taking, reckless, prodigal: the Brocken’s inaugural stagings boasted up to 500 supernumeraries clad as goblins, imps, witches, sprites, and associated nasties. As Michael Booth wrote in his Victorian Spectacular Theatre: ‘The Brocken scene was one of the grand spectacles of nineteenth-century theatre, and probably the most extraordinary scene of its kind ever performed on the English stage.’

Mephistopheles

There are numerous echoes of the Brocken in ‘Hellfire’. There’s the use of infernal choirs and music (Faust had a pit orchestra of between 35 and 37 – less theatre than grand opera); the vision of a maiden through the chaos (Ellen Terry’s Margaret); most importantly, the all-pervading fire, produced by a rain of gold tinsel, sparks of electricity and red-tinted gaslight. And then there’s the dominating figure at the centre: in this case, Irving’s red-clad Mephistopheles, who controls and manipulates the fire. The best compliment I can pay ‘Hellfire’ is that Sir Henry would have approved of it. And possibly even have thought it indecent. Incidentally, Irving would have made a fascinating Frollo. His most renowned performances (particularly Mathias in The Bells) were centred on a soul-destroying guilt. One of Irving’s greatest roles was as Louis XI, who Victor Hugo makes into a comically black villain in Notre Dame de Paris.

There’s a long-standing nonsense put about that W. G. Wills’ version of Faust was astonishingly bad. I took it upon myself to read it in the British Library and it’s a good deal better than its detractors give it credit for. Its verse is rough-hewn, yes, but always robust, pitched somewhere between John Webster and Dr Seuss. In the Brocken scene, Wills’ raucous verse aspires to music:

What a crowding, pushing, squealing!
What a roaring, grinning, screaming!
Whirl! leap and chatter! shine and spirt!
Give us the true witch element!

Wills also seems to gather inspiration from his contemporary, W. S. Gilbert – whose ghost-suffused Ruddigore might be another contribution to this Witches’ Sabbath on stage. Faust may not be high art, but it is very far from bad – and (returning to ‘Hellfire’) I think that Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics are often underrated in this respect. As with any good lyric, the words are completed by the music – and, more than that, the event. It’s as Irving’s Mephistopheles closed the Brocken: ‘Now music wild, hellish, infernal, and then mad!’

The theological origins of the Witches’ Sabbath are fairly murky. The Sabbath creeps into fiction with the likes of Lewis’s The Monk and Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, in which dubious Catholic officials persecute their ‘witches’ in the dungeons of the Inquisition (not so far removed from Frollo’s treatment of Esmeralda). The Sabbath found a still-unrivalled realistic depiction in the silent cinema, with a vivid sequence in Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 Haxan. It’s a film that demands to be seen, matching (and exceeding) The Exorcist in giving a sense of real evil forces. In a curious twist, it was Disney itself that created the twentieth century’s most enduring Witches’ Sabbath, via the ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ sequence in Fantasia. Here, again, are the elements that make ‘Hellfire’ so bewitching: pervasive flame, undefinable demons, and a glorious musical accompaniment. It’s also, ironically, a villain song without words. The dreadful fellow looming from the mountaintop, Chernabog, speaks nary a word, yet remains the studio’s purest evocation of evil. The dark side of Disney should (and possibly does) have a book devoted to it. It’s the aspect of their imagination that’s stayed with me.

These elements fall into yet sharper focus in later villain songs, in which witchcraft becomes explicit. Take, for example, ‘In the Dark of the Night’ from Don Bluth’s Anastasia – the honorary Disney villain song (from the film everyone assumes was made by Disney). Anastasia is a campy and diverting mess of a movie, worlds removed from Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH: punch-drunk Broadway spectacle rather than considered chamber piece. Its villain might be its most successful aspect. Rasputin is an interesting proposition: a decaying litch (‘a corpse falling to bits!’) in a children’s film. And this a good few years before Voldemort started growing his body back. Happily, Rasputin ensures that voiceover king Jim Cummings gets his day in the sun; he’s the actor who filled in (uncredited) for Jeremy Irons in the last verse of ‘Be Prepared’ in The Lion King. Then there’s ‘Friends on the Other Side’ from Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, sung by ‘Shadow Man’ sorcerer Dr Facilier. It’s something of a masterpiece, particularly come the frenzied climax, suffused in ghost-train pinks and greens. The music blooms into a variation on Raymond Scott’s ‘Powerhouse’ – the insistent ‘bohm-bohm-bohm-bohm’ from the Voodoo masks seems a direct channeling – helped along immeasurably by Keith David’s vocal pyrotechnics, alternately cavernous and oozing.

It’s interesting too that most villain songs find a way to get the Devil in. We need look no further than the offbeat selections of the second paragraph. ‘Die unstillbare Gier’ turns positively Miltonic with the line: ‘I want to be an Angel or the Devil himself…’ ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ doesn’t mention the Devil – but the Phantom casts himself in that mould later on: ‘this loathsome gargoyle / Who burns in hell…’ (quite a falling-off from the Angel of Music). The imagery of ‘The Mob Song’ derives from the baby-eating antics of the Witches’ Sabbath: ‘Set to sacrifice our children to his monstrous appetite’ wouldn’t look out of place on a Haxan intertitle. Meanwhile, ‘Savages’ hits satanic saturation point: ‘their skins are hellish red’, ‘dirty shrieking devils’, ‘the paleface is a demon’ and (most bombastic of all) ‘Demon! Devil! Kill them!’

More Trouble with the Fireplace

‘Hellfire’ is a particularly strong villain song in light of the above. It converts Frollo into a surrogate wizard – like a Rasputin or a Dr Facilier, he manipulates the forces of darkness even as they engulf him. The idea that the self-deluding Frollo is in unconscious league with the Devil is compelling in light of Victor Hugo’s novel, in which the citizens of Paris suspect Frollo of sorcery: ‘From the cloister, his reputation as a learned man had passed to the people, among whom it had changed a little, a frequent occurrence at that time, into reputation as a sorcerer.’ Although Disney – toiling as they do in religion-happy America – chose to downgrade Frollo’s official standing from archdeacon to justice (the same change that shaped the 1939 film), there remains that confrontation with religion. Not with the church institution, as such, but the underlying idea of religion – it’s the very notion of good that comes under siege.

Perhaps the true greatness of the villain song is in troubling the divisions between good and evil. In ‘Hellfire’, religion and devilry play out in symbiosis – yes, the Devil may attack the Church; but then, the Church might create a Devil and deploy it as a weapon. It’s these shifting relations that make this Devil Music so thrilling to listen to. One of the finest lines in ‘Hellfire’ goes: ‘He made the Devil so much stronger than a man…’ But thanks to the infernal mechanics of the villain song, this remains a debateable proposition.

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