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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1 Comment

Filed under Announcements, Dracula, Henry Irving, Sikes & Nancy, The York Dungeon

One response to “Fires of Industry

  1. Good luck on all your endeavours James, if Sikes and Nancy comes anywhere near Oxford you will find me plonked in middle of the front row

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