Into the Black Lagoon

Here begins an attempt to chronicle my preparations for Sikes & Nancy – shortly to be rehearsed, teched, dressed, prodded about the country and then (lovingly) hurled into the West End. Consider it a diary of sorts. Charles Dickens began a diary – his very first – in January, 1838. It terminated on the fifteenth:

Here ends this brief attempt at a Diary. I grow sad over this checking off of days, and can’t do it. CD.

Solitude, sometimes swelling into loneliness, is inescapable in the one-man play. This may also be true of diaries. It falls to the actor to alleviate this solitude by any means possible: above all, by direct contact with their audiences. But there are other ways too. It’s my hope that, in converting my daily meanderings into text – meanderings which often drive me to aggravation, so great is my blindness to their wider point – I can better discover their meaning, possibly even a light wisdom. Accordingly, I will steer well clear of the Dickensian school of life-writing (sample entry: ‘City people and rather dull’) and record only that which has helped my journey to the heart of Sikes & Nancy.

1ST SEPTEMBER. A dream in the early hours: an imagined performance review at the Dungeon, in which I’m winningly told how ‘undisciplined’ and ‘uncontrollable’ an actor I am. Funny, really, the cast-iron continuity of an insecurity. Ever and always do I worry that my acting is somehow inappropriate, embarrassing, uninhibited through personal wreckiness rather than ease (or – God help me – bare-faced ‘ham’). Perhaps it’s as well that this is my last day at the Dungeon. Happily, it’s a day that looks forward. I start with a long stint on Ghosts: grim period storytelling with a flavour of Poe’s first-person murder narratives, precisely what I get up to in Sikes & Nancy. There are also shorter bursts on Turpin (playing a character not unlike Bill Sikes), Entrance (what more forward-looking than being out of the building?), and, unexpectedly, Torture (coincidentally, the last show I gave at the Dungeon in 2013). On finishing my shift, I annotate my script over a pot of tea, then proceed to my class in the Alexander Technique: tonight, a pleasing mish-mash of tightrope-walking, saddle-sitting and back-lying. Of all my efforts to exalt my spine from the dimensions of a slightly crushed paper cup, the Alexander Technique has been the most effective. On getting home in the evening, I set up a Facebook Page for the show (which looked very much like this) and select a film to put me in the Sikes & Nancy mood. Having read so many of the Newgate novels that swirled about Oliver Twist on its first serialisation – Jack Sheppard, Eugene Aram, Paul Clifford – I’m trying to connect to films with a like sensibility. I settle on Hammer’s Edwardian murder-fest Hands of the Ripper. I last about half an hour, dropping off some time after Dora Bryan is impaled on a door.

2ND SEPTEMBER. Another anxiety dream: this time, I sit reading the newspaper reviews for Sikes & Nancy. They fill me with bowel-clenching dread, brimming as they do with negatives phrased as positives: ‘this was one of the least disastrous moments in Swanton’s performance’ and the like. I’ve already vowed to abstain from all reviews of the show – but, as in the dream, I’ll be dying to know what’s been said. Today proves little more productive than brooding on one’s own reviews: every time I get working on the script, the phone seems to ring with a new production issue. One such call reminds me to start booking digs for the tour. I get five or six places sorted – hotels, houses, hovels, all – and read Peter Ackroyd’s mighty tome Dickens come afternoon. Dickens’s mixed response to being pushed about America steel me somewhat for my shufflings across England. Dickens’s thoughts on the Separate System in American prisons are also helpful: ‘I looked at them with the same awe as I should have looked at men who had been buried alive, and dug up again’ and (Dickens’s italics) ‘What if ghosts be one of the terrors of these jails?’ Sikes & Nancy unfolds in precisely that uncanny valley: the Narrator looks on scurrilous criminality from afar, yet succumbs to all its blackest terrors. My Alexander class passes in a haze of foot-rubbing, chest-compressing and cushion-strapping. A slightly harassed and lonely day. That night, I watch more of Hands of the Ripper. As I do so, I make out my Sikes coat, burning through the darkness against the white wardrobe door. Perhaps it’s Krook, dispatched from Bleak House to torment me. Or one of those ghosts that haunt the American prisons.

3RD SEPTEMBER. Certain I had another dream. Can’t for the life of me remember it. Perhaps the coat beat it back. In any case, finishing Hands of the Ripper is a fine substitute. It’s sorely overlooked, even by Hammer standards: beautiful music, the most atmospheric use of St Paul’s since Mary Poppins and a fog-bound cityscape that could comfortably house Fagin and Sikes. I’m always deeply touched by the idea of the April-December romance, here between the middle-aged doctor and the Ripper’s virginal daughter. What makes that so? The idea of love beating back death? A permutation of Beauty and the Beast? It may be even simpler: so much of Sikes & Nancy is primed on inappropriate loving feeling. Endlessly relatable, these loves we are told should simply not be – and central, I think, to my dabblings in the grotesque. As I annotate the script, I’m struck by the need to more carefully pattern Nancy’s speech; to lessen that generalised gloss where my brain clicks into the ‘EMOTE!’ setting. Perhaps mining the Narrator will be key. He’s my enigmatic quarry. To say that the Narrator is really Dickens, or me, or a complete non-entity (ah: already said ‘me’) is a cheat. And a simplification. For the Narrator is everyone: an embodiment of multiple characters, a fulcrum of unspooling grotesques. He’s somewhat like Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Past: ‘being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body…’ The Narrator becomes a crucible for the textured nastiness disclosed within Sikes & Nancy; the figure that makes it possible for the actor to step forth and embody an entire world. More practical, today was my first attempt to limit my dairy intake to keep down my catarrh. Whoever the Narrator is, he should not be mucusy. Nor should he be self-conscious: today’s dose of Alexander Technique is beset by this. My teacher notes that my eyes turn inwards and I cease to breathe when running lines in my head. This cannot be! Some business with finding the feet and pointing, and, better yet, bean bags, goes some way towards remedying this. The self-consciousness is senseless, all told. The main point of Sikes & Nancy is to look the audience square in the eye and tell the story. An evening of reading (Oliver Twist and The Invention of Murder), admin and admin-lite (for ‘admin-lite’ read ‘pratting about on Facebook’), before starting The Spiral Staircase, another film with the phunk of the Newgate gallows.

4TH SEPTEMBER. A pleasing morning. The script grows ever deeper, a headlong plunge into a black lagoon. It’s a register that reminds me of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: I sense a near-impenetrable blackness, from which objects briefly emerge before descending from view. Perhaps I’m lured into this trance by the bean bag technique. This requires throwing a bean bag in the air and catching it to correspond with phrases in the script, all the while directing your eyes to specific focuses through a window. A difficult adjustment, but thereafter helpful: no longer is my focus turned inward. The Alexander Technique is more encouraging today, trying to get my thighs to ease up and do less work (I have a peculiar gait where my knees seem to propel my legs about). Then to the Dungeon’s end-of-season party. I enjoy parties, really I do, but I’m never sure how to behave at them. I’ve lately settled on a garrulous buffoonery – a success, in that it brings me more joy than awkwardness. Yet I can never shake the feeling that, were I only to crack how to act at parties, I would stumble, quite naturally, on the much better party going on in the next room. Acting and personal dislocation go hand in hand. We’re a race terrified of being left out, overlooked, forgotten, transferring our professional anxieties to day-to-day life. Or is it the other way round? The best diagnosis I’ve found is in Gordon Craig’s visionary biography of Henry Irving, which I read in February. Craig is romantic yet profound in asserting that Irving was all actor:

It was not only in his face – it was all over him. It was not put-on – not acting in that sense – but it was such a concentrated essence of love for that to which he had devoted his soul that it became positively terrifying, unless by chance you knew what it was that he was thinking of, seeing, hearing, and noting … For it meant the whole of this world and the next, with Irving, to be an ACTOR, and in his innocence, his proud innocence, he supposed it meant as much to every other performer.

As with Irving, I feel that virtually everything in my life is either founded on or pointing towards acting. A blessing and a curse. Irving’s personal life was by no means good. It may also be true that the finest actors have something in their lives which has nothing to do with acting. Yet as I type, I can discern Irving’s lanky spectre at my shoulder: ‘So, er – why, um, have a party, m’boy? Why, the acting was the party!’ Fortunately, the one-man form transforms this monomania into a positive virtue. Besides, I’ve never been so good at anything that I can afford to go at it on a part-time or non-obsessive basis. If you’re after a real go at acting, what other way to do it?

5TH SEPTEMBER. The sort of day where exceptionally little gets done. I manage a few line-runs: first at home with the bean bags, then in walking through the countryside (or what passes for countryside in the sterilised wilds of Acomb and Poppleton). I also attend my last Alexander Technique class, which contains some practical, play-focused advice. I am now forbidden to think about the Technique whilst acting. You learn it in order to forget it. You trust that it’s there on some level and then you get on with your craft. Reassuring, as I believe that a conservative degree of ‘over-doing’ is indispensable to Sikes & Nancy. I belong to the Henry Irving school of murder: you can’t orchestrate killings in the theatre without some stormier madness at work. An audience will sense you faking. In playing Mathias in The Bells, Irving would, by sheer imaginative force, cause the blood to drain from his face and his pulse to soar. He employed the same in reciting ‘The Dream of Eugene Aram’ (an item that Dickens’s ‘Sikes and Nancy’ may have been designed to top):

Oh, God! that horrid, horrid dream
Besets me now awake!
Again – again, with dizzy brain,
The human life I take;
And my right red hand grows raging hot,
Like Cranmer’s at the stake.

The above perfectly encapsulates Sikes’s flight through the countryside. I’m perplexed that the poem is all but forgotten. A good deal juicier than Poe’s ‘The Raven’. On walking home, I listen to Damien Rice’s ‘Rootless Tree’ and ‘Loving You’ from Sondheim’s Passion. Both strike me as a distillation of Nancy’s predicament, the latter especially: ‘I will live and I would die for you.’ My acting must aspire to the condition of music – something quite possible within the one-man form, where it’s down to set the rhythms. Had a nice conversation with Jack Gamble, which returned me to madness, this time in the form of Ruskin’s haunting self-portraiture. More of The Spiral Staircase, then sleep. A week tomorrow till rehearsals start in London. And so tomorrow I must speak the text.

6TH SEPTEMBER. Great productivity. Great happiness. With the house empty and the windows closed – to be overheard is unendurable – I wander about and speak the words. I do this for just under three hours, ruminating on the first two-thirds of the script: shaping and reshaping the sounds (it’s not sufficient to parrot the old rhythms), listening all the while to the vibrations. The sensation is enjoyable. And, as though conducting a séance, I’m luring back the old character voices (this after luring back my higher register – always a fatality at the Dungeon). Fagin and Sikes will take a few weeks to materialise, but the others come on splendidly. Some new discoveries: Nancy requires a certain breathiness to take hold, Bolter an oily gusto; the Narrator, meanwhile, can borrow much more from my own voice. I also feel I’m seeing the piece more clearly: seeing the people I’m addressing, seeing a London drenched in perpetual night, seeing as far as I can into the black lagoon. After this exhilaration, it’s back to assembling quotations for the Sikes & Nancy post-show discussions. In doing so, I’m reading (usually re-reading) the words of Dickens and his contemporaries, as well as passages from The Jew of Malta and Macbeth. In Barabas I find the monstrous essence of Fagin: ‘For so I live, perish may all the world.’ In Macbeth I access the visual qualities of the piece: ‘light thickens’ – and in his Lady those bloodstains that never go away: ‘all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand’. That night, I dream I’m backstage on Broadway for The Phantom of the Opera. Cavernous wing space – quite unlike any real theatre – into which dry ice and organ music flood. A sign, I hope, that the melodrama’s entering the blood and the bones.

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Filed under Acting Theory, Experiences, Film, Henry Irving, Personal Excavation, Sikes & Nancy, The York Dungeon

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