Monthly Archives: October 2014

Dreaming to Order

Welcome to the fourth of the Sikes & Nancy production diaries! Should it take your fancy, the previous entries are as follows: ‘Forcing the Soul’, ‘The Hertfordshire Horror’ and ‘Into the Black Lagoon’. Now: let’s press on with the scheduled burblings.

The Theatre, Chipping Norton

THE THEATRE, CHIPPING NORTON (3RD OCTOBER). The town of Chipping Norton is beautifully haunting. A village that seems cleaved from the cliff-face, everything in stone and at an extreme angle – leading down, down, down to the Gothic church. It’s here that the oldest stones of all are found, as well as the resting-places of the dead.

The theatre was likewise haunting, at least from my view on the stage. We’ve played a few extremely dark spaces on the tour – Radlett, Middlesbrough – but Chipping Norton’s theatre also feels ancient. It put me in mind of the Georgian Theatre, Richmond, where I long ago played in Macbeth: a tall and narrow platform, angled threateningly towards the audience. Perched high on my wooden chairs, I must resemble an enormous bird of prey. I’ve since discovered that the building’s only been a Theatre since 1975 (although the outer structure is nineteenth century), which suggests its atmosphere derives from these spatial peculiarities. For it’s unnerving that the stage, like the village, points straight to the churchyard.

Happily, this performance marked an advance on the breakthroughs of Southend. Everything from the beginnings of the Murder – roughly the last third of the play – has become an exhilarating terror to perform. It’s almost a state of possession, with unpremeditated business breaking forth. Vitally, it seems my brain is alive. And it’s carrying me down increasingly skin-crawling alleys whilst I’m acting:

Silence. It’s becoming a solid object now: heavy, expansive, impenetrably black. It begins when Bill Sikes sneaks through his house-door ahead of killing Nancy: ‘He opened it, softly, with a key: strode lightly up the stairs…’ I treat this as an integrated stage direction, one that calls for a near-balletic motion. Which leads to pauses. Thus the invasion of silence – enfolding the entrance so completely that it feels like the beginnings of a dream. In childhood, I went through a phase of nightmares where I would open my bedroom door and walk straight into dark figures. Never did I see them. I felt them only. As Sikes then, in these silences, I have become that dark figure, that sketchy embodiment of sleep paralysis. Yet I am also Nancy – my childhood self again, the defenceless victim.

The dog as supernatural. I find it very unsettling that Bull’s-Eye rises as though from nowhere. He first appears as a last gruesome touch in the Murder (and one of the scene’s best lines): ‘The very feet of his dog were bloody!!!’ What to make of this? Throughout ‘Sikes and Nancy’, the descriptive passages in Oliver Twist are often cut to allow for more dialogue. Bull’s-Eye – a character with no access to speech – is so diminished by these cuts that his very essence shifts. During his long absences, Bull’s-Eye seems to have been absorbed into Sikes’s being. He has become a witch’s familiar. Or the black dog of English folklore. But then, Bill Sikes is himself absorbed into the Narrator – and I’m still disturbed by the question of the Narrator’s identity…

Who else is present on Sikes’s countryside flight? Jonas Chuzzlewit has started to materialise – a murderer for whom the countryside (and, in particular, leaves) had a special significance. Also Jack Sheppard, from the novel by Ainsworth, who ran rampant through the wilderness after escaping Newgate Gaol. But Eugene Aram is still foremost in my mind, albeit in a state of flux. He started off as the blood-drenched wraith of Thomas Hood’s ballad – but he’s slowly transforming into the brooding, melancholy presence of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel. This version of Aram is close to who I imagine the Narrator would be, were he able to break free from his story: an ascetic scholar and hermit; a pale and sickly neurotic; distrusted by the locals as a sorcerer yet possessed of a mesmeric charisma. It’s fascinating how Dickens’s single mention of ‘the solitude and darkness of the country’ sets an immediate atmosphere of Rural Gothic. It’s a peculiarly English tradition, perhaps encapsulated by Bulwer-Lytton’s Eugene Aram, which overshadows the tranquillity of Grassdale – a fictionalised Knaresborough – with the wilder weather and storm of the Devil’s Crag.

And what to make of that apparition? Dickens describes it as follows: ‘At his head it stood, silent, erect, and still: a human gravestone with its epitaph in Blood!!’ It’s an apparition that resists all visual comprehension. Quite uncharacteristic for Dickens, that most riotously descriptive of writers. It seems more a creature of modern horror folklore, all of whom seem to be unseeable. The shadow demon of the ghost photograph. Sadako in The Ring, head almost entirely obscured by curtains of lank hair. The Slender Man, that man without a face. Even the unseen figures of my childhood nightmares – for no matter where Sikes turns, the figure remains behind him. The apparition is emblematic of what Dickens does throughout ‘Sikes and Nancy’ – eliding the horrifying centre, and suggesting all through the encircling grisly details. Nancy is there and not there. And yet – is it even Nancy at all?

I can quite understand why some actors see ghosts onstage. I, possessed of senses less acute, merely enjoyed a fish supper after Chipping Norton.

Barnfield Theatre, Exeter

CLIFFORD ROOM, BARNFIELD THEATRE, EXETER (4TH OCTOBER). I nearly wound up studying at the University of Exeter. Based on this late visitation, I’d have been content here. It seems I had a knack for picking out locations eerily reminiscent of York. Rambling, hurled-together architecture. Cloistered ruins. Cathedral towns in spirit if not in fact. Which reminds me: I was greatly impressed by Exeter Cathedral, a strikingly bare Norman edifice. Such buildings, even so uncluttered, take me right back to discovering The Hunchback of Notre Dame as a child, and confusing York Minster with Quasimodo’s lair. Combined with some invigorating blasts of wind – and Tony Jay’s Frollo caterwauling on my iPod – this put me in an excellent performance mood.

After the technological wizardry of Southend and Chipping Norton, the Clifford Room proved a simpler arena. It was exactly that: a room. Again were stirred long-forgotten memories of school plays: the stage constructed of interlocking wooden platforms, the auditorium ruled by plastic chairs, the whole lit by flood-lamps rather than modern gels. Yet the Clifford Room is also quietly ambient: a cavernous old hall, evocative of the parish buildings that blight Oliver Twist. This frame is also helpful for encouraging me to focus on my performance at its most basic.

Exeter became the most successful performance yet for discovering the best levels for delivery. Levels are to me about communicating as much as is needed and no more. Yet I find this very difficult to achieve. I’ve long had an onstage anxiety that I’m too quiet and failing to enunciate. (Which is maddening: whatever my faults, I’ve rarely lacked for volume or articulation.) I imagine this springs from a generalised hatred of my voice as I was growing up. Without realising it, I started clamping-down, clamming-up, refusing to speak in public unless absolutely necessary. So whenever I did have to speak in public – teachers love picking out the child who never raises his hand – the act was so unfamiliar (and frightening) that I doubtless over-compensated. I also find levels tricky due to my phenomenally bad eyesight. The audience members I’m trying to reach, even when very close to me, inevitably seem to reside in the far-off distance. Some educated guesswork, and self-forgiving faith, is what’s required. Exeter was an encouraging move from interrogating my voice to trusting it more. Though this may have as much to do with settling into more of a run, my voice more than usually warmed by the last three performances. I should be firing on all cylinders by the time I reach Trafalgar Studios.

Exeter was also excellent for forcing me into an absolute belief in the storytelling. Without the technical infrastructure, there was little other than belief to sustain the atmosphere. Belief is above all what releases melodrama. Yet ‘Sikes and Nancy’ – unlike the run-of-the-mill Victorian melodrama – is a text with genuine literary (and dramatic) merit. So whilst it requires characterisation that might be better described as encrustation – a Dionysian attack – it doesn’t require free-wheeling invention (the ‘devil-dancing’ of which Henry Irving was often accused). The material can be trusted absolutely, without recourse to the tricks that so often signal self-consciousness.

Ralph Richardson captured the nature of this belief – as dreaming to order:

Acting is, to some extent, a controlled dream. In one part of your consciousness, it really and truly is happening … The actor must at any rate some of the time believe himself that it is really true. But this – in my experience, at any rate – this absolute reality, this layer of absolute reality, is a comparatively small one. The rest of it is technique, as I say – of being very careful that the thing is completely accurate, completely clear, completely as laid down, completely as shaped beforehand…

Coquelin has defined this state as ‘dual consciousness’ – the beginnings of real feeling, but tethered by conscious manipulation. As Richardson stresses, you don’t feel ‘complete’ without both. You must be puppet and puppet-master both. I was gladdened to feel some of this control in Exeter. Again, I think, consolidated by the three shows that came before.

Now, however, commences a large gap in the tour. So, that evening, I coat my overtaxed larynx in the previously forbidden alcohol (cider) and chocolate (Bournville). A dubious reward for its labours, though perhaps equivalent to wrapping the larynx in a big warm blanket. Perhaps. A six-hour train journey to York tomorrow – via Wales, bizarrely enough, by no means en route – and then a good few weeks of Henry Irving.

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Forcing the Soul

I’m more than usually engulfed in Henry Irving at the moment – the Irving play is very near finished – so there’s my excuse for this latest delay. I shall do better next time. And for those who are keeping track, do check on the previous Sikes & Nancy production diaries: ‘The Hertfordshire Horror’ and ‘Into the Black Lagoon’.

Middlesbrough Theatre

MIDDLESBROUGH THEATRE (25TH SEPTEMBER). Middlesbrough is only an hour from York, though this is my first visit to the cultural hotspot. A flavour of industrialised Victoriana; Coketown in Dickens’s Hard Times. A dense concentration of churches – I stumble on at least ten over a very small area – and the beautiful Albert Park, steeped in pockmarked statuary and autumn trees. This proves ideal for my now-traditional pre-show stompings. It’s a ritual that’s been in place since June 2012, when I was first absorbing the words for Sikes & Nancy – thundering about the Cambridge countryside for hours on end, rehearsing as one with the winds and the heath.

I’d been wandering a lot over the last few days, meditating on the words in a catechistic vein. I usually revel in long walks – the longer the better – but I’d found I was getting suspiciously out of breath. That night, in starting the show, I had my suspicions confirmed. Illness was upon me. I at once felt my throat to be hopelessly dry – and this despite having drunk a bowel-deadening volume of water. The breathlessness reinstated itself, along with the fear that the audience could hear naught but gasping. A cruel bind: worry is the most decisive element in producing more gasping. In general, the voice felt somewhat distant and unresponsive. Sikes & Nancy depends so much on pushing myself to the edges of my vocal range; to balancing on that edge, to daring the precipice. To find the outer edges of my range clipped off is thus disconcerting.

I’d had this mid-show fatigue once before, playing Sikes & Nancy at St William’s College in March 2013. All it really means is that a bad cold will be on me the next day. Which is actually very fortunate: how much nastier to be acting with the cold at full strength! The worst of it is that the show ceases to develop. For an evening, it’s pickled in aspic. Most everything goes over to muscle memory, every chamber of your brain straining to approximate the usual effects. There’s little space left in my head for enjoyment.

Whether illness gives the show a new edge, I don’t know. Ronald Harwood believed that the acting of Donald Wolfit (another interpreter of ‘Sikes and Nancy’) was released by unexpected trials:

The years of touring produced a staleness in his acting that required some unlooked-for stimulus to banish it. A London first night would suffice, but more usually an accident or mishap during a performance would extract a greater intensity to make the performance succeed as a whole, for he well knew that the assessment by an audience of a play was dependent on their surrender to his powers as an actor.

A similar release might come from illness in Sikes & Nancy. A dry throat can create a rawness, a grittiness. Breathlessness can be nerve-shredding. And having to force out an unwilling voice is an exorcism ritual. Rather like Jesus driving Legion into the herd of pigs. Within this show, my voice is Legion – it serves as the voice of many – and I must drive it into the audience.

After the show, I met up with Andy and James. Two fine actors who’d come straight from The York Dungeon. This was a fortifying reunion. Partly because it was so good to be back among friends. You miss your fellow actors in the one-man play. But it was also a reminder that the Dungeon has prepared me for acting being anything other than easy or convenient or graceful. James has performed the Dungeon’s Plague show in an unventilated room for well over three hours (the wicked legacy of late-running lunches). He came close to fainting and genuinely to vomiting. But he did it. Andy has nearly lost one of his fingers at the Dungeon – though that’s a slightly less typical story. Yet he was back the next day, suitably bandaged.

Battle-scarred veterans, the lot of us. It’s possible, I’m sure, to take things easier at the Dungeon – to go at it without any voice loss, any great fatigue, any fear you’re not giving the public what they need. But it’s out of keeping with the spirit of the task. The profound terror of Dickens’s renditions of ‘Sikes and Nancy’ was seeing a man perform so ferociously that he was disintegrating before you. Quite literally killing himself to create you a memorable drama. But this is an instinct that should be as much alive in a more relaxed context. I turn again to Henry Irving, as told by Gordon Craig, who compares the great actor to Saint Francis:

I would go so far as to say that so intense was the fire which burned within him, this belief of his that the ACTOR was all that really mattered, that he suffered keenly whenever he found actors taking things easily, and considering too lightly that thing which to him was really a sacred trust.

To actually suffer when things are taken too easily. Because, more practically, there’s a danger of making your audiences suffer. I maintain that an audience always knows – on some level – when you’re not giving it your all. What’s needed is a pantomimic impulse: to try and give better than you’re getting. I was pleased to discover that James and Andy are appearing in the same touring pantomime this year. If I’ve said it once: the Dungeon, at its best, is a glorified horror pantomime.

I’ve had days at the Dungeon so punishing that they’ve become an out-of-body experience. Hideous to experience, but, in retrospect, I’ve gained a fire of confidence. Simply from knowing I can do it. This training was also what convinced me I could sustain a one-man show. The idea for the first of them entered my head at the end of 2009. I could never have guessed it would take me to the West End in five years. I owe the Dungeon a great debt.

Palace Theatre Southend

DIXON STUDIO, PALACE THEATRE SOUTHEND (2ND OCTOBER). A wonderful gift from my landlady: a century-old edition of Oliver Twist. Although there’s no publication date – often a problem with older books – there’s a handwritten inscription at the front: 21st September 1901. This treasure was salvaged from an Oxfam bookshop. It seems that the charity bins all books that aren’t in perfect condition. Perhaps we need a new branch of Oxfam. To rescue the books chucked away by Oxfam.

In studying this book, on the morning of the show, I read Dickens’s 1850 Preface. He defends his representation of Nancy at some length:

It is useless to discuss whether the conduct and character of the girl seems natural or unnatural, probable or improbable, right or wrong. IT IS TRUE. Every man who has watched these melancholy shades of life, must know it to be so. From the introduction of that poor wretch, to her laying her blood-stained head upon the robber’s breast, there is not a word exaggerated or over-wrought. It is emphatically God’s truth, for it is the truth He leaves in such depraved and miserable breasts; the hope yet lingering there; the last fair drop of water at the bottom of the weed-choked well.

The above is also a good anecdote to accusations of untruthfulness in acting. A superficial untruth can sometimes point the way to something that naturalism can’t reach. As a lanky, corpse-like man passing myself off as a London streetwalker, I have little choice but to pursue this route.

‘Eeee! Is that the ghost of Jacob Marley?’ cried some amiable old relic as I sat in my pre-state, trying to look terribly serious. How correct she’d have been, had she seen me last Christmas. The matinee remained nerve-wracking from there. My voice and manner felt to me just slightly off-centre; the Narrator a little quavery, uncertain. This may have been because the show had been to bed for a week, but I suspected it was more a problem within my head.

Before the evening performance, I went down to the sea to ponder the difficulty. ‘Look at that dark water’ says Nancy, as she gestures to the Thames. In Dombey and Son – immortalised in Dickens’s Readings as ‘The Story of Little Dombey’ – the river is but the start. Here’s Paul Dombey in his sickroom:

When the sunbeams struck into his room through the rustling blinds, and quivered on the opposite wall, like golden water, he knew that evening was coming on, and that the sky was red and beautiful … His fancy had a strange tendency to wander to the River, which he knew was flowing through the great city; and now he thought how black it was, and how deep it would look, reflecting the hosts of stars – and more than all, how steadily it rolled away to meet the sea.

Dickens often uses watery reflections to suggest death: ‘Sikes and Nancy’ uses ‘the reflection of the pool of gore’ to indirectly convey Nancy’s obliteration. Light reflected – death seems to follow naturally from the absence of first sight. But how rarely we ever see clearly.

As I contemplated the sea, I brooded on emotional access. Nancy had felt rather locked to me. Thought and feeling should run on intertwining tracks, preferably fusing as one. Whereas I had felt derailed by unhelpful thoughts, unhelpful feelings: insecurities, technicalities, self-censorings, self-persecutings. Emotion must come to the stage. But it must be emotion of the correct order.

So, I begin listening to music and trying to think myself into Nancy’s sorrows. I’ve found Hadley Fraser’s ‘Again’ to be quite useful for this recently. A plea to stall a lost lover’s wedding; staking his soul at the fatal moment. Gorgeous song and voice and man – altogether heart-rending. In any case, it’s important that the song is simple and direct: it must communicate in an immediate manner, without venturing too far into abstract spheres. It’s as Noel Coward said: ‘Extraordinary how potent cheap music is’ (‘cheap’ strikes me as a compliment). Dickens saw emotional memories as profound in melting the human heart. His Christmas Books are all some variation on this theme, culminating in the final words of The Haunted Man: ‘Lord, keep my memory green’. I share Dickens’s belief. Anything other than mindless suppression. Embrace it all. The good and the bad alike will melt the heart – and then even the bad has come good.

Dickens’s declaration of ‘TRUTH’ also swam back into my head. I think back to moments in life where I’ve staked my soul on some emotion. None of them terribly recent. It’s partly been an effort to prove to myself that I’ve been in earnest – and how stupid that I ever have to prove that to myself. Amongst young actors, there can be a certain connoisseurship of dark and messy emotion. This was certainly what I found at university: everyone wanting to be seen to burn with the hard, gem-like flame; to be seen to surprise, to subvert, to dare; to be seen to live more intensely than the uninspired. One felt shallow by comparison. I’ve always regarded emotion as so central to everything I do that it’s never made sense to belabour it. Emotion is a fact, plain and simple, and to go on without is unbearable, madness. All the more reason to stake my soul as Nancy. Irving (via Craig again) had a phrase for this, very similar: ‘It is the soul, my boy; force the soul.’ Force it I would.

That night was the best the show had ever gone. A large and responsive audience helped, as did the confidence boost of having told the story earlier in the day. But it was the emotional thawing that really cleared the picture. It’s essential that Nancy give a glimpse of a world beyond the play. A Wildean garden, a place of loving feeling, as relief from stark Dickensian nightmare. The emotional flow also pays off in the show’s darkest excesses. From the Murder onwards, there are now the beginnings of a real take-off. I am creating vocal and physical shapes without pre-empting them. Some actors find improvisation easy. Not me. I have to trick myself into it – by tiring myself out, wearying my self-censoring little conscience. Another lesson of the Dungeon. How odd that ease should come from exertion.

The question-and-answer session yielded up a school group. A-Level, I think. Theatre Studies. Not so long since I was in such a class. They were utterly lovely, but I’m still searching for answers to their questions: from ‘How do you prepare for such a show?’ to ‘What advice would you give for getting into drama school?’ So much of my work has originated in blind intuitive stumblings that I’m at sea with dispensing practical knowledge. But ‘force the soul’ – that might be a good starting point.

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