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 (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.
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.