Island Dreaming

To ensure these dreams are worth the telling, I must rescue the word ‘dream’. Above all, from the wishful completism of ‘come true’. Dreams do not come true. A dream come true is instantly converted back into a dream. ‘It’s my dream to climb Everest.’ So go forth and climb it. You’re left with the memory: another kind of dream. ‘It’s my dream to wed the one I love.’ So go forth. Be wed. Two collapse into one; the situation is transformed. The dream has not been vanquished, but it has been changed, absolutely.

Dream-territory is not fixed or solid or palpable. It is amorphous, ever-shifting. And so, with one seeming exception, my dreams are not specific. Moreover, dream-territory is a visionary realm – reaching deep down into the self, before opening out into the wider world. The mystics knew this. It might well be that I’ve reached the theatrical equivalent of a dark night of the soul. With Sikes & Nancy all wrapped up (for now, at least), my time has been quiet indeed. Where to go next? What story to tell? I’ve felt somewhat marooned. Not that it’s been unpleasant, this island dreaming, but I’ll be restless until I work out how to gain the land.

Richard III

To one day play Richard III. Richard is central to my dream to finally do justice to Shakespeare. Yet Richard is also a figure who exists outside of Shakespeare. His bunch-backed silhouette is shaped by so much else in this world: by a still-unfolding English history (the scoliosis-bound skeleton unearthed in Leicester), by former players of the part (the silk-draped buffalo-hunch of Antony Sher) and by wider cultural forces (from Basil Rathbone in Universal’s Tower of London – a near-imperceptible humping – to Anthony Newley in his aborted musical, ‘an envious mountain’ on his back). My struggles with Shakespeare have come from the long-drawn realisation that I, like Richard, am a bit of a satellite. Rather than serving as conduit for the poetry, my idiosyncrasies tend to overwhelm it. But with Richard, my peculiarities are strangely entitling. My curved spine, which denies me a centred physique and a resilient voice, may make me the first actor in history to embody the part without artifice. Richard could even move me towards finding how to serve Shakespeare properly: Antony Sher has been candid in enumerating his eccentric classical path, graduating from Richard to Shylock, Leontes, Macbeth and – next year – Lear.

It’s curious that so many of my dream roles have lost their lustre with time. But then, how can you be drawn to anything other than the surface until you’ve played the part? I’ve often fancied playing the Devil, for instance – but in what context would I be a worthy Devil? Marlowe? Goethe? Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale? Irving’s pantomimical Lyceum Faust? Richard might end in disillusionment. I’ve never found the play entirely gripping when I’ve seen it acted. I find it sags badly in the mid-section, a marsh of confusing court politics. Perhaps a streamlined script will be the order of the day, from an up-to-the-minute Colley Cibber. No matter. I’ll be damned if I don’t have more than one go at Richard.

To become the island. Better by far than being marooned! There’s a song called ‘Face of a Stranger’, which Stephen Schwartz wrote for the great Philip Quast. Within are these memorable lines:

They tell you no man is an island
But to me that’s not how it seems
I think every man is an island
Of secrets and longings and dreams.

To really feel ownership of my island-like qualities – that would be superb. How glorious to reach a point where all my tasks are self-created, or at least self-determined. Rather like the great Terry Jones, whose career has consisted of little else. I suspect that other young actors long for this. We suppress this longing, though, the better to collaborate. A wise instinct. That’s the best way to learn. But I fear that too much collaboration is of the wrong sort: a mere craving for approval, legitimacy, the safety of joining the establishment. This can deteriorate into the need for approval of any sort, from any source. We take on work that we never wanted in the first place. We lose our self-respect. And so dreams are badly compromised.

Funnily enough, I didn’t need that reassurance when I took my first steps towards acting. I marvel now at my primary arrogance: at age thirteen, I would read of Olivier and inwardly scoff – of course I could do better than that! But then, for centuries and centuries, the vagabond actor-rogue craved no sanction. Henry Irving has much to answer for here, in creating the modern theatrical knight. An honour once reserved for England’s most defiantly particular actor has become sadly generalised. For how much modern theatrical dabbling is a scrabbling for riches and glories? We must learn humility, we must learn we can indeed learn – but we mustn’t lose in courage. So why not collaborate in order to create our own work? My one-man plays have been steering me towards this, but better is collaboration with others alongside you. Bridging the gap between islands. As Quast goes on:

An invisible ocean surrounds us
Those who love us reach just the shores…

To honour the classic horror film. Much of my growing up came through the Gothic, as I’ve written at length before. In my imaginative universe, the greatest flowering of the Gothic was the classic horror film. That which shapes us as human beings retains a primary hold. Even when I’m at my lowest ebb, these films will yet move me. In the scrap above, I’ve touched on the actor’s cravings for approval. This, I think, should be overcome. As much as is possible. We should instead our work to serve something greater than ourselves. I would consider my purpose more than served if I could illuminate the horror film as art. In my recent experience, this has meant treading the paths of the great macabre actors. I’ve played Quasimodo to honour Chaney and Laughton, and will soon enough play Frankenstein’s Creature to honour Karloff and Lee. By transferring these spirits from film to theatre, I hope it would also become possible to restore their imaginative scope to world drama. Shakespeare needed no such encouragement. Nor did the Greeks. They knew the power of ghosts, witches, demons.

All this becomes part of my broader campaign to win respect for the underdog. My recent obsession with Anthony Newley derives, in part, from the fact that he never seemed to have much luck. I want respect for much-maligned scribblers (Ainsworth and Bulwer Lytton spring to mind), for gay people (Tchaikovsky, who I respect as much for his private struggles as his music), for those who loved unwisely and paid dearly for it (Oscar Wilde: whose scribbling and gayness both were torn apart in life; whose death cheated him of their eventual celebration). I suspect love is at the bottom of most of it. It’s also a neat resolution to the problem of self-love. There’s an ever-present danger that acting will come to naught but egotism. We succeed, then, if we relegate the self to these reflecting shards of the wider world. We can safely vent our demons, and perhaps convert them into angels.

To establish my own theatre company. This will happen. Someday. I’ve yet to find a focus for it. Or willing collaborators. The two will define each other. It will have something to do with all of the above. The chance to play a part or parts like Richard III. The self-sufficiency of blissful collaboration. And the twilight world of the Gothic… Dim ideas as yet. Some new version of Faust. A revised script for Bulwer Lytton’s Richelieu. A rendition of Eugene Aram. Something from Victor Hugo. A fairytale. A love story. Something entirely new. And then there’s Frankenstein

I’ll be on my island for the present, working out how to tie these scraps together. I might even make a raft of them.

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Filed under Essays, Personal Excavation

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