Monthly Archives: January 2016

The Funny Man is Me

These burblings are a continuation from last time. For their Newley-bound context, I direct you to the previous installment, ‘Drowning in Your Dream’. For a more primary view of my passion for Newley, read my essay ‘The Fool Must Die’. And rest assured, there is still more Anthony Newley to come – witness this magnificent portrait of his Ebenezer Scrooge (the work of Sacha Newley).

Newley Scrooge

Yes, I fell in love again. I cannot write of the experience in positive terms. It used to be quite different: when I last let myself love – five, nearly six years ago – I was grateful for the feeling to the point of grovelling self-abasement. There’s a social expectation that heartbreak is mentioned only in terms of survivalist positivity. I think this practice abominable. All it does is contribute guilt to suffering – a panic that you’re not getting over things more quickly. But life cannot be reduced to a Gloria Gaynor song. Most responses to break-ups and the like strike me as an effort to not deal with things; to try and dodge all the pain. This, in my experience, is deadly. Pain must be faced down, always. Only then might happiness follow.

Besides, I’m almost certain that people never get over anything. I certainly don’t. All one can do is absorb the change into one’s person and keep on moving. Not move on exactly. Perhaps, at best, move past. ‘Love Has the Longest Memory’ harbours just such a lesson. The lyrics are confused – appropriately and inappropriately – but their musical setting delivers a hammer-blow. The song rounds off Quilp, Newley’s adaptation of The Old Curiosity Shop. It’s faithful to Dickens’ unwittingly masochistic melancholy.

I know I held her hand in mine,
Though time has blurred her touch…
But when night robs my sight
I feel her much too much.

In my case, there was one especially decisive snag. There was not the least point in telling the object of all this loving agony. The man in question was not gay.

This is the baseline misery in gayness, irregardless of social acceptance: the vastly reduced chances of falling for someone who’ll be able to return your love. The body remains a fortress. This holds true even if you swallow the (discredited, surely?) statistic that one in ten people are gay. Still. There’s a bittersweet relief in having so much decided for you. And this before you’ve even begun.

As I wrote last time, my efforts to master my emotions are comical. This time, I wrote searching essays to myself, in a spidery hand – all of which seemed hysterically overblown when read the next morning. I cried very hard indeed – a cry that might as well be a laugh, so forcefully does it break out. I read a great deal too. Primarily about other men who chose silence. Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons (‘it’s a matter of love’), Tom Pinch in Martin Chuzzlewit (‘it will be set right’), and my old friend Kenneth Williams, the most self-important of the tragic clowns. This 1963 diary entry by Williams kept returning to me. It reflected my own morbid frustrations:

I wonder if anyone will ever know about the emptiness of my life. I wonder if anyone will ever stand in a room that I have lived in, and touch the things that were once a part of my life, and wonder about me, and ask themselves what manner of man I was. How to ever tell them? How to ever explain? How to say that I never found Love – how to say that it was all my own fault – that when presented with it, I was afraid & so I spurned it, or laughed at it, or was cruel, and killed it: and knew that in the process I was killing myself.

Newley, by contrast, gave full-throated expression to the void within. His proved the really purgative music. I most often returned to ‘What Kind of Fool Am I?’ This recording shows Newley at the peak of his powers. A grandstanding performance of love – you can see David Bowie emerging – mocking me for staying silent:

Why can’t I fall in love, till I don’t give a damn?

I was staggeringly right to give a damn. To tell the man in question would not have been kind or good. Not right; not under those circumstances. My primary impulse in love is to unburden myself. So many times I wanted to get the feeling out: to say the words, write a letter, do some unambiguous loving deed. My dawning awareness of my responsibilities felt a self-betrayal. Love may not happen very often for me – I’m averaging once every five years – but that’s no reason to inflict it on those at the receiving end. I unburdened myself to three or four good friends, then blundered on.

I can write now, a little, about what made him beautiful. I saw in him ease and simplicity. I saw in him danger and chaos and devil-laughter. I could see the flames of hell licking away at him. Such vulnerability is compelling: pleasure founded on pain, which is anyway essential to pleasure. I loved because he seemed so very unlike me, me, me, coiled-up in my self-reflecting neuroticism. Never could I get out of my own way. Nor could I do homage to him as I saw fit. Any revelation would have been mired in the clumsy, over-earnest flutterings of ‘My First Love Song’. Reading this paragraph, I realise that that still holds true.

Each endeavour
I may make to sing your praises
May not sound as it should do.
But I love you –
Please believe I love you…

There was also a pride in this passion. The sense that the man had a respect for my acting – for The Work, I should say – which had never been the case in my previous love-fallings. Quite the reverse: back then, I’d felt my every appearance on a stage was my saying: ‘How about this? Am I good enough yet? Am I – acceptable?’

This last point should have shown me where my passions truly lay. For whilst this feeling was roaring away, I had my busy, frenetic, jittery, maniacal work – Work – WORK. The last four months of my 2015 were comprehensively rammed. I was in at the Dungeon five, six, sometimes seven days a week. Halloween happened. Sickness happened. And trips to London for auditions and play-readings and meetings meant my very occasional days off were all but monopolised. There was a creative resurgence: a rehearsed reading of The Road with some inspiringly good actors; an overhaul of the Irving play, prior to sending it to colleagues and mentors; devising and writing and rehearsing Winter Gothic in York, thus satisfying my desire to get more plays out. It is staggering that I found time for even my pale ghost of a personal life.

Winter Gothic Still

How lost I’d have been without all this. I loved him, in truth, because we were so incompatible. I knew he was no fucking good for me – but he opened up a vision of an entirely different world. ‘Someone Nice Like You’ betokens just such an alternate existence. Below is the bit that breaks me; the most understatedly sad lyric I’ve encountered (find Newley’s version if you can):

And if we could live twice
I’d make life paradise
For someone really nice
Like you.

That hope of living more than once: the last refuge of the damned (recall Patricia Routledge as Alan Bennett’s Lady of Letters: ‘but this is it; this has been my go’). On this occasion, the world of love was all but obscured by my mountain of work. All of which carried me out into the real world, yet further into my fortress-self.

If there’s a running theme in the Newley song-book, it’s that pain might be salved through creative endeavours. I direct you to the galvanic three-fold climax of ‘The Fool Who Dared to Dream’ (as with much Newley, the execution leaves the lyric far behind) and the wistful sadness of ‘Pure Imagination’ (which is all about the lyric: ‘living there, you’ll be free – if you truly wish to be…’). By now, I am pleased to have said nothing. I shall go on saying nothing. Unless I feel I can do some good with the disclosure – a full disclosure. All or nothing again. But I don’t see what good it could do. So nothing it must remain.

How to sum up, then? 2015 seems a year of strange cruelties, of queer and dizzying pointlessness. Yet it was also a year of high comedy – his devil-laughter, yes, but taken over by Newley’s parade of sainted fools. A year of redemption, too – but only ever through The Work. I have no doubt that love is a very great gift. But it may not be a gift for me. Certainly not yet. Perhaps not ever – but should that ‘not ever’ come to pass, I’m hopeful I’ll be too busy working to care.

Let us finish with the strains of Newley’s ‘I’ll Begin Again’. It’s a song from Leslie Bricusse’s underrated Scrooge, which became Newley’s final role in the theatre. It’s a song that overturns the nihilism of Newley’s self-penned ‘I’m All I Need’ (which, believe me, was much with me last year). Through Newley’s performance, it opens out – and up:

I will start anew,
I will make amends,
And I’ll make quite certain

That the story ends
On a note of hope,
On a strong amen,
And I’ll live in praise
Of that moment when
I was able to begin again!

I shall have this song played at my funeral. Not that I plan on dying; I fully intend to live forever. But begin again? I have, and do, and will continue to do so.

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Drowning in Your Dream

It was in 2015 that I discovered Anthony Newley. He was my patron saint that troublesome year. A man of the theatre, to which he brought new expressive possibilities. A man who did homage to Dickens, in musicals of The Old Curiosity Shop and A Christmas Carol. A man who yearned, unceasingly, to achieve love – and who always counted himself a failure. Pictured below is his wonderful ‘Who Can I Turn To?’ from The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. I’ll be drawing attention to other Newley songs. Many are masterpieces in miniature. So play along with me – do, do.

Who Can I Turn To

A conspicuous hole in my 2015 was just how little I wrote. There were two (necessary) redrafts of the Irving play, some light flourishes for Winter Gothic, a few other scripts that I was never at peace with – and four essays on this website. This last is the most inexcusable. At the very least, life-writing keeps a muscle honed. And at best, it is the most liberating self-help, something I was sorely in want of last year. But toiling under the delusion that blogs exist to be read – and what blog has ever been read, truly read? – I decided not to waste more of my time on one.

Essentially, my sense of humour ran out. Now I am more amused by my cosmic littleness: ever striving, self-important, to find order in my universe. By pretending to be other people. The last laugh of 2015 was when the Dungeon again flooded to levels inoperable. Three years ago, I felt a light tragedy (there I stand as the Reaper, dramatising). But this second time, I feel weariness, giving way to contained hysteria. A lingering ‘oh, really?’ followed by ‘is that the best you can do?’

Dungeon Flood 2

Blogs are for writing, not for reading. So here I am again, bashing away at the keyboard, trying to make sense of 2015.

It began in recovery. I was rounding off an exhausting spell at Trafalgar Studios, where I’d been acting my one-man play Sikes & Nancy. One performance of ‘The Murder’ – as Dickens mortally demonstrated – is liable to cause a stroke. Well, I performed it thirty times in four weeks. I have my own word for this strange form, the theatrical nervous breakdown: ‘heartattacting’.

It therefore seemed right to take a month out. Make sure that I properly recharged my batteries. The one-person form can beget a stifling neuroticism. Instead of getting lost in another person on stage, you retreat ever further into yourself: your body, your face, your voice; above all, your mind. Increasingly, the play becomes an act of self-definition: you are the play; the play is you; and on and on and on you go, in ever-tightening circles. Strangulating. I had become my own fortress. It was vital I tried to escape.

During my long-drawn attempt, I came to Anthony Newley. This began with hearing – more accurate, beholding – his thrilling rendition of ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’. I still think it Newley’s keystone work. Flushed with first love, I wrote thoroughly of it at the time.

Anthony Newley typified that cosmic littleness which I was struggling to locate in myself. Newley’s constant metaphor is the fool versus the world: we are all silly little clowns and jesters and zanies, and our only refuge is in laughter, the laughter of the damned. Newley’s music is not without its flaws. But there is an irrepressible rightness about it, as with the best of Cole Porter. Both miraculously created new old folk songs; songs that transmute their surface littleness into an almost mythic vastness.

Cole Porter’s song-book stands alone. But Newley’s songs are best, by far, when completed by Newley. Once you get into an accommodation with him, even his flaws become assets. Newley’s sentiment can seem gushing, excessive – before his passion-performance will confirm its sincerity. His warbling vibrato becomes the sound of the soul erupting from the body – the more so when imperfect, when unachieved.

Newley made of his person a self-defining theatre, each emotional impulse externalised and heightened. This might be my deepest point of sympathy. Translate Sikes & Nancy into cabaret and you have ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’:

Look around you, Mister Clown
You’re drowning in your dream.
A sea of strangers, each one reaching out for you…

This idea of ‘drowning in your dream’ has haunted me. Sikes & Nancy had fulfilled quite a few of my acting dreams. I was acting on London’s West End – and in the title role (title roles, to be precise). I was serving Charles Dickens, that writer I love beyond all others. I was advancing myself as horror actor, pitching my performance between Henry Irving and the vintage horror film. My hero Simon Callow even gave the show his blessing – and, on the last day, his attendance.

Yet, as Wilde said: ‘When the Gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.’ Such colossal good luck at age twenty-three is all but unprecedented. I would be a swine not to see it. I remain supremely grateful for Sikes & Nancy. I look forward to tackling it again. But what was I to do with my acting now?

The first half of 2015 passed in fitful cycles. I would work like a fiend to make more acting appear. I would then take an absolute break, because I couldn’t take the frustration. Yes, I was acting at the Dungeon – but that, to me, has long constituted ‘the work’ as opposed to ‘The Work’. But nothing is quite as exhausting as working to secure The Work: working and waiting, then working harder, then waiting much longer for something, for anything to turn up. ‘It Isn’t Enough’ exemplifies this unhappy Micawberism:

It isn’t enough to hope.
It isn’t enough to dream.
It isn’t enough to plot and plan and scheme.
It isn’t enough to stand here, saying that life is grand here,
Waiting for something good to turn up…

I eventually read my reviews for Sikes & Nancy. That was in May, I believe, almost a half-year after the show closed. On a base level, I needed to raid them for quotations, to press into letters and the like (thereby facilitating The Work). But I hoped also to best my old terror of criticism. Better the whole humbling truth, after all, than a fear-hewn fortress.

The experience proved shattering. I did them all in one go: digested nearly forty appraisals of me, me, me. At this distance, I see that the reviews were, on the whole, extremely good (you’re welcome to survey the good bits). But I hadn’t the benefit of distance. How could I? Not only was I the piece’s actor – its sole actor – but its deviser, its designer, its director. There was nothing to read that didn’t somehow impinge on me. Implicate me. Writers pointing out all that was ‘remarkable’ in my person, for good or for ill, all that was conspicuous enough to provoke some ‘remark’.

I am a monumental self-doubter. So it was no shock that I mainly absorbed that which was deemed clumsy, or jarring, or misjudged. But it was the bald fact of exposure which was really insufferable. I am a man who always avoided his school reports, all from fear of knowing what people think of me. In trying to connect with the outer world, in reading those sod-buggering reviews, I was only drawn further into my fortress-self.

Really, I needed to learn from Newley, and rejoice in my idiosyncrasies being noticed at all. ‘This Dream’ would often insinuate itself, in my trampings to and from the Dungeon:

I have this dream,
I have this wonderful dream where I win,
Where I win every battle I fight,
And I kill every dragon in sight!
Each night, I like awake and I wait for this dream.
What a world I create, when I dream I’m not lonely…

Ah, loneliness. Something that plunged me into an appallingly black mood in February, just before I resumed the Dungeon. For I am a man without a personal life – and I think people with a partner (or the meaningful possibility of such) find it easier to tread water.

I think much of this void is the consequence of not talking about being gay. It was in 2003 that I realised I was gay; it wasn’t until 2010 that I discussed it. And then with only with two or three people. That’s a long time in hiding. My first instinct in this had been not to make anyone else uncomfortable. Selfless. Seemingly. In actual fact, self-persecution. Clearly, it was me who was more uncomfortable than anyone at the idea of my intersecting with love. That dread of uncontrollable exposure – as with a stack of theatre reviews.

Silence can speak. Over the years, I’d worked myself to a point where practically everyone about me knew I was gay – without my ever having said a word on it. This no doubt gave the impression that I found the subject incendiary. Thus nobody mentioning it, least of all me. A cycle difficult to break.

Well, this year I got a good deal better at talking about being gay: freely, easily and, yes, even gaily. Why this change?  I’ve been blessed this year to be surrounded with people naturally more comfortable with themselves – who regard sexuality, quite rightly, as a non-issue (and, furthermore, a source of great fun). It’s been liberating, being so taken out of myself. It’s answering – albeit slowly – some deep-seated need in me.

Then again, I may have simply gotten bored. That constant rumble of low-level internal pressure. What had it all been for? ‘What Kind of Fool Am I?’ swims into my head. It comes from Stop the World – I Want to Get Off, a show that follows Newley’s Littlechap from birth to old age. This is the last he sings before death. It’s especially painful on Newley’s final studio album, blasted out across his frail, attenuated vocal cords:

What kind of clown am I? What do I know of life?
Why can’t I cast away this mask of play and live my life?
Why can’t I fall in love, till I don’t give a damn?
And maybe then I’ll know what kind of fool I am!

When shall I ever be able to answer these questions? For something in this idea of a long-drawn coming out – this lifetime of coming out, in fact – remains dreadful to me. To me, openness should really be total. Or else null. It’s this bloody-mindedness, I believe, which prevented me disclosing my sexuality on a more trivial basis. It had to be a full-blown, all-embracing romantic love. Or else nothing at all. A poet or a monk.

This ‘all or nothing’ principle is the only real danger I have in me. It has continually thwarted my love life. Yet I suspect it’s also been the foundation of anything worthwhile I’ve achieved, in stoking my single-minded devotion to work. A work in which I try to assume Newley’s ‘mask of play’ – that play I’ve found so hard-won in life.

Fortunately, I did have a long-awaited victory with my acting. In August, I managed to get Frankenstein’s Creature before an audience. I wrote on the build-up to it here. And now, in the retrospect, I regard it with untroubled joy.

Despite playing a monster, the king of monsters, I found myself being more human than I’ve ever been on any stage, ever. I credit Jack, my director, with that – for not letting me get away with anything. I credit also Quentin, my producer – for standing by Jack in not letting me get away with anything. Every choice was expertly interrogated. Don’t whine – don’t ask for pity – for God’s sake, stop elongating your vowels – stay playful with it – above all, keep thought alive. At last, I was liberated to deliver that which I’d sighted in Sikes & Nancy: lightness, quickness, ease. The ‘mask of play’ redeemed.

The Creature has displaced Quasimodo – in my mind, at least – as the best performance I’ve given. I shall do Frankenstein’s Creature again, and right gladly.

Creature Ascends

Best for me were the play’s final moments, where the Creature transcends all earthly things. In embracing his isolation, he locates in it the opposite, and joins with the impossible vastness of everything. So it can be with one-man theatre. The staging was patterned on Newley’s Expressionist pantomime in ‘Who Can I Turn To?’ (much more than I realised at the time, as the photo illustrates). Newley stands on his loneliness also:

With no star to guide me
And no one beside me,
I’ll go on my way and after the day
The darkness will hide me.

That August, I shared the Creature’s ecstasy. By the end of the run, I too felt reborn.

Then, a few weeks later, an accident.

I went and fell in love.

More on that next time.

And maybe tomorrow, I’ll find what I’m after…

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Filed under Essays, Experiences, Frankenstein, Personal Excavation, Sikes & Nancy, The York Dungeon