Category Archives: Acting Theory

The Mystery of Christopher Lee

Most of my heroes in acting are long dead. Karloff, Wolfit, Irving – there’s no need for me to come to terms with their absence. I have known them always as completed by death: their narratives lying fully writ. So it was a considerable shock to me when Christopher Lee passed away. A full acceptance isn’t possible when you’ve gotten used to someone’s life and work developing before your eyes. Even now I feel cheated of closure. As I prepared to play Frankenstein’s Creature – Lee’s breakthrough role, back in 1957 – I started to meditate on the great man’s legacy.

Lee Portrait

Christopher Lee remains a mystery to me. For over half my life, family and friends have brought me his newspaper clippings; warned me of his television appearances; accompanied me to Tim Burton films, just to hear his two or three fateful utterances. And yet I can explain practically nothing about Lee – neither the actor, the man, nor the uncanny filmic hinterland where the two fused as one.

Lee’s life reads to me like an old mystery play: a profound and dazzling romance, founded throughout on the supernatural. And as with the mysteries, there is a return from the dead. Taken collectively, Lee’s performances as Dracula constitute a dark parody of the Christian Resurrection. His Stations of the Cross are frenziedly theological; particularly Christ-like are his impalements on a giant crucifix and, a century later, on a hawthorn hedge. A principal delight of the Hammer series was in witnessing how each successive film – with varying results – undid the death in its predecessor. Now death has come for real – but the romance is still hanging in the air.

Lee Thorns

For it has been a romance. Albeit one conducted mostly within my head, across many years of prizing up the holy relics. Such has also been my experience with Lee’s compatriots in terror cinema: with Lon Chaney; with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff; with Vincent Price and Peter Cushing. Only Christopher Lee was very much alive and, until recently, very active. Primary contact is lost in the fog of early childhood, though it was probably his King Haggard in The Last Unicorn. My first really conscious inheritance was Lee’s Saruman in The Fellowship of the Ring. Captive in the cinema, aged only ten, I awakened to the beauty of that smouldering voice:

Smoke rises from the Mountain of Doom. The hour grows late, and Gandalf the Grey rides to Isengard, seeking my counsel. For that is why you have come – is it not? My old friend…

Old friend indeed. For somehow, strangely, I had intimated that this was Christopher Lee whilst watching him. It was something in the long, angular hands, in the dark Italian skin and the noble features (albeit compressed by a false nose). A dormant memory, perhaps. I had previously been fascinated by a photo of Lee’s Dracula in the Osborne Book of the Haunted World: spattering blood over Melissa Stribling’s throat, a long hand hovering suggestively close. I put Dracula aside for a time, and applied myself to impersonating Saruman on the secondary school field. Striving (ever vainly) to channel Lee’s voice became one of my first experiments in acting.

I first came to Hammer with Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. A pan-and-scan viewing on grungy VHS, recorded by my dad in the early hours. Yet the film still bled its autumnal colours upon its heaps of Catholic iconography – the candlesticks, the prayer-books, the vestments, the crosses – with all heightened into ritual by James Bernard’s funereal score. At the centre was Lee’s majestic Count Dracula, backed by infernal red sunsets, never more picturesque. I soon saw Dracula: Prince of Darkness – courtesy of my grandma, another late-night VHS – in which Lee’s wordless vampire became a solely picturesque entity. Then, aged just twelve, I gained the unholy trinity. Lee’s founding Hammer monsters: in The Mummy, in the original Dracula – and in The Curse of Frankenstein, which for a while was my favourite of all of them.

Lee Creature

Lee’s Creature is the jagged heart of this elegantly brutal film. It remains a spectacularly underrated performance – because, as ever, Lee operates by stealth. Not that his Creature lacks for visceral impact; The Curse of Frankenstein is a powerful reminder that, for a decade at least, Lee was regarded as the most frightening actor in the world. There is the scene of the Creature’s first unveiling. Lee is revealed standing in the laboratory, swathed entirely in dripping bandages. He then tears them away to reveal his horrendously scarred head, the camera barrelling in for an overwhelming screen-filling close-up. A dead eye, decayed teeth, that blotchy, corpse-like skin. In 1957, the effect must have been paralysing.

Lee’s Creature is cemented as destructive juggernaut when he encounters a blind man in the forest. This Creature struggles to comprehend, misinterprets, then brutally murders the man (and, we are led to believe, his grandson). It’s a pitiless rewriting of the most sentimental passage in Mary Shelley’s novel, not to mention Universal’s Bride of Frankenstein. Karloff’s Monster seemed always to be a gentle, soulful being: the Hollywood equivalent of the noble savage, an impression augmented by a clean, streamlined makeup. Lee’s Creature hasn’t a hope in hell. He’s an abortive, soulless automaton, with a cut-and-paste visage to match (as one critic put it: ‘a road accident’). To watch him is acutely painful, like watching a brain-damaged animal that must be put out of its misery.

Yet there’s much more at play in Lee’s Creature. Very few actors can make you believe in the supernatural as Lee did. Paul Scofield was one. When Scofield, as the Ghost in Hamlet, says ‘I am thy father’s spirit’, you believe him. When Lee plays Dracula – with deadly sincerity, in the direst of films – you believe him too. There are other connections with Scofield: the regal bearing, the resonant voice, the Italian appearance, that haughty demeanour punctuated by unexpected impishness. Nor was either actor particularly ostentatious, despite roles that offered countless opportunities for extravagance.

The significant difference is that Scofield was regarded as legitimate, by virtue of his work in the fashionable theatre. Lee was not. Like Henry Irving, his Gothic-knight precursor, Lee stood for the Gothic. But unlike Irving, Lee belonged to an age when the Gothic was afforded little respect. It is sad that Lee’s imaginative achievements have therefore been downgraded. Scofield could afford to refuse a knighthood (and so he did, several times). Lee owed it to the Gothic to accept.

As with Scofield, there remains something fundamentally unknowable about Lee. Neither man ever discussed acting in any depth. Lee’s memoirs, whilst detailed, contain scant clues about his process. When pressed, Lee might quote Ralph Richardson on acting as ‘dreaming to order’. But he seldom went further. It’s tempting to say that Lee couldn’t go further. Much like Richardson, Lee cultivated (perhaps unintentionally) an image as a cantankerous old dinosaur, all no-nonsense blustering and portentous secret-keeping. Such was the sustaining joy of his late-career interviews. And such a man is not to be asked his opinion on the artistic process.

In his approach to acting, then, Lee might well have been a mystic. It is perhaps the only way that such a man can be an actor. I think of the great mantra of Claude Rains, another of these invisible actors: ‘I learn the lines and pray to God’. It’s an excellent summation of a process that remains thoroughly mysterious. As far as Lee was concerned, there was nothing to be discussed.

Lee Creature Again

These are thrilling grounds on which to engage with Lee’s performances: as dreams, quite unreadable. The earliest Gothic fictions were derived from dreams. So were the first Gothic films. This is confirmed by a glance at The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a film compounded of such stuff as dreams are made on. Here we find the template for Lee’s Creature: in Conrad Veidt, who was Lee’s great acting hero. Veidt’s Somnambulist shares much with Lee’s Creature: the juddering, puppet-like movements; the light-sucking black garments; the gawkily expressive hands. Above all, there is the fascinating spectacle of a beautiful man giving his all to remould himself as grotesque.

Lee can’t have been oblivious (or unreceptive) to these parallels with Veidt. Emulation is vital to an actor’s early development. But in later life, Lee seemed to become his own strange creation. Here the mystery only deepens. For we can study Lee’s transformation, preserved on film across his incredibly long-drawn career; a nearly seventy-year journey from clean-cut youth to bearded magus. Perhaps only Angela Lansbury affords a more sustained view of an actor’s development. Yet her transformation has been nothing compared to Lee’s.

The most intriguing physical specific is Lee’s toupée. To keep knowledge of it from the public, Lee gave it an inconsistent mythology. At times, he claimed to have shaved his head for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes; at others, to have worn a bald-cap. When filming The Mummy, Lee apparently refused to remove his toupée, subjecting it instead to his heaviest makeup. There is also the matter of Lee’s changing voice. Robert Quarry avowed that the famous ‘Christopher Lee voice’ was a rank affectation, a put-on. Quarry was a weirdly hostile co-star; yet there’s also that celebrated outtake from The Fellowship of the Ring (‘I cannot get up these goddamn steps smoothly!’), where Lee, caught off guard, speaks in a higher register than his tightly-clamped bass. Although voices change with age, Lee seems to have cultivated his. It’s disarming how unlike himself Lee sounds in the 1958 Dracula. But ten years on, in Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, the stentorian growl of Saruman is creeping in. With time, Lee became exactly what he pretended to be. A lesson for all actors.

In his recent tribute, Ian McKellen described Lee’s Saruman as possessing ‘the air of a stern yet benign Pope’ with hidden reserves of ‘cruelty and spite’. Perhaps Lee’s greatest gift was in revealing where the sacred and the profane came together. It’s naturally central to the Frankenstein myth: the sanctity of God-created life versus the blasphemy of the devilish Creature. Lee’s Jekyll-and-Hyde embodiment in I, Monster was also sensitive and engaging. But there are yet more daring examples. His Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man is a man who sacrifices with a disarming smile. His performance as Rasputin: The Mad Monk contains many potent moments, distilled in some mesmerising speeches:

During the time that I’ve been here, you’ve tried to teach me that confession of my sins is good for the soul. You also removed all temptation from among us so that there’s no chance of any sin here. I merely tried to put that right. When I go to confession, I don’t offer God small sins, petty squabbles, jealousies. I offer him sins worth forgiving.

Lee Rasputin

Whenever Lee played the monster hunter – in The Gorgon, or The Devil Rides Out, or Horror Express – he cut a figure almost as forbidding as the monsters themselves. Ultimately, Saruman resides on the same continuum as Count Dracula: evil fused with a sense of religious ritual. Flowing, lustrous garments. Precise and commanding gestures. A terrain half-castle and half-church. And above all, that sense of authenticity – that belief which Lee brought to everything he played, whether Stoker’s gaslight melodrama or Tolkien’s Black Speech.

Lee Tears

So formidably dour was Lee’s persona that it’s easy to overlook the raw humanity in his best performances. In 2011, the fabled Japanese reels for Dracula were found – and it was discovered that Lee’s Dracula cries human tears. Astonishingly brave, astonishingly unexpected (Lee’s constant creed in acting), and more effortlessly poignant than anything in Gary Oldman’s overblown opus. Lee held fast to his mystery, though, and kept the front up in public.

In this way, Lee stood apart from his terror contemporaries. Vincent Price was so amiably dedicated to promoting the arts that he seemed eminently approachable. Peter Cushing’s sorrow at his wife’s passing was deeply humanising, and a comfort to many. Lee, by comparison, came across as rather cold. It wasn’t so. Those who saw the mask drop at the BAFTAs knew it. The behind-the scenes footage from Flesh and Blood is also heart-warming, Lee swapping Looney Tunes gifts and voices with Peter Cushing. Lee’s reminiscences about the long-lost Cushing and Price were never less than moving. It’s certainly the highlight of his revised memoirs, this sense of Lee communing with absent friends. We horror fans live vicariously through the emotional lives of its stars. It’s a comfort to know that Dracula cries; that he might even cry for a friend. It places a beating heart within the Gothic skeleton. On receiving his knighthood in 2009, Lee privately remarked that the honour was meant for Cushing.

My years spent with Lee come back to me in a haze now. I was disheartened when he was cut from The Return of the King; I was thrilled when he was impersonated by Stephen Fry on QI (Fry was then another really formative influence). I looked forward to dissecting Lee’s bewildering Christmas Messages, those increasingly free-form capsules of mortality. I was even a patron of Lee’s widely reviled singing career. In my first year at Cambridge, I fell in love whilst listening to Lee’s intoxicating ‘Name Your Poison’ from The Return of Captain Invincible. A few weeks later, I found cassettes of Lee reading Peter and the Wolf and The Soldier’s Tale in a charity shop, thus rounding off a very heated term. I’m listening to them now.

Lee Saruman

It’s fitting that my last sighting of Lee was in the cinema where I’d seen The Fellowship of the Ring. Now, more than half a lifetime older, I bore witness to the credits of the final Middle Earth film. There again was Saruman – just as I’d seen him first – now an etching, fading to white, to the elegiac accompaniment of ‘The Last Goodbye’.

Only it isn’t goodbye. Closure isn’t necessary. Not just yet. As long as there are still films of his that I haven’t seen – and there are well over a hundred – then that last goodbye need not come. Christopher Lee was a part of my development, my self-creation. And I am certain his legacy, however mysterious, will continue to shape my life.

God preserve you, my hero. Have a ball with Peter and Vincent.

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Filed under Acting Theory, Dracula, Essays, Film, Frankenstein, Personal Excavation

Creature Ascending

It gives me great pleasure to confirm that, next month, I will finally get round to being Frankenstein’s Creature. The show will play six performances at Theatre503 in Battersea, running from the 25th to the 29th of August (with a matinee on the 29th). The production is in the care of Dippermouth, the company behind the sumptuous mounting of Scrooge & Marley in 2013 (click for photo evidence). They’ve already crafted an excellent show blurb and press release, in addition to a beautifully gruesome publicity image. With a support network like this, I need only learn the odd line and stand under a big light.

Frankenstein's Apple

The show’s been a long time coming. I wrote the bulk of Frankenstein’s Creature almost three years ago, when Sikes & Nancy was in its infancy. I’d then performed Sikes a mere six times, and felt pretty sure I’d gotten the fullest use from it (well, that feeling’s long gone). Frankenstein’s Creature represents a development from Dickens: as well as embodying a universe on the stage, I am now that universe’s author. I’ve somewhat tempered my hubris by keeping to the framework of Mary Shelley’s novel. I don’t care for reckless invention when there’s unplumbed richness in the original. I prefer for new details to introduce themselves. Happily enough, they did. Although the script is faithful to Shelley’s spirit – or so I believe – there’s not a single sentence from her novel there. By now, the script feels like it was written by someone else again. This should prove healthy in rehearsal.

Frankenstein’s Creature is informed by my early relationship with Sikes & Nancy in another way. It’s full of unbridled confidence – a confidence I don’t have in the same pure form now. This is clearest in the relish which this new play embraces transformation: incarnating that otherworldly character for over an hour. In the past, transformation has been my ideal in acting. Thus the frantic monopolyloguing; the commitment to grotesquerie; the not infrequent gender-swapping – and Sikes & Nancy included all of these. Yet I’ve started to question transformation in recent years. Paradoxically, this comes from having given Sikes & Nancy so very much. I’m coming to terms with the physical and vocal toll this sort of acting takes. In my case, transformative acting leads to endless paranoid questionings – questionings which reductively carry me back into myself. Am I vocally incompetent? I am prone to losing various bits of my voice (or convincing myself I have, which comes to the same) – but then, I attempt very ambitious things with my voice. I’ve never considered it terribly expressive, so I’ve tried to wrench more from it than is healthy. Am I physically overdeveloped? I don’t always have a sure grip on how my face is moving these days – the muscles have, if anything, grown too responsive. This is worrisome given that my physical presence is one of natural exaggeration. As Peter Ustinov said of Charles Laughton: ‘When Laughton was sitting quietly in a chair, not speaking, he was doing too much.’

All this is underlined by the dawning recognition that I am, after all, physically and vocally limited – because I’m so distinctive. A transformative actor must start with a blanker slate. Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman are transformative actors; Judi Dench and Christopher Lee (God rest him) are not. Distinctiveness needn’t cripple me: it’s what my great hero, Henry Irving, had going for him in spades. So perhaps these worries stem from a more fundamental discomfort with self. The late Roger Rees – what a loss – had this to say on self-consciousness in acting, back in 1983:

I am embracing a fear. When I was a boy I found it hard to throw myself wholeheartedly into things because I was even then an observer. I watched. And I find now that if I have to do anything extremely physical or frightening on the stage, I am able to stand completely outside myself, really look at myself, almost see myself from the back of the auditorium. And I hate it. It makes me feel po-faced and unadventurous; and that’s why sometimes I do physical things which are quite wrong, quite embarrassing; but I have to do them just for my sake. It’s me fighting against myself, and I think that’s what acting is about.

It’s true of a lot of actors layer their work from a fear of being boring. My person is naturally distinctive, expansive, requiring little embellishment to become overwhelming. And yet I do assume I’m boring an audience most of the time. A knotty problem. So: rather than waste my energies in ‘fighting against myself’ (in my case, beating myself up), it makes sense to gravitate towards outsize characters, for which I don’t have to squash down these embarrassing bits of myself. The Creature is therefore a gift. I am feeling my way to a greater simplicity. But I’m sure that the journey will last a lifetime. I only hope Roger Rees departed at a point when he felt satisfied.

In certain respects, the Creature is a character that demands transformation. On a base physical level, certainly: a cheat to do it without some elaborate makeup. But psychologically and emotionally, I’m discovering (rediscovering?) that my script is concerned more with enmeshment. Our desire to become one with other people; the terror of it. As is abundantly clear, this sets off unnerving vibrations for me as an actor. But it’s also the most purely human experience: that difficulty in giving ourselves over to other human beings (‘The Rose’ by Amanda McBroom: ‘It’s the one who won’t be taken, who cannot seem to give’). In life, the best answer lies in becoming more comfortable with oneself. It’s not easy. It takes time. I’m not quite there yet (who is?), though I’m as close as I’ve ever been. This should be an acting transformation tempered with simplicity then; even a lightness.

For this Creature is all lightness, a total divergence from filmic stereotypes. (By no means the same thing as filmic reality: Karloff’s Monster is towering in its simplicity.) This Creature is a hypersensitive, even narcissistic being: like some blithering Romantic poet, his tragedy may be that of someone who feels everything too acutely. There should be a tapered, wispy elegance about him; a Creature composed from air. I am not, by nature, a light actor. ‘Lightness, quickness, ease’ became my mantra in playing Sikes & Nancy at Trafalgar Studios. I did the best I could, but I still felt hampered by my natural equipment: bass voice, slack diction, a body wiry and bony, a tendency to elongation. I was born for the heavy. All the more reason to chase lightness then: it could prove a most helpful tension for the Creature.

Yet despite its airy aspiration, Frankenstein’s Creature remains a chance to revel in the mud and the muck. The script pushes forth a character who is, in most respects, sickening: a life story in which iniquity and perversity are persistently framed as beauty. Or is it the other way around? We read Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis with compassion nowadays; if anything, with too much compassion. Yet had the letter fallen into the hands of Wilde’s persecutors, it would have been regarded like a tract from Jimmy Savile.

Wilde and Savile both had the gift of insinuating themselves into society. Not so the Creature. He is the ultimate outsider. Is this a figure who can understand or meaningfully want humanity? We so often want to complete the Beast with a Beauty. But, as I learned when playing Quasimodo, this may go no further than a fairytale. The Beast stands alone. And perhaps he goes further still, embracing his ugliness as superior. The undesirable parading their most undesirable characteristic as radiant – this is the purest definition of the grotesque I know. Wilde represented boy-love as a superior love, founded on the Greeks. In our own time, a number of pedophiles have attempted a similar defence. I don’t see how pedophilia could ever be legitimised (‘consent’ being the watchword); nevertheless, more effort should be made to understand the impulse. The Creature should encourage people to look away. But we must feel compelled to probe his mystery.

In short, I feel ready for Frankenstein’s Creature. As ready as I ever will: the man and the moment are converging. The result should, at any rate, be interesting. Not that a fixed result is the aim here: I very much hope the show will have a life beyond this initial showing. And perhaps, in creating my Creature, I’ll go some way towards recreating myself as an actor. But to hell with overworked metaphors: book your tickets at once for Theatre503. There are 100 tickets at £10 for those under twenty-six. Capitalise on your youth and beauty; the Creature would have it no other way.

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Filed under Acting Theory, Announcements, Essays, Frankenstein, Personal Excavation, Sikes & Nancy

The Fool Must Die

Just lately, I’ve become fascinated (and mildly obsessed) with the song ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’ – Anthony Newley’s stab at the ‘tragic clown’ subgenre. My favourite version is the studio recording from The Singer and His Songs, Newley’s 1978 LP. Newley possessed a uniquely eccentric instrument, and it’s here given full rein – whether crackling on the cusp of an elongated vowel, or gargling through a bolt of forced vibrato. It’s a voice that reminds me of Algie’s discourse on the piano in The Importance of Being Earnest: ‘I don’t play accurately – anyone can play accurately – but I play with wonderful expression.’ Sometimes you need an Ethel Merman; for all her warbling extremity (and deafness of tone), no one else can touch ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ (a sunnier take on ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’). Sometimes you need a Newley too.

Anthony Newley

Sadly, this recording has never been issued on CD. But better than the LP, there exists an old tape from the Parkinson show. This provides the bonus of Newley’s physical performance. And it is performance, undeniably: an Expressionistic pantomime for the song’s every line. It’s oddly charismatic. Unexpected too, coming from a man with those heavy eyebrows and thick-set, potato-headed features – unchanged from his adolescent breakthrough, as the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s Oliver Twist. This ruggedness sit at odds with a decidedly fey quality. It finds its best expression in Newley’s hands: sometimes propitiating, sometimes flapping uncontrollably, but always in nervy motion, never for one moment still. Newley’s physical dexterity fleshes out the song’s unfailingly bold lyrics – the kind of thing I’d be too cowardly to set to paper. The words are rough-hewn, but always daring, risking the banal to become breathtakingly poetic. So whilst there are images that don’t quite fly (‘the custard pie that life just loves to throw’), others are perfect, and perfectly surreal (‘the monster with the thousand eyes is shouting to be fed’). The exemplar of this poetic type might be the Newley-Bricusse ‘Pure Imagination’, which conducts Roald Dahl to Elysium: ‘If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it…’

Newley’s lyrics capture so many of the masochistic pitfalls of performance: slaving for Norma Desmond’s ‘people in the dark’, the cycles of addiction, even the bloody reviews (a particular insight: even the glowing verdict ‘the laughter machine’ reveals itself as harmful). But more than detail, there is staggering embarrassment. Voice and movement and lyric scrape against each other like tectonic plates. It’s a performance seedy, degraded, fawning, frantic, spasmodic, mincing; painful and pitiable and, beyond all, chilling. The feeling of embarrassment only increased in aftertimes, when Newley often seemed intoxicated on stage. The song is so cunningly engineered that this added new force.

‘Entertainer’ is as close to a target as I can find for the song. For Newley rather strangely conflates the stand-up comic (‘my home is any microphone that’s free’) with the circus clown (‘prepare your painted face’). But by the time Newley’s staring at his reflection in the dressing-room mirror, he is all of we dispossessed performers: ‘I ask my own reflection and I see – the funny man is me!‘ Funny men, the lot of us. Newley deserves to be recognised alongside his fellow tortured entertainers. It’s a battlefield that stretches far beyond Archie Rice. I think of ‘He’ in Andreyev’s He Who Gets Slapped, perhaps the most iconic tragic clown. Lon Chaney played him in 1924, in the first ever production from the fledgling MGM – a studio no doubt responsible for a score of dispossessed entertainers. Britain has yielded two great Shakespearean actors: Edward Lionheart in Theatre of Blood and the Wolfitian ‘Sir’ in The Dresser. The former kills the critics who scoffed at his Lear; the latter kills himself by playing Lear. My personal favourite is Gwynplaine in Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs (sublimely incarnated by Conrad Veidt in the silent film). The fellow with the permanent smile – a rictus grin – irreparably carved into his head. Gwynplaine’s only hope of survival is the carnival.

Gwynplaine

I rail against the commonplace of the tortured entertainer. It’s become such a stereotype that it requires great originality and even greater style to warrant attention. In writing my play about Henry Irving – optimistically scheduled for performance in early 2058 – I did everything I could to avoid the stereotype (not easy with Irving, whose emotional life was peculiarly barren). Stereotypes are often so for being founded in truth. Yet the truth is rarely pure and never simple (thanks again, Earnest). A lesson of ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’ is that we performers need a measure of self-indulgence. We crave it. Thrive on it. A bitch and a moan and a grumble. Arguable, I suppose, that this is an anodyne to the frustration and privation of pursuing any career as an entertainer. But I suspect the sort of strange individual (and we are all of us strange) who makes a living standing in front of other people would anyway want an outlet for that self-indulgence. The fool must die, but he’ll make sure it’s by his own hand. He’s going on his own terms: ‘Look at ME! Look at ME! I’m the FUNNY MAN!’

Stephen Fry

All of which makes me think of Stephen Fry. Few entertainers have been more determined to indulge on their own terms. I’ve just finished More Fool Me, Fry’s latest volume of autobiography. His first, Moab is my Washpot, was a formative experience for me. I encountered it when I was about fourteen. A revelatory explosion of unrequited love, wrecky homosexuality, feeling unable to ‘join in’ and generalised unhealthiness. Here was a life I understood very well. But in a sort of ‘word made flesh’ way: never had I imagined that an inner life could emerge so perfectly phrased. The second volume, The Fry Chronicles, whilst critically acclaimed, left me cold. Inevitable, in retrospect: how on earth could it follow the first one? But I was now noticing a certain pattern. Fry’s prose style knits together a chain of ghastly self-descriptions, embellished with superficial admonishments to the reader. To paraphrase:

I’m a foul, fat and ugly waste of skin, and I know you’re telling me off that, dear reader, for which you are utterly, utterly right, for writing hatefully of oneself is a dreadful habit, which only proves me a foul, fat and ugly waste of skin, and you mustn’t pity me for thinking that, for I know my foulness and fatness and ugliness to be the truth of me – to descriptive depths quite beyond your imagination…

It’s impossible to locate a crack in Fry’s armour. There’s simply no way to attack him. He’s in there first, doing it all on his own terms, just like Newley’s grandstanding entertainer. Self-revelation may be no more than a desperate self-protection.

Fry’s third memoir, More Fool Me, was critically roasted (not least in this weaselly, if insightful, piece) – but so much so that I found it surprisingly good (though still not up to Moab). This time, I was prepared for Fry’s style. No transparency now. It has hardened, callous-like. And it has become the whole show. A performance about performance, rather like ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’ – the showbiz biog Fry once claimed he’d never stoop to write. A slightly ugly spectacle, but it’s hard to look away.

At this juncture, I should add that I don’t view self-indulgence as being the worst of all activities. It has to be carefully regulated, lest it prove self-destructive. But, to my way of thinking, it’s a fairly basic human need. Perhaps self-indulgence isn’t exactly the right phrase. Narcissism, maybe? Fry’s accused of narcissism quite often now. His fin de siècle career renaissance – the films, the books, the BAFTAs, QI above all – has rendered him ubiquitous, triggering the tediously predictable backlash. I think it’s unfair to accuse Fry of straightforward narcissism. It strikes me that one of the defining features of narcissism is that it doesn’t like hard work. Staring at one’s reflection in a pool is passive, not active. And Fry is a furiously hard worker; were it possible to earn a right to narcissistic self-regard, he’d have done so many times. But can any entertainer be free of narcissism? For someone, anyone, to stand on a stage they have to think, however deeply: ‘I AM EXTRAORDINARY!’ Even if he’s extraordinary for being such a waste of skin. Perhaps when narcissism turns active, it manifests as the necessary self-indulgence of the entertainer.

Stop the World

As it happens, ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’ was not Newley’s first stab at the tragic clown. Much more famous is ‘What Kind of Fool Am I?’ from Stop the World – I Want to Get Off. It’s been covered by just about everyone (tortured entertainers all), but the Newley version proves most expressive. In this clip from Hollywood Palace, there again are those mesmeric, freewheeling, tell-all hands. And the full-face clown makeup suggested in ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’. The lyrics are a fog of narcissistic revelation: ‘It seems that I’m the only one that I have been thinking of…’ – ‘What kind of man is this? An empty shell!’ – ‘Why can’t I fall in love – like any other man?’ The last is particularly telling. Fry-like: affirming distinction. Shit, but extraordinary in it.

Newley’s self-revelations – more accurately self-protections – show where the entertainer’s self-indulgence truly lies. It’s out in the uncharted hinterland between narcissism and masochism. For the performer knows he will suffer, must suffer. We all know what we’ve signed on for – how could the prevalence of the tragic clown leave us in doubt? Unless we assume that we’ll be the first ones to crack it and locate unforced happiness in making entertainment. Which is purely narcissistic. Feeling hard done to is, bizarrely enough, a not unattractive part of the deal – especially for these performers, like Newley, who perform performance. Newley’s desire to suffer is redeemed by his compulsive need to tell everyone about that suffering. It’s the transformative effect of performance. Shit is converted into art; death into life. So if we must self-indulge, far better we do it on the stage. It drains the poison from our systems in a way that enriches.

The transformation also reveals that the suffering was never abject. It’s all a part of the show – a part without which the show really couldn’t go on. How Merman would scoff. Thus do Newley and Fry go arm-in-arm into their showbiz sunset. A flapping, sinuous flipper, hooked in the tendril of that bin-liner full of yoghurt.

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Last Lessons

Coming so laggingly after the tour, it’s not surprising that this diary feels more like housekeeping. The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of frenzied overwork – though it’s a whirlwind on which Sikes & Nancy has happily thrived. I’ve had a photoshoot at St Paul’s Cathedral, dashing up and down the cold stone steps, as well as at 48 Doughty Street, where Dickens wrote all of Oliver Twist. The latter took in Linda Marlowe, in full Miss Havisham regalia, the both of us leering and posturing behind the iron bars of the Marshalsea. The children did right to stare. I’ve spent day after day in the theatre during the Preview phase, twisting the show into its best-ever shape under the first-ever guidance of outside eyes. I’ve even survived the long-dreaded Press Night, thanks to the support of some wonderful friends, and have managed to avoid every last review. Aside from those extracts posted up outside the theatre, which is hardly likely to print ‘SHAMBLES’ or ‘EXCREMENT’ in bold type. And the voice has not only survived but strengthened. I’ve actually started to enjoy myself again. I must be careful.

Currently, I’m drifting between Trafalgar Studios and whatever vacant beds crop up around Southfields, Wimbledon, Palmers Green and Highgate. No doubt I’ll be writing through the whole experience at some point in the New Year. For now, though, I’ll devote my fractured energies to the last three dates of the tour. There’s a definite arc there, almost a narrative, which gives me the solemn duty of shortening the separate entries. Of trying, anyhow. Lucky you. But lucky me.

First, however, here are my previous Sikes & Nancy diaries: ‘Meeting the Villain-Hero’, ‘Dreaming to Order’, ‘Forcing the Soul’, ‘The Hertfordshire Horror’ and ‘Into the Black Lagoon’.

The Atkinson, Southport

THE ATKINSON, SOUTHPORT (13TH NOVEMBER). I’m still reeling from the throat infection that surfaced in Guildford, though somewhat buoyed up by David Leonard’s kind words about my performance. At least I’ve had four days to recover. I pass the morning on juddering trains of grey and brown, arriving after midday to discover The Atkinson. It’s an all-purpose cultural emporium: museum, art gallery, library and theatre, fronted by some natty Victorian columns. The studio here is a gaping auditorium with prodigiously raked seating. Not what I was expecting. It’s as intimidating (and vertical) as the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House. There’s even a piano on the stage, which has to be wheeled from the catchment area of my prodigious gore. None of this does anything for my nerves, which steadily rise throughout an unfocused warm-up. It’s dragged-out, yes; staggered, and for that reason takes nearly three hours.

The show itself goes alright. Just. My vocal range is still coarsened, open vowels emerging with a ragged edge. Dismayed, I overcompensate with excessive energy, and tire before the midpoint. Joy of joys: the most wearying dramatics of Sikes & Nancy commence after the midpoint. I end frustrated (and moist, but mostly frustrated). I feel my brain is dull and unresponsive in the Q&A – still steaming, I imagine, with disappointment at not quite managing the predetermined noises. I overcompensate again, speaking some twenty minutes beyond the allotted time. No good for my ailing larynx, but I hope I efface all memory of the session’s first ten minutes: a madness came over the audience, where I would be interrupted with the next question after giving two or three words of reply. This was surprisingly difficult to break. Evening over, I collapse into my Travelodge bed. Such exhaustion is an urgent reminder: illness or not, there must be a better way to do this. The lesson is frustrated, though, as I still haven’t found the key to holding back. I resolve, at any rate, to defend Idina Menzel on the next occasion her voice doesn’t quite work properly. What it must be to sing – to sing, I ask you! – that particular Frankenstein Monster, knowing each time it’ll be watched by millions and pulled apart by demons. I’m lucky I’m only thwarted, unrecorded, in a studio in Southport. All the same. Could do with Menzel’s salary.

Cramphorn Theatre, Chelmsford

CRAMPHORN THEATRE, CHELMSFORD (14TH NOVEMBER). A hellish day. Traffic jams mean I’m clapped in the tour van for over seven hours before we reach Chelmsford. Such is the cruelty of the touring lifestyle: you reach the point of exhaustion, and then alone do you begin your day’s work. My trailing long legs and trailing long spine take some time to recover. My vocal anxieties have become chronic by now, though this particular venue is thankfully much smaller. Performance-wise, I don’t feel that Chelmsford is any great advance on Southport. It’s underpowered then overpowered; imprecise then too precise, pedantically so; slower than a dying slug, but more uncontrollable than a runaway train. Hissing. Spurting. Ever skirting about the target. And never once hitting it. An unexpectedly dim lighting state means that I play a good twenty minutes without any particular conviction that I can be seen. I very nearly pause to wrench the necessary chairs into the nearest splash of light. All that prevents me is a sense of how absurd it would look: the chairs are standing in for the monumental stone steps of London Bridge. The energies are fatally unbalanced tonight, and I emerge possibly more tired than at Southport.

The Q&A yields a surprise, however. One woman in the audience has been devastated by the play. She tells me that it took her right back to her time with her abusive and controlling ex. Particularly the look in Bill’s eyes come the Murder. (A friend has since told me the same in the London run.) I am quietly terrified. With no first-hand insight into what such relationships must be, I’ve chipped away at Nancy’s desperate lot from the outside. And, in my opinion, not particularly well that night. So this came as a valuable lesson. I mustn’t sabotage myself by trying to be my own audience. I am the vehicle at best. The play can yet mean something to those people in the dark. My self-persecuting intellect does not win out. Not necessarily.

The Old Fire Station, Oxford

THE OLD FIRE STATION, OXFORD (15TH NOVEMBER). An advance on yesterday, with a scanty four and a half hours in the van. There’s also the inspiriting thought that this is the last of the tour, and I’ll have a good few weeks to revive before entering the West End. I’ve never visited Oxford before, my Oxbridge experience being founded solely on the ‘-bridge’ suffix. But tramping about the town, looking balefully up at castellated walls and gates and towers, I’m reminded of my time at that other university. It was there that I first performed Sikes & Nancy – and gave it so fecklessly, so joyfully, that the event has been deified in my memory. I was so permanently stressed at university, that the theatre was the best and most consistent release for me (when the theatre wasn’t contributing to the stress, of course – which it often did). When I was most unhappily in love, I disappeared into Romeo and Juliet – and when my heart was utterly broken, I was transformed into Quasimodo, into The Hunchback of Notre Dame. A deep conviction that I was somehow unsightly, dysfunctional, peeping in at life from the margins, led to a vast sweep of small grotesque roles (my principal body of work at Cambridge – non-academic, obviously). And my frustration at how small these grotesque roles were led to Pickwick & Nickleby, the first of my one-man plays. No wonder I grew frustrated. Abidingly, the release was in the sheer physical ecstasy of doing the thing. All that nervous energy had to go somewhere. It’s ever been the case that I gain my best ease through discomfort. I became decided then. For the very first time on tour, I don’t bother to write any pre-performance notes. I decide to go forth and enjoy myself. The result is one of the best performances of the tour. I’m helped along by the venue: a dank and shadowy cubicle, every audience member within whispering distance. Still, there’s another lesson there…

… The lesson of Oxford has deepened at Trafalgar. Lightness. Quickness. Ease. Night after night, this has been my pre-state catechism. I consider the smallest (and therefore correct) amount of energy I need to deliver the performance. I shuffle slightly on the chair, locating my sitting bones to correct my breathing. Rearrange the catarrh in my neck. Then the houselights dim and I’m away. It now feels like someone else is doing it. A happy state, almost reverie, though probably sanctioned by the aggravation of various bits of the tour. Self-consciousness has flown for now. Lightness. Quickness. Ease.

I’ve now started thinking on the future of this production diary. It’s become a bit ploddingly dutiful over the last year. The most profound lesson of Sikes & Nancy has been to analyse what I do that bit less and simply get on with it. Everything benefits. I want to avoid the Kenneth Williams trap of ‘living off body fat’ (his words, describing his chatshow afterlife) – boring myself with the same stories and observations, delivered in the same hectoring voice. I’m going to speculate about more effective ways of furthering my acting.

January is to be a month of dreaming. I’ve already set it aside: a refreshingly blank slate. I’ll give myself over, fully and freely, to films, novels, biographies, plays. I’ll go on long walks. Listen to music. Dine on the forbidden cheese and chocolate. And I’ll recharge the batteries. Reassess. There shall be no writing. Not then. But when I do write again, I’ll see to it that it’s worthwhile. Not something I can only bring myself to read through my fingers. Something that breeds ease.

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Meeting the Villain-Hero

Apologies for the delay, my tens (perhaps twenties) of unflaggingly devoted readers! The preparations for the West End run have been absorbing all my time of late: letter-writing, email-sending, voice-prepping, stamina-building, and, in time-honoured fashion, low-level show-worrying. The urge to get Sikes & Nancy out of my head and back on its feet is enormous by now. It’s also inevitable, I think, that there’s been less to comment on in the latter half of the tour. Too many unexpected abnormalities, by this stage in the run, would be worrisome. (Expected abnormalities – these I’ve duly chronicled.) But do stay put for an appearance from my villain-hero. And let me make amends with Sikes & Nancy diaries of times gone by: ‘Dreaming to Order’, ‘Forcing the Soul’, ‘The Hertfordshire Horror’ and ‘Into the Black Lagoon’.

Old Library Theatre, Mansfield

OLD LIBRARY THEATRE, MANSFIELD (30TH OCTOBER). A close, wood-panelled chamber, carpeted in green; a game of Cluedo pressed into life. Well-suited to the murder-happy Sikes & Nancy! Our show’s been programmed as part of a scheme to build an audience for touring theatre in Mansfield, which apparently struggles here. I note with envy that Gervase Phinn’s one-man show – ‘An Evening with…’ rather than theatre – has completely sold out. We do well enough in the end, with some of the youth theatre exposed to the murderous rampage.

The show’s a shock to the system after the three-and-a-half week break. The volume I sweat is my constant barometer. I emerge nothing short of moist this evening. Physically, it’s all rather draining, but I’m pleased to find the show locked into my muscle memory. I’ve always been more confident in using my body than my voice – and vocally, the break makes the piece very challenging. There are constant discoveries, though, which are building into progress. Tonight I realise that I’m doing myself no favours with Fagin, whose glottal stops are instantly rupturing my vocal cords. This is easily remedied by appending a silent ‘h’ to the start of vowels: ‘you can talk as [h-]eat, can’t you?’, ‘not to do [h-]anything…’ and so forth.

There’s no voice training in the world that teaches you to produce a Fagin or a Sikes. It can at best give you the foundation. The only way to get their measure is to keep chasing them. Dickens lost his voice with pretty well every Reading. To combat this, he devised a vocal constitutional for his American tour:

At seven in the morning, in bed, a tumbler of cream, and two tablespoonfuls of rum. At twelve, a sherry cobbler and a biscuit. At three (dinner time) a pint of champagne. At five minutes to eight, an egg beaten up with a glass of sherry. Between the parts, the strongest beef tea that can be made, drunk hot. At a quarter past ten, soup, and anything to drink that I can fancy. I don’t eat more than half a pound of solid food in the whole twenty-four hours, if so much.

A diet compounded of dairy products, alcohol, and piping-hot Bovril. It was the worst thing he could have done. But Dickens’s willpower – his indomitable sense of rightness – was not be trifled with. For we actors who produce character voices, there’s also an unhelpful element of end-gaining. Our grotesque minds exaggerate our memories of our creations. Matt Lucas has observed that his voices inevitably get higher as time goes by. I find my pitching works in reverse: by now, I instinctively attempt Sikes in a voice so low that it’s almost painful. The answer is a little self-awareness – my voice is naturally quite deep – and sturdy pragmatism. It’s simply not possible to sustain so low a voice when you’ve having to shift to so many others. I am not Olivier (how well I know it) and I am not playing Othello.

Connaught Studio, Worthing

CONNAUGHT STUDIO, WORTHING (31ST OCTOBER). A sense of occasion: acting on Halloween night before an unusually large audience. I often think of Sikes & Nancy as a spooky Halloween poem. Certain passages seem the overture to a Danse Macabre: ‘That time which, in the autumn of the year, may be truly called the dead of night…’. The witches’ sabbath has sounded at the back of my mind throughout this show. I listened compulsively to ‘When the Night Wind Howls’ during rehearsals in September; tonight, I conduct my pre-show stompings to ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ on a very windy seafront. I first got to know the witches’ sabbath through the cinema (my old essay on devilry takes in some of those permutations), so what a delight to find that the Connaught Studio is a converted picture palace, an old-fashioned relic from the silent era. Pete Walker’s The Flesh and Blood Show captures this seductive (to me) mingling of palatial grandeur and end-of-the-pier seediness. Denis Gifford writes movingly on the cinema’s power to raise the dead in his Pictorial History of Horror Movies. A heartfelt insight in a pun-laden book:

Of the Old Monsters, only Chaney remains. [If only. Chaney died in 1973.] The elder Chaney, Karloff, Lugosi… Laughton and Lorre and Veidt… Rathbone and Rains… Whale and Laemmle and Browning… The Scroll of Thoth runs from Atwill to Zucco. Yet they will be back, at the flicker of a projector, the touch of a TV switch, through their own medium – the only medium truly to revive the dead. The cinema.

This so-called studio felt like an arena from the stage. There was a vexing early period when we were scheduled for the massive Edwardian theatre next door, roughly three times the size. One develops a certain awe for how Dickens performed for thousands as a matter of course. We have a review – five stars – which I put off reading until the end of the tour. More fun was the immediate feedback of an audience heckle, when I announced that I was going backstage to remove the blood: ‘But you look good with it on!’ I may have escaped the Dungeon this Halloween. But certain things never change.

Guildhall Theatre, Derby

GUILDHALL THEATRE, DERBY (4TH-5TH NOVEMBER). I start the week somewhat apprehensive, knowing there are seven Murders to do. I’ve never committed more than four in a row, and that only once. It’s like entering a tunnel: no way to the light but straight ahead. First the darkness. Within my next twenty-six hours in Derby, I’ll have murdered Nancy three times over and led three question-and-answer sessions. Which is getting on for seven hours of non-stop speaking. I’m also suspicious about the dangers facing the voice in these question-and-answer sessions. Despite seeming laid-back, impromptu speaking can severely test the breath (and this on top of post-show breathlessness). Plus the lingering numbness (and breathlessness!) induced by the show make it tricky to monitor vocal damage. It’s for the best that these sessions are being retired after the tour.

I can well imagine Dickens reading in the Guildhall: a lectern wouldn’t look out of place here. Seating just shy of 250 – but feeling much more intimate – I feel this is about the sensible upper limit for Sikes & Nancy. Looking back, admittedly at some distance (and with the deranged bias of the actor), I feel that these were the best of the non-studio performances. A feeling of balance. In command of the piece’s dramatic and technical demands in the most equal measure yet; never feeling too exhausted or run-down (partly, I imagine, because of the knowledge of how many performances were to be done). I’m dimly aware, via Twitter, that someone else’s (re)view of Derby has popped up – very late, a few days shy of December. I’m determinedly not reading it, a policy I’m applying to all my press throughout the Trafalgar run. I wish this resolution stemmed from indifference or defiance or contempt. But I fear it’s primarily ego. A bad review is that most terrible of things, pain without meaning: you’re stung, yes, but for reasons that deserve no credit, bound up as they are in self-regard. And a good review can also wreak havoc with a performance, sullying the purity of the original conception. Unfortunately, though, reviews retain some capital for an unestablished actor. Particularly when you’re the one man in a one-man play. There isn’t much else to discuss… Why on earth do I get myself into these situations?

Mill Studio, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

MILL STUDIO, YVONNE ARNAUD THEATRE, GUILDFORD (6TH-8TH NOVEMBER). Retire to bed, post-Derby, with an ominous swelling about the soft palate. Awake the next day to a full-blown throat infection. Infuriating: I wanted seven performances in a row, relatively unsullied, as preparation for Trafalgar. Though perhaps vocalising through illness is the ultimate preparation. The antidote is a whole lot of steam to coax away the low-level raspiness, and even more vocal rest (fighting the sound of the engine and motorway in our tour vehicle – this is appalling for the voice). It’s a blessing that we’ve decamped to a studio for the next four performances. I can whisper more, make eye contact with the audience, go for precision before volume. There’s also a psychological boost to the claustophobia of the venue, a converted old mill with a stream roaring beneath. Against the mill’s textured brickwork I cast Nosferatu-like shapes – thrillingly black – which I catch sight of mid-performance. It’s a fine stand-in for my invisible self, which I’m never able to see. No matter how many conversations I hold with myself – and that accounts for roughly half of Sikes & Nancy – I never turn quickly enough to catch sight of my other character. I am acting with Peter Pan’s shadow.

The audience members I run into are exceptionally lovely, more than compensating for my feelings of inadequacy with the infection. One man touched on my Irving obsession: ‘I’ve been going to theatre for forty years, and that was excellent. You must do The Bells next!’ Someone else quotes, at length, Ralph Richardson’s ‘dreaming to order’ at me – which either means he’s read my blog (truly miraculous) or that we’re on the same wavelength (still better than I deserve). Some of the question-and-answer sessions are very intimate – mostly due to torrential evening rains, hounding audiences back to their cars. One session is extremely brief, as only one person stays behind. One question, one answer, intimate two-minute chat. I give another session for two students at the Guildford School of Acting. Which is pleasant, but makes me feel a fraud: we’re roughly the same age, and they are at least in training. There is, however, some interesting discussion about word-painting. I increasingly believe this is key to why the piece works at all: provoked by the same stimuli, we create radically different images within our heads. I was also reunited with the prodigal Lucy-May – another Dungeon escapee, now making a great success of drama school.

My last day in Guildford brings one of the greatest delights of the tour. I finally meet David Leonard. I invited him to Sikes & Nancy over two years ago, when I was giving it a solitary go at the Tristan Bates – a stone’s throw from the Cambridge Theatre, where David was playing Miss Trunchbull (brilliantly) in Matilda: The Musical. It’s testament to the man’s thoughtfulness that, unprompted, he turned out to see me on tour. And sent me a text to say he’d quite like to say hello! David’s performances have wrought an untold influence on me. His pantomime villains were the first performances I saw that made me want to disappear into theatre. A voice that was Donald Sinden spiked with George Sanders; a graceful, silvery command of movement; eyes like possessed pinballs; and all the flamboyant devilry that excited me most. And his Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, which I saw in sixth form, remains one of the best dramatic performances I’ve seen in any theatre at any time. Partly great writing. But all David Leonard.

It was that Sikes & Nancy at the Tristan Bates that found me an agent-producer in Jimmy Jewell, as well as sowing the seed for Trafalgar Studios. It was also the one that Simon Callow saw. But David is an even older theatrical hero, so it was wonderful that I’d had chance to see him the day previous. I met up with David in the foyer before the Saturday matinee. A debonair gentleman, looking over the papers; and, like Callow, armed with a glass of red. Very nervous, I introduce myself. Instantly, he leaps up: ‘James, how wonderful to see you!’ He couldn’t have been more delightful. He was very encouraging about the show too. He said it reminded him of Peter Ackroyd’s London, with its descriptions of the poor crushed down by the weight of the city. I plan to make a study of Henry Mayhew’s character sketches whilst at Trafalgar.

David’s back in the York Theatre Royal pantomime this year, after two years away. I can’t wait to see it in January. The family is reunited.

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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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