Category Archives: Acting Theory

The Comedy of Torture

In preparing for In the Penal Colony at the Arts Theatre, I’ve been examining torture through the reliable prism of the classic horror film. This entry focuses on the Holy Grail of Golden Age torture-horror, Universal’s The Raven (1935); the next entry will take in snapshots of more successful tortures in the wider horror cinema.

Torture has often uprooted a good horror film. For example, there are the Hammer films that don’t feel like Hammer films – The Camp on Blood Island (1958) and The Terror of the Tongs (1961) – in light of their focus on tortures plucked from recent history. None of Jesus Franco’s torture-horrors have ever worked, except, perhaps, as legitimate torture: his 1970 version of de Sade’s Eugenie is excrement marvellous rare. Franco’s The Bloody Judge (1970), starring Christopher Lee as Judge Jeffries, might be the dubious exception. Yet it’s a film that Lee refuses to see:

In the film, instead of somebody just being hanged – it’s worth noting that Lee was a witness to the last public execution in France – I gather that [they filmed] the most hideous scenes, about which I knew absolutely nothing at all, because they were done long after I’d finished my part: hideous and appalling scenes of torture and brutality and mutilation – hanging and drawing and quartering and worse … That’s why I’ve never seen it. I can’t bring myself to look at things like that.

Like Lee, I won’t pretend I’ve endured the torture porn rigours of Saw and Hostel and The Human Centipede – although I do hold a candle for the fiendishly inventive Cube (1997).

But what of torture in the Golden Age of horror? The founding Gothic in the Hollywood canon is The Phantom of the Opera (1925), which constantly hints at torture as the reason for the Phantom’s deformity. The Phantom’s back story, outlined in a curt police clipping, brims with tantalising inference: ‘Born during the Boulevard Massacre. Self educated musician and master of Black Art. Exiled to Devil’s Island for criminal insane.’ Here are three potential reasons that the Phantom bears a death’s head: torture through revolution or devilry or incarceration. Matters are complicated by the Phantom’s appearance at the Bal Masque, where he imperiously states: ‘Beneath your dancing feet are the tombs of tortured men – thus does the Red Death rebuke your merriment!’ The reference to Edgar Allan Poe – author of torture paradigm ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ – is suggestive, though not so much as the eleventh-hour revelation of the Phantom’s underground torture chamber. Later versions explained the Phantom’s deformity by subjecting him to a face full of acid. Horrific, yes, but never again as interesting.

Whipping became commonplace in the early horror film. Frankenstein (1931) contains a memorable torture scene: Boris Karloff’s Monster howling in chains, enduring the whippings and tauntings of the hunchbacked Fritz. The chains may be painful enough (the Chinese once had the torture of ‘kneeling on chains’); the whip reminds of flogging’s prime place in torture across all ages and all cultures (because a painful but ‘clean’ means of punishment). In the same year’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, whipping rears its head more sadistically. Ivy the streetwalker exposes her naked back to Jekyll – revealing the marks that he, as Hyde, has inflicted on her: ‘Pretty, ain’t it? It’s a whip, that’s what it is – a whip!’ The sadism went up a notch in the 1941 remake, where Spencer Tracy’s Jekyll whips the women in his life in a Freudian dream sequence.

Most potent is the reliance on suggestion. There’s Cleopatra’s transformation into a legless, shrieking ‘bird woman’ in Freaks (1932), where the audience sees only the aftermath; the waking vivisection of Dr Moreau (another chap fond of the whip) in Island of Lost Souls (also 1932), the camera discreetly pulling away as Moreau’s creations pull him apart; and Karloff’s Expressionist ‘crucifixion’ in The Black Cat (1934), conveyed almost entirely in shadow. Perhaps surprisingly, suggestion was usually the result of censorship as much as artistic vision. Freaks originally laid out Cleo’s destruction in gory detail, a tree felling her in a storm before her torturers swarmed in on her (surviving prints substitute a very abrupt fade); The Black Cat had some ghastly script business where a skinless Karloff hobbles across the floor to frighten Lugosi. Island of Lost Souls never required more than the half-laughing screams of Charles Laughton – at once darkly comic, kinky and blood-curdling. Sound can be graphic.

The Raven (1935) - Poster

It was The Raven (1935) that handled torture most brazenly. To the point where it got horror banned in England for a few years, thus shutting down Hollywood production of horror. And yet it’s utterly ridiculous. The Raven has a sister film in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) – almost equally gaudy in its approach to torture, filtering its devices through comic-book exaggeration, MGM production gloss and regrettable Chinese stereotypes. There’s a later comparison in Tower of London (1939), in which prisoners flop from iron maidens like boneless fish. But neither film approached torture with the concentration – and therefore absurdity – of The Raven.

Ware, Hinds, Lugosi

The plot deals with Dr Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi), an eminent neurosurgeon and Poe obsessive, who falls in love with Jean Thatcher after saving her on the operating table. But when her father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds), intervenes to prevent the budding psychotic infatuation, Vollin snaps. After imprisoning and mutilating on-the-run gangster Edmond Bateman (Boris Karloff), Vollin exploits him as his pawn in subjecting Judge, Jean, fiancé and friends to the Poe-inspired torture devices in his cellar.

The Pendulum

There’s always something gently amusing about Samuel Hinds moaning under Lugosi’s great big pendulum – politely accepting his fate, now and then mouthing such serene platitudes as ‘Oh, try to be sane, Vollin!’ Given that torture is the blackest of all human practices, it becomes staggeringly funny in The Raven.

Revamped Jail

The hilarity might stem from the strangeness of time in The Raven: medievalism rooted in a modern context. In our first trip to the cellars, Vollin declares his collection ‘a most unique museum of torture’. But it’s only really unique for clearing out the ‘torture’ section of Universal’s prop warehouse. We see balls-and-chains, a mysterious leaden coffin, the rack, a tiny cage (‘Little Ease’ perhaps?) and what looks to be the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg; there’s even one of the gibbets that turned up in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948; it goes without saying that every onscreen prop would be recycled for 1939’s Tower of London). The mood of ancient Gothic is enhanced by the wrap-around dungeon background. It’s another direct steal, this time from Universal’s Frankenstein series: the sets are taken from Charles D. Hall’s jail and watch-tower scenes in Bride of Frankenstein (also 1935). In the context of The Raven, the schlocky medievalism becomes fairly distancing. It’s an illustration of Henry Fielding’s famous remark: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ The moment Vollin enters his museum, The Raven may as well take place in Oz or Narnia.

Revamped Laboratory

Vollin’s fixation on Edgar Allan Poe is complicit in the distancing effect. The long-dead author extends the anachronism in yet another direction, adding his own weird patina of New England gaslight to the generic swirl of ‘The Past’. Although even the apparent present of The Raven is desperately strange: it’s a deranged, never-neverland 1930s, teeming with yuppies who play at horse-racing in the drawing-room. What else can you expect with supporting players named ‘Spencer Charters’ and ‘Maidel Turner’? It was probably just as distancing in 1935.

Aside from his air of anachronism, Poe has been so ritually demonised in western culture that it’s become ridiculous. A fine example is the film Torture Garden (1967); a Bloch-derived portmanteau rather than an adaptation of Mirbeau. The best segment by far is ‘The Man Who Collected Poe’. It’s a satire on fanatical (and Vollin-like) collectors: in this case, a fellow who’s so mad on Poe that he has, quite literally, collected the long-dead author – by resurrecting him via a pact with the Devil. As in the villain song tradition, Poe becomes, for all intents and purposes, the Devil himself; cackling, deranged, at the centre of a blazing inferno, as he damns the soul of a human victim.

Such demonisation of Poe is vital to The Raven. Bela Lugosi’s big speech is a minor masterpiece of melodramatic dialogue:

Melodramatic Speech

Poe was a great genius. Like all great geniuses, there was in him the insistent will to do something big, great, constructive in the world. He had the brain to do it. But – he fell in love. Her name was Lenore… ‘Longing for the lost Lenore’… Something happened. Someone took her away from him. When a man of genius is denied of his great love, he goes mad. His brain, instead of being clear to do his work, is tortured. So he begins to think of torture. Torture for those who have tortured him.

On balance, though, David Boehm’s screenplay for The Raven is badly written – or at least badly conceived, which amounts to much the same. Now, the fruitiness of the dialogue can be one of the highlights of classic horror. And there is a delight in hearing Bela Lugosi give shape to such lines as the following:

Death Will Be Sweet

I am the sanest man who ever lived. But I will not be tortured. I tear torture out of myself by torturing you! Fifteen minutes… There’s the clock – you can see it… Torture! Waiting! Waiting! Death will be sweet, Judge Thatcher!

Walls Come Together

Yet there’s something stubbornly uncinematic about such dialogue in The Raven. It seems to be trying to do the work of the images – and, regrettably, umpteen configurations of the word ‘torture’ do not make up for an absence of well-presented torture. Witness, once again, Samuel Hinds under that great big pendulum. Or the lovers in the room where the walls come together (they seem as politely unaffected as Hinds). Properly contained, the dialogue of classic horror can galvanise a film, its theatrical bravado animating that which is already living (see The Old Dark House, 1932, where great dialogue melds with an appropriately great production). Given that Vollin’s endless epistles to torture never take the shape of a believable reason for the character’s machinations – that is, beyond stultifying sadism – its foregrounding in the script becomes a nagging irritation. The dialogue in The Raven seems to be searching for a container. Devoid of one, it’s just unbridled excess.


The strangeness of The Raven is felt keenest in the imbalance of the lead performances, the now-legendary Lugosi and Karloff. As Vollin, Lugosi takes the film almost too seriously. In doing so, Lugosi does a great service to his audiences, following the formula for melodrama laid out in Gordon Craig’s Henry Irving: ‘Melodrama was not and is not afraid of the spectacular or the heroic, of bravura, or the impossible. It shuns one thing purposely – the matter-of-fact.’ Certainly, the sight and sound of Lugosi throughout The Raven is alarming: an unending cavalcade of bat-like grimaces, staccato cackles and throat-rending eruptions of Hungarian passion, all delivered with Shakespearean aplomb. Even today, it’s unnerving how much Lugosi seems to believe in the script’s cardboard character. And that really is the problem: Lugosi can never do more than dress the cardboard. Which he does effectively enough – just as the art department dresses its ill-conceived setting with a stock ball-and-chain, or the screenplay dresses its dearth of character motivation with a repetition of the word ‘torture’. Of course, to really work, melodrama requires an equal force of belief from everyone involved in the enterprise. And had director Lew Landers believed in the project to the extent of Lugosi, it’s probable that The Raven couldn’t have been released at all. The Marquis de Sade would have made it to Hollywood.


Karloff, always the more astute judge of scripts, takes and plays his character as simple pulp. Karloff’s Edmond Bateman is perversely memorable, and certainly no weaker than Lugosi’s characterisation: a breathy, petulant, fish-eyed grotesque. This studied detachment probably relieved Karloff of a lot of unnecessary pressure: his infamous onset remark that ‘this whole place is a toilet’ is a measure of his disenchantment with rinky-dink Universal. Nonetheless, Karloff is responsible for the film’s only potent emotional stab at torture, on awaking to discover his disfigurement at the hands of Lugosi. Even here, the scene is effective against the odds: the Jack Pierce makeup, not bad in principle, is so inadequately lit and photographed that it appears flat, grey and (paradoxically detrimental) lifeless.

Still, The Raven survives as a valuable insight into how differently the premier gentlemen of horror attacked their craft. Lugosi was almost naively diabolic, erupting from within his pedantic cage of calculated baroque stylings; Karloff, more dangerous (and following the example of Lon Chaney), went to the heart to horrify. But seemingly everyone entangled in The Raven appears to be acting in a different film. The imbalance is at least interesting, even if it makes the film that much harder to take seriously.

Despite so much pecking, my affection for The Raven isn’t greatly diminished. On its own borderline psychotic terms (and perhaps there’s no other way to take it), it’s delirious, breathless fun – in spite of (possibly because of) its tasteless subject matter. It does, however, beg a question: when does the representation of torture become hideous, monstrous, unacceptable? I have three strong thoughts on this, all of which bolster The Raven as an unintended burlesque. I’ll save them till next time; we’ve suffered enough for now.

In closing, it’s worth observing that The Raven was remade in 1963. This time as an intentional horror-comedy. One torture-focused sequence featured Boris Karloff (back again, now a wizard) threatening to singe Vincent Price’s daughter with a magically floating red-hot poker. ‘I offer you a choice!’ he fawns. ‘The secret of your hand manipulations, or this – against this!’

A fair effort. But I still think of Samuel Hinds under that great big pendulum.

Revenge of the Pendulum

Leave a comment

Filed under Acting Theory, Essays, Film

The Curse of Ham

I find ‘ham’ a dispiriting old term. Partly because most of my favourite actors have been accused of it: the curse stretches from Freddie Jones to Charles Laughton; from Bela Lugosi to Bette Davis. But then, I’ve heard even Paul Scofield accused of ham – so it’s not just the usual suspects who suffer. And yes, I’ve also been accused of ham – only a few times directly, more often by implication. There’s a frothing semantic bog of semi-related words, with a ham-shaped hole at the centre… ExaggerationDistortionCaricatureManicGrotesque… Such descriptions can be taken negatively or positively: the context is all. But ‘ham’ – baldly used – is rarely if ever meant positively. It’s always a slight; always a detraction. Yet ham represents much more than an attack on someone’s acting. It’s an attack on that person’s integrity; an arch and scurrilous questioning of motives and inner lives.

Does that sound overblown? I should jolly well hope so. But I can back it up. Just look at how Patrice Pavis defines ‘ham’ in her Dictionary of the Theatre, flinging it into nefarious union with ‘showing off’:

An actor who falls prey to the temptation of showing off or ham-acting puts himself in the spotlight at the expense of his colleagues, the character, theatrical illusion, and the poor spectator who is expected to admire the monster. Apart from the social perversion of ham acting, it entails a demagogic complicity with the audience, who is aware that the acting is a virtuoso who masters his role and is even capable of interrupting himself to prove it.

The above consolidates what ‘ham’ is generally thought to mean. It’s also devastatingly cruel. A ‘monster’ flinging itself at the ‘poor’ unhappy audience! A ‘monster’ succumbing to ‘temptation’ – and therefore ‘perversion’! The whole carries a disgustingly biblical whiff of original sin: the Curse of Ham among us still. These hysterical ejaculations sit uneasily with Pavis’s concession that, actually, yes, fourth walls can be broken, and ‘theatrical illusion’ is far from quantifiable. At least, that’s what I take the unwieldy ‘demagogic complicity’ to mean. It seems that ham, even in the abstract, can drive the most obtuse academic into sputtery, maybe-more-coherent-than-usual rage. Personally, I can’t stomach this sort of cruelty, even when it’s so easy to deride. Ham stirs much rage in me also – just on the other side of the debate.

In terms of usage, ‘ham’ might be considered the antithesis of ‘luvvie’. Both are pathetic non-words, but ‘luvvie’ is used almost exclusively by non-actors to beat up actors (the tabloid press have been most vigorous in this regard). It’s those on the outside attacking those on the inside. That doesn’t give it the least value, but it does render it understandable: fear of the unknown, proceeding from ignorance and non-engagement. By contrast, ham is the eternal stick with which those on the inside beat up others on the inside: actors (or writers, or directors, but usually actors) bitching about actors. Such internal subterfuge is best avoided. The job carries enough challenges already.

Furthermore, the word ‘ham’ might indeed be meaningless. For starters, we’ve no idea where it came from. Etymologists have linked it to everything from ham fat (an ancient makeup remover) to Hamlet (unlikely) to the word (h-)amateur (which in any case means ‘enthusiast’ and deserves our respect). Small wonder that no one can decide what ham means today. It’s become a soggy catch-all word for ‘bad’. But ‘bad’ doesn’t have any meaning beyond the individual saying ‘oh, well, I think that’s bad’. ‘I consider that acting bad, and therefore it is ham.’ Is this really good enough? It puts me in mind of Stephen Fry’s laudable moan (and no one does laudable moaning better) about the word ‘offence’:

It’s now very common to hear people say ‘I’m rather offended by that’. As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually no more – it’s simply a whine. It’s no more than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be ‘respected’ as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that’ – well, so fucking what?

Fry’s point is an important one. People too often cut off their engagement with a productive argument by throwing out a meaningless word. ‘Offence’ is one such chimera; in the theatrical sphere, ‘ham’ is another. But if you’re going to use a word as ammunition, do yourself a considerable favour and pick apart what it means. Or at least what it means to you. You stand to make some remarkable discoveries.

So: if ‘ham’ doesn’t just mean ‘bad’, what does it mean?

I suspect ‘ham’ is a euphemism, actually – for a feeling of embarrassment.

This troubles me. I find some of the most rewarding moments in watching actors (and in acting myself) to be those that make me uncomfortable. It forces me to question why I’m embarrassed, and I very often find it’s a defect in me. I’m not being receptive to what’s being thrown out. Whenever I’ve been tempted to call something ‘ham’ it’s usually been because it simply wasn’t to my taste. I can think of many a performance writ large that didn’t quite fly for me. But then, I’m massively prejudiced. Because I am an actor who does big things, I can never quite remove myself from the picture. I’ll sit there thinking ‘Well, I could have done that type of performance better.’ Or, more resentfully: ‘Well. That’s good – good of a sort – but I’d have done it differently.’ Or, worse yet: ‘They’re better than me at what makes me me. And I hate that.’ I feel discomfort because I may, after all, be looking at only a cracked reflection of myself. Which carries me to the worst thought of all: ‘Oh. Good. God. Am I really that bad?’ Perhaps I really am Patrice Parvis’s monstrous, perverted show-off.

But perhaps not. I still believe that doing the big things is eminently worthwhile. I think of Bela Lugosi’s Ygor and Bette Davis’s Baby Jane Hudson. I think of Freddie Jones’ horrifying Bytes in The Elephant Man, and Charles Laughton’s pitiable grape farmer in They Knew What They Wanted. The only reason for fear is social – a dread of not being accepted by your fellow actors; of being seen as somehow illegitimate or outmoded or unfashionable or just very, very stupid. Well, I say that those pursuing acting – a craft that’s closer to worms than shopkeepers on The Great Chain of Being – have no right to worry about what people think. Least of all those in the same mad game. As long as ‘ham’ is carelessly made a generalised put-down, actors will become more and more unadventurous, unimaginative, unwilling to take risks. More and more grey, in fact.

Beyond all else, the word ‘ham’ points to such poverty of imagination. For in another distressing pattern, ‘ham’ is often applied to works that are considered a throwback. Shakespeare in the grand style and blood-and-thunder melodrama, subjects on which I’ve recently written, are two such pursuits. Well, I don’t have much time for those who refuse to engage with anything outside the present. At least be open to the treasure-house of the past! It’s not about how much you know or don’t know – it’s just about remaining open to the multifarious alternatives! It’s so easy – too easy – to claim that something’s simply ‘bad!’ But why not remove the log from your own eye? Why not use that log to smash Caliban’s looking-glass? Why not question why you think it in the first place, instead of assuming the world will appreciate your opinion because it derives from you? That is egotism!

I don’t exercise this self-control nearly often enough. But I would hope I’m getting better at it. I would hope that others would challenge themselves to get better too.

And none of this is to say we should put up with poor acting. Sometimes an embarrassing performance is just that, and no accommodation can make it otherwise. As David Mamet asks, time and again, in many and various permutations: why – why – why accept the second-rate in yourself or in others? A bit dangerous to go looking for the second-rate in others – that’s the Patrice Pavis approach, and suggests we have insights into others’ souls – but entirely legitimate to interrogate yourself. We all know when we’ve done less than our best work. And if we don’t, we should! Unfortunately, Mamet, for all his considerable virtues, is another person who chronically abuses the word ‘ham’. In 2012, I wrote about Mamet’s True and False, at some length and with (for me) unusual clarity. That clarity was likely because I was just as riled up as I am now.

Mamet’s eternal quest is to wrench theatre from the navel-gazing practitioners and restore it to the audience. So it’s funny that whenever I’ve spoken to audiences, ‘ham’ is invariably used as a compliment – by those who aren’t involved in theatre themselves. Something to the order of: ‘Ah! I liked that! You really hammed it up!’ This occurs most often in Yorkshire, where, for all I know, ‘ham’ carries a legitimately different signification – although I’ve known it in England’s nether regions also. I’ve asked the terse follow-up questions: and yes, it genuinely was meant positively. I’d like to see ‘ham’ and ‘luvvie’ more widely used as good-humoured banter between actors. Rather like ‘duckie’ seems to have been used among the old guard, before they all died off and left the likes of us to fill their places.

Alas, principles must remain. With times as they are, I can’t very well countenance any use of the word. Unless it’s fabulously well-justified. Or triumphantly reclaimed.

The latter is, at least, a possibility. Looking back on a piece I wrote in 2010, I find myself scribbling this on ‘ham’:

What sort of images does this simple word evoke? Abundance; plenty; generosity; flavour; robustness; in short, a feast. Hang on a minute… And these are the things we’re meant to apologise for in our acting?

Damn it all, four-years-ago me! You were occasionally very right!

1 Comment

Filed under Acting Theory, Essays, Personal Excavation

Neo-Gothic Shakespeare

Over the last few weeks, my brain’s been pleasurably clogged with Henry Irving. He’s become my window onto a brave new world of theatrical adventure. Of course, it’s also an old world, defined by the ruling structure of the Victorian repertoire. At Irving’s Lyceum Theatre, this meant alternating Shakespeare with catch-penny melodrama: Hamlet, Macbeth and Richard III strolled hand-in-hand with the likes of Eugene Aram, Richelieu and Louis XI. In the past, I’ve thought about melodrama as ‘the extra-textual theatre’ – that theatre in which the greatest effectiveness lies outside the spoken word. Certain critics have called it the Romantic theatre, with Edmund Kean as its hard-drinking, mass-sexing embodiment. And some are content to deride melodrama as actors’ theatre – a term that trivialises the glories of restoring the actor to the centre of a theatrical event.

But I think it’s Jeffrey Richards who hits on the best of all terms in this thrilling summation:

Audiences shared a love of spectacle and a fascination with crime and criminals, a profound sentimentality, and a belief in retribution. They were devoted to a hallowed canon of established melodramatic favourites: Willson Disher calls them ‘Neo-Gothic Shakespeare’, the Romantic Victorian equivalents of the Bard, their stories looted from Scott and Lytton, Hugo and Dumas, Goldsmith and Dickens, and ‘the calendars of crime’; their heroes The Corsican Brothers, The Courier of Lyons, Louis XI, Eugene Aram, Sydney Carton, Ruy Blas, the Master of Ravenswood and Vanderdecken the Flying Dutchman.

I’ve no idea where Willson Disher came up with it, but ‘Neo-Gothic Shakespeare’ is an exceptionally fine coinage. Now, the accepted response to melodrama is to cry ‘How ghastly! How embarrassing! Thank goodness this tommy-rot died out!’ Quite understandable. It’s every generation’s self-righteous prerogative to feel their theatre’s the best it’s ever been. But how many nay-sayers have bothered to read these melodramas? I’ve been steeped in their creepy world, via novels and films, for some time While the old melodramas certainly don’t make for good reading, the form clearly answers some very deep need. Perhaps it’s actors who feel that need more deeply than most.

But first: what constitutes Neo-Gothic Shakespeare? I’ll do a quick ‘Notes on Camp’ – like Sontag’s celebrated bullet-points, nothing should be taken too seriously – and try to fix on what melodrama means to me:


1. Visual revelation is central to the event. It could be a hiding-place; a secret passage; a dream shown through gauze.

2. A medieval attitude to villainy. The villainy of the aged, the ugly, the rich, the powerful, the diabolically blood-lusting. Boucicault’s bastardised Louis XI is all of these: the ultimate melodramatic villain.

3. Goodness definitely exists. And is touching for that very reason. Go with it, without cynicism, and it’s wonderful.

4. Guilt ostentatiously presented. The Hand of God ever-present, in ways much more potent than clergymen. In The Bells, Mathias is literally struck dead by guilt.

5. Beautiful (and often highly coloured) fairytale scenery. Gothic castles, with chapels and dungeons; villages at May Day, with rustic cottage interiors. The Castle Spectre is one such pictorial drama. Although even urban melodrama should be prepossessing. It’s as E.W. Godwin said: ‘Even a burlesque can be beautiful.’

6. A relish for the fustian. Swirling mists; swirling capes; a sculptor’s delight in the gargoyle-like leer. Harry Furniss’s caricatures of Henry Irving convey this very well (see below for his Louis XI).

Furniss - Louis XI

7. Tumultuous weather. Pathetic fallacy, yes, but also drumming up a more elemental thrill. Observe the storm in Maria Marten: the murder is made both horrifying and (however shamefully) exciting.

8. Talismans really work. Often crucifixes, but wider than that. Finding lost objects may be key to the plot. Buried treasure. Some lingering sense of the Catholic relic.

9. Emotional ‘surfing’. Hopping from wave to wave. Pity and terror from unexpected places. Louis XI’s fits of religious torment create sympathy for even the devil.

10. Revenge is everyone’s motive. It can be good, it can be bad. But come it shall!

11. As in Dickens, there are serious people (usually heroes and heroines) and unserious people (the buffoons and villains). They can be yoked together in a fashion that’s quite galvanising. Or undergo surprise transformations. The great nightmare of ‘Sikes and Nancy’ is that it discovers the humanity of even Bill Sikes: the ogre made three-dimensional.

12. Melodrama delights in the absurd. It’s camp, in that it’s aware of this dimension. Sweeney Todd is the prime example: the winking line ‘I’ll polish him off!’ was high camp at the instant of conception.

13. Melodrama has an infinitely greater sense of humour than its critics. Tod Slaughter always suggested as much. Witness the intertitle that opens The Face at the Window (1939): ‘this melodrama of the old school – dear to the hearts of all who unashamedly enjoy either a shudder or a laugh at the heights of villainy.’

14. By the same token, melodrama is given to greater flights of fancy than its critics. It enjoys a free imaginative play. The throwing together of disparate elements – much as a child might do – is theatre in its purest sense.

15. Phantasmagoria. Impressively low-tech special effects: gauzes, smoke bombs, coloured light, Pepper’s Ghost, Sweeney Todd’s revolving chair. The spectator reduced to a child-like state. The joins are plainly visible, but all the more wonderful for it.

I confess that the above makes my actor’s heart soar. Melodrama is an anti-literary form; a form in which the text is negligible. The written word does little more than sanction a free-wheeling romp through the possibilities of theatre. In operating around the text, attention is drawn to those things that make the theatre unique. And it falls to the melodramatic actor to bind these unwieldy fragments together – by sheer force of enthusiasm, imagination and belief.

The simple existence of melodrama is the great answer to those who marginalise the actor’s contribution. Here, Laurence Irving reflects on Bernard Shaw’s hatred for Henry Irving’s acting style:

Bravura acting left him unmoved; he was unable to comprehend what Irving described as the actor’s power ‘to arouse the intelligence by the vibrations and modulations of organized sound’. He was constitutionally immune to the spell which an actor of genius can, with the poorest literary material, cast upon his audience; his allergy to the world of romantic illusion upon which the curtain of the Lyceum rose was incurable.

The quotation from Sir Henry is especially thought-provoking: the Wildean idea that melodrama is a form in which sound precedes and even creates sense. Most people don’t have a great feel for Shaw’s text-sodden plays. I certainly don’t. I can vibrate to them as cavalcades of fine and often quirky ideas, but they seldom come alive as drama. Don Juan in Hell has been my best experience of Shaw – and that was a sound-only recording of a platform piece. Some drama!

The most fun I’ve yet had with Shaw has been through A Victorian in Orbit, the autobiography of Cedric Hardwicke. In anecdote after anecdote, Shaw suddenly comes alive: a warm and witty human being. It’s clear that Shaw and Hardwicke were great friends. Yet the greatest surprise is that the book is any fun at all. In his film performances, Hardwicke was invariably dry and dusty. His book’s frolicsome joie de vivre is nowhere to be found in his roles in Things to Come (1936) or The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942); it’s only slightly more apparent in The Ghoul (1933). Hardwicke did make an excellent Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), but that’s probably because his go-to persona suited the repressive, self-denying judge so well. Little wonder that Shaw treasured Hardwicke as an interpreter of his plays. No attention wasted on the actor; all focus on the text. These movie melodramas begged for a different attack.

I suppose my point here is that a text-dependent drama is always, on some level, limiting. That goes not just for Shaw but Shakespeare. Unless we find ways to keep doing Shakespeare justice, I don’t see the point in carrying on. For one thing, it’s dangerous to go on parading inferior Shakespeare before a public of finite indulgence. Surely Shakespeare is great art because it’s of great importance? Months could – and, ideally, should – be lavished on rehearsing one scene. It really is that serious.

Although I so often read that King Lear is unplayable – from Irving himself and in articles such as this one – that I begin to wonder. How far do actors feel caged by these enormously weighty texts? Moreover, what does ‘unplayable’ mean? Does there exist some measurable scale of playability? Is Hamlet just about playable if you’re really, really good? Surely it’s easier to say that all Shakespeare is unplayable – and let’s be honest, it’s much harder to do justice to a messenger or a spear-carrier than a fantastically bewarted monarch who gets to massage half the play’s text between his toothless gums.

For me, as for many, there’s a cloud of inaccessibility around Shakespeare. It’s something to do with the age of the work; something to do with the verse: the sense that meaning, even with diligent research, is slipping between my fingers. It’s not for lack of trying to engage: I’ve read or seen virtually every play by Shakespeare. I’d love to be carried away by his work more often. There are things that do it. It’s usually those things that are Neo-Gothic, by virtue of the uncanny atmosphere they conjure up: the fourth acts of Richard III (‘revolving this will teach thee how to curse’) and Timon of Athens (‘I’ll beat thee, but I should infect my hands’); the marginal characters, such as the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet and the Porter in Macbeth; the stranger tracts in the late Romances. The Merchant of Venice occupies that atmospherically charged space more than any Shakespeare – a fantastic, picturesque weirdness colours most every scene – which is probably why it’s my favourite of his plays.

Funnily enough, it’s the Sonnets that I find most freeing, and they weren’t intended for the stage. They withdraw from me all of my yearning to do Shakespeare justice. To be a light and deft and tripping being; an Apollonian actor, who can write romance on the air with a tripping quill. I fear it’s not for me (and I hope I’m not talking myself out of a job here): I’m too rough and too plodding to be a great Shakespearean.

Whatever the answer, I’m certain that you can’t take ownership of Shakespeare. Not really. I happen to love Donald Wolfit. The idea of him, at any rate: a flawed, insecure, egotistical, spat-upon monster of a man, who also turned in the greatest Lear of the twentieth century. But whenever Wolfit claimed ownership of Shakespeare, he became absurd. Take this, from when Wolfit played Falstaff and clocked that there was time between appearances to remove his padding:

Brilliant craftsman, Shakespeare. Knew the actor would want to pee and constructed the play accordingly. A Master, a Master!

Or this, justifying his deletion of Malvolio’s imprisonment in Twelfth Night:

I cannot learn it, and if I cannot learn it, Shakespeare did not write it!

Those who claim to be on good terms with Shakespeare should be treated with suspicion. Shakespeare’s not a comfortable author. His plays tell you about being a human being, but in such a way that he takes you far outside yourself. His dramatic situations are gigantic emblems of humanity. Lear on the heath. Hamlet hovering over Claudius with the dagger. Even Falstaff in the buck-basket starts to seem colossal. The Sonnets, by comparison, are chamber pieces: emotion lyrically and seductively transmitted.

One of the refreshing aspects of the Victorian theatre is how differently Shakespeare was represented. Alan Hughes has helpfully whittled down their Shakespearean repertory to the following: Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, Henry V, Henry VIII, King John, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing and The Merchant of Venice. Other Shakespeares were revived, yes, but seldom more often than The Two Noble Kinsmen is in our time. The omissions are stunning. No Lear and no Fool. No Coriolanus, no Volumnia. No Richard II. No Imogen. No Prospero or Miranda or Caliban or Ariel. No Angelo and Isabella. No Cleopatra and Antony. No Autolycus; no Leontes and Hermione. No Viola or Malvolio; no Sir Toby, Sir Andrew or Feste. No Oberon and Titania and Puck; no Quince and no Bottom and most certainly no Snug. No Brutus and Cassius; no Caesar. No Falstaff – no, not even the watered-down clone that haunts The Merry Wives of Windsor. Yet for all that’s lost, it’s freeing to find yourself blinkered to Shakespeare. Clipped of its endless expanses, the work feels oddly comfortable. Perhaps it’d make sense to borrow this leaf from the Victorians. The other way they made their Shakespeare comfortable was by uniting it with melodrama.

At its best, melodrama restores the reciprocal relationship of actor and audience. Melodrama is the actors’ theatre, but in a way that’s practically driven. It’s because the words of the melodrama are roughly hewn that the flesh-and-blood performer is invested with new responsibility. No text is perfect: even the unplayable King Lear could be better (as Simon Gray once remarked). Great theatre is not an essay but an event – and an unashamedly rough text can remind us why we’re there in the first place. The Irving literature often draws attention to the idea of ‘creating’ a part. (It was a new term in Victorian England, steeped in the exoticism of the Comedie Francaise.) Creation is the actor’s special gift. Charles Laughton often spoke of creation as the cornerstone of his acting: ‘Great artists reveal the god in man, and every character an actor plays must be this sort of creation.’ Laughton, working in Golden Age Hollywood, had some thinly written scripts to contend with. And his best performance – sparring with Hardwicke as The Hunchback of Notre Dame – required very few words at all. It wouldn’t have done for Shakespeare: his Caliban talks more in one speech than all of Laughton’s remarkable Quasimodo.

Irving - Cardinal Wolsey

In closing, it’s interesting to note the deepest way in which the Victorians got on with Shakespeare: by plundering his works for blood and thunder. Just peruse the Shakespeares that got the most exposure in the Victorian age. Richard III is melodrama by any standard, the archetypal ‘villain play’ – and a no-nonsense Shylock transforms The Merchant of Venice into much the same thing. Macbeth can be a rip-snorter, as can Hamlet, with their glut of castles and ghosts and witchcraft and murders (according to James Agate, Wolfit staged both as melodramas). There’s enough of the macabre in Romeo and Juliet and Othello to keep any ghoul’s interest. Even Henry VIII, with its endless parades and pageants, satiates the melodramatic thirst for show-stopping spectacle (Wilde certainly approved). There are few sights more tantalisingly Gothic than Irving’s vampiric Cardinal Wolsey.

I’d love to see a season of Neo-Gothic Shakespeare – beginning, perhaps, with Titus Andronicus. If all else fails, I’ll start a company.

Leave a comment

Filed under Acting Theory, Essays, Film, Henry Irving, Personal Excavation

The Knight from Nowhere

Sir Henry Irving has fast become my latest obsession. Which is strange, given that I can’t see any of his performances. Irving last performed in the theatre in 1905. All that remains of his art are a few scratchy wax cylinder recordings.

Master and Pupil

Last year, I developed a similar passion for Sir Donald Wolfit, after reading Ronald Harwood’s excellent biography. I’ve still seen only a clutch of Wolfit performances, film rather than theatre, and none of them hugely impressive: Callistratus in Blood of the Vampire (1958) leaps to mind, as does the title menace in Svengali (1954). To a lesser extent, I’ve had it with Charles Laughton and Antony Sher. I sought out more Laughton films after reading Simon Callow’s biography. It was enervating to have such unpromising vehicles as They Knew What They Wanted (1940) and especially This Land Is Mine (1943) deliver far in excess of my hopes. As for Sher (who I know from his biographies), I’ve still never seen him in the theatre – though given he’s alive and working, there’s every chance that’ll change.

Having a primarily textual connection to an actor is nonetheless edifying. It’s that point at which drama intersects with faith. You start looking beyond the performance for the idea, the ethos, the belief system that underlies it. Much more drama should work like this: as with any faith, it gives its acolytes a reason to continue. Acting is a discouraging enough pursuit – when it doesn’t go right – that such figures are vital. I am anyway a prodigious hero worshipper, and probably for reasons of this nature. My heroes give me the courage to keep on trying.

Irving has been with me far longer than the actors mentioned above. I’m sure I’ve known about Irving nearly as long as I’ve known about Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula (and, as anyone who knows me will testify, that is a very long time). Stoker was Irving’s business manager at the Lyceum Theatre, forever cast in the shadow of his domineering ‘Guv’nor’ and receiving little thanks for his administrative pains. It’s the supreme irony of Irving’s life that now Dracula is more famous than him. Irving even passed up the opportunity to be the first actor to play Dracula (repeatedly, by Stoker’s account). Hindsight has not been kind. Not only are Irving’s performances lost to the dust, but he jeopardised his one real shot at cultural immortality. If the great dead could only speak! The Knight and the Count are no doubt locked in bitter combat, a Salieri and Mozart of the nineteenth-century theatre. Stoker is their jealous (and unlikely) God.

I’ve been getting to know Irving through many great books. I’ve recently concluded Laurence Irving’s monumental Henry Irving: The Actor and His World, which might well be the longest book I’ve read since finishing Cambridge: an all-encompassing almanac of Irving. Simply living with a subject for as long as such a biography takes creates a special bond, regardless of what you think of the man. It’s certainly that way with Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens – you feel as though you’ve lived his life for him, suffered his exhaustion and earned his death (for Dickens and Irving both, a reverential interring in Poets’ Corner). I’m now all over the place in my Irving researches: steeped in Jeffrey Richards’ Sir Henry Irving: A Victorian Actor and His World and Bram Stoker’s Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving; culling sections from The Tragic Actor (Bertram Joseph), That Despicable Race (Bryan Forbes) and Thunder in the Air (Brian Masters); looking forward to volumes by Ellen Terry and Michael Holroyd and (again!) Jeffrey Richards. Then there are the plays that Irving made famous: I’ve just worked through a heavily annotated script for The Bells, and have a ton of Shakespeare, Tennyson and melodrama to go. Simply put, I’m in love.

It’s probably worth adding that I read Barbara Belford’s Bram Stoker and the Man who was Dracula (meaning Irving) last year – as part of my interminable researches for my one-man play of Dracula. A play which I’ve finished, by the way, but will be consigning to the back-burner for the foreseeable future. I’ve decided to press on with Frankenstein first, and make sure it’s as good as it can possibly be. I’m confident that Dracula will eventually be staged, but I don’t think its time has come. It must be more than perfect, and it’s not yet there.

Okay, I’ve so far addressed the hovering ‘hows’ of my Irving obsession. But what about the ‘whys’ behind it?

With all of my heroes, I like to feel assured that they were actually really bad at some things. Their humanity makes their achievements the more admirable (and palatable – it doesn’t pay to envy a hero). Irving truly overcame himself, transforming his weaknesses as an actor into that which made him individual, irreplaceable. His legs were bad, particularly in an age which prized elegance of gait; one foot would sometimes drag slightly. He was terribly short-sighted (thus the ever-present pince-nez spectacles). He suffered from catarrh all his life, which meant that he was constantly vocalising through a dry throat. Irving also stammered. Laurence Irving provides a painful account of this impediment’s resurgence, shortly after his grandfather’s professional debut:

… When he came upon the stage as Cleomenes in The Winter’s Tale to describe Leontes’ discovery of his daughter, no words came from his lips. His fellow-actors waited in awkward dismay. The prompter groaned his cue in tones that were heard all over the house. Irving was paralysed with horror. Then, with a tremendous effort of will, he managed to blurt out:

‘Come to the market-place, and I will tell you further!’ and, leaving the astonished actors, who knew of no such market-place, to pick up the threads of the play as best they could, he rushed to his dressing-room, angry and ashamed, with the hisses of the audience buzzing in his burning ears … It is doubtful if the disaster was an attack of stage fright; it was certainly not due to careless preparation; it was more likely that the half-conquered impediment had, in a moment of stress, broken from its secret prison.

I can empathise with all that, as a short-sighted, funny-voiced, wonky-backed man with one leg rippling with sciatica (I also suffer from catarrh, and don’t anticipate a future when I won’t). Irving was also largely self-educated. Despite his image as an intellectual actor, he would apparently make a fool of himself when engaging with men of art. I’m particularly fond of the account of Irving meeting Walt Whitman. Irving, eager to break the silence, blurted out: ‘You know you are like Tennyson in several ways. You quite remind me of him!’ A few seconds later, Irving worried that he’d offended Whitman. ‘You don’t mind that, do you?’ he said feebly, before retreating back into silence. (Whitman claimed to be pleased: ‘I like to be tickled!’)

Also endearing is Irving’s loneliness, even after he achieved greatness. He would return every night (or morning) to his darkened rooms, far from the glamour of the Beefsteak Room and the Lyceum gala nights, and lock himself away from the world. Irving sporadically kept dogs – and those dogs had a habit of dying – but he seemingly had no people for companionship. His pious mother cast him out when he declared his acting ambitions. He became estranged from his wife when she questioned his acting: ‘Are you going on making a fool of yourself like this all your life?’ He walked away and never spoke to her again. She was allowed to watch him from a box by the stage – Irving always reserved her first-night seats in his tenure at the Lyceum, and she often accepted. How unsettling an image: You may watch me, but only in silence, and a long way away. And only in the dark. By extension, Irving also became estranged from his sons. Did he have the brief satisfaction of affairs? We can’t be sure. They were secretive affairs, for he never divorced. Did he enjoy a close platonic friendship? It’s hard to say. Narcissistic, and therefore self-protecting, friendships – yes, probably. Bram Stoker got no recognition for essentially giving his life to Irving; eventually, Irving committed the supreme betrayal of ignoring Stoker’s advice, and handing the Lyceum to a financially crippling syndicate.

This loneliness was the point of Irving’s life, though. I’m not sure it made him unhappy. The work was all. Bette Davis had this in common with Irving. She believed loneliness was central to the actor’s creative state: ‘It has been my experience that one cannot depend on human relations for any lasting reward. It is only work that truly satisfies.’ She had this to say on happiness: ‘I don’t think as a group actors are what I call “happy people”; I think we’re very moody people … And rather lonely people actually.’ I increasingly believe that if you want to do something really astounding in the theatre, this loneliness is non-negotiable. It’s part of the deal.

Irving also overcame himself by growing, inexorably, in scope as an actor: graduating from grotesque comedy (his Dickensian rogues; in a more realistic vein, his Digby Grant in Two Roses) to melodramatic villainy (The Bells) and finally to classical tragedy (the Great Four: Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear). I think I’m still hovering between the grotesque and the melodramatic, and certainly not at the level that Irving was. But one of the reassurances of Irving’s career is that he kept melodrama and tragedy running in parallel: for every Lyceum Shakespeare, there was likely to be a production of Louis XI, The Corsican Brothers or a distinctly non-Goethe Faust. Nor did Irving betray his roots in the ostentatious ugliness of the grotesque. His idiosyncracies of manner made it so; for all his work on his person, he could never be other than himself. Irving was usually applauded for his facial expression and command of movement (mannerisms maketh man), seldom for the beauty of his voice. Irving was never one of the beautiful people. Well, so what? his characters seemed to say. See how high I’m soaring without your beauty! The paradox of such an attitude is that Irving was all magnetism; I imagine his charisma – sex appeal, even – was comparable to that of Alan Rickman. Although his Romeo was bad (how could it be otherwise?), he made a fine Benedick (much the better part). He even managed to make Iago loveable. As Ellen Terry wrote:

One adored him, devil though he was. He was so full of charm, so sincerely the ‘honest’ Iago, peculiarly sympathetic with Othello, Desdemona, Roderigo, all of them – except his wife … His Iago and his Romeo in different ways proved his power to portray Italian passions – the passions of lovely, treacherous people, who will either sing you a love sonnet or stab you in the back – you are not sure which.

Love goes not simply to the beautiful; not in Irving’s Lyceum.

Irving also embraced the image in his acting. I wrote about this last year in a spoofing vein, but I truly believe the theatrical image to reach much further than the grotesque. Looking back to Wolfit, Laughton and Sher, I realise now that it was a sense of the images they’d left (or are leaving) behind that excites me so. James Agate appointed Wolfit as Irving’s successor, describing Wolfit’s Lear as ‘a ruined piece of nature’. An elemental description of Irving that I find enchanting was supplied by Ellen Terry. Near the end of his life, she said that he became ‘like some beautiful grey tree that I have seen in Savannah’. Irving’s was an inspiriting glide towards death, founded on the mantra of Boris Karloff: ‘I intend to die with my boots and my greasepaint on.’ (The performances of the great horror stars – who Irving so splendidly anticipated – are nothing if not an elucidation of death.) Laughton was that paradoxical combination of the physically unmistakable and the chimeric, transforming his ungainly frame by sheer force of will. Irving’s performance in The Bells might be the consummate example of affecting a change in one’s body and brain through will-power. There are too many enraptured accounts of Irving’s Mathias, and over too long a span, for it to be a shrewd concoction of effects. There’s black magic at work – particularly when it’s considered that The Bells, like many of Laughton’s screen vehicles, is so thinly written. Sher’s painterly approach to his characters is well-known. It can seem a self-absorbed approach to theatre – dictatorial, perhaps, so far as it forces others to conform to a pattern. But Irving harnessed images in like fashion: he revolutionised scene-painting with his ‘spectacular’ Shakespeares at the Lyceum. Of course, every carefully wrought frame had to lead the eye towards the central, completing element: Irving himself. Some would say egotism. I would say art.

I find Irving a great model for what my own path in theatre might be. Not in terms of the success Irving achieved – that was beyond what even Olivier accomplished, and very much bound by his time. But in terms of his artistic attack… It might be worth trying to run the same race. So who knows? Irving may even become my next one-man play.

I’ll end with the Sonnet that Oscar Wilde addressed to Irving. It’s a thrilling call to arms for any actor trapped on the treadmill of the macabre:


The silent room, the heavy creeping shade,
The dead that travel fast, the opening door,
The murdered brother rising through the floor,
The ghost’s white fingers on thy shoulders laid,
And then the lonely duel in the glade,
The broken swords, the stifled scream, the gore,
Thy grand revengeful eyes when all is o’er, –
These things are well enough, – but thou wert made
For more august creation! frenzied Lear
Should at thy bidding wander on the heath
With the shrill fool to mock him, Romeo
For thee should lure his love, and desperate fear
Mock Richard’s recreant dagger from its sheath –
Thou trumpet set for Shakespeare’s lips to blow!

Leave a comment

Filed under Acting Theory, Dracula, Essays, Henry Irving

Night Thoughts

My nights are passing very strangely at the moment. If I’m not basking in the shameful joys of The Amazing Transparent Man and Attack of the Giant Leeches, I’m sure to be barking and caterwauling as Sikes and Fagin in a candlelit medieval college. There is tremendous fatigue – and yet, still more tremendous, an all-possessing excitement about the future. After one of those (inevitable) periods of drought, the globe is spinning for me once more. I’m left only with the concern of where I might stand on that globe.

Titles, I’ve found, are a good way of rooting oneself. What follows is the end result of the midnight madness: a list of five aspirational titles. Each encapsulates a role that I hope to fulfil as time rolls on. As ever with such ponderings, I feel I’ve gained a few grains of self-knowledge. What future capital these titles have remains to be seen. But they certainly give one something to aim for.

To work then! The first of my self-appointed titles is…

A bloody amateur. Charles Laughton insisted on calling himself an amateur. Given that Laughton’s top-shelf performances – particularly The Hunchback of Notre Dame and This Land Is Mine – are anything other than amateur, this self-effacement seems faintly courageous. The sense in which Laughton really meant ‘amateur’ was in its deeper, all but forgotten meaning: that of an enthusiast (from the Latin ‘amator’, meaning ‘lover’). I would always hope to pursue acting out of enthusiasm, interest, curiosity, excitement; as a good compulsion rather than a bad one. But, in another sense, flying the flag of the amateur is a way of defending one’s performances from serious criticism. Laughton faced criticism in spades – particularly when he played King Lear at Stratford towards the end of his life, an audacious conclusion to a life of virtually no Shakespearean roles. I’m aware that I’ve failed the Shakespeare ‘test’ as an actor. My most notable Shakespearean character remains the Porter in Macbeth: one scene and no verse whatever. I’m even more aware that I’m an untrained actor, and, given my financial straits, that’s likely to remain so. I know my limitations inside out – and yet I retain this bitter renegade streak, which is violently opposed to anyone pointing them out. Instead, I’ll beat them to it – by labelling myself an amateur. Thus do openness and defensiveness walk hand in hand. I’ve little idea where this mammoth persecution complex erupts from. Ever and always in my acting, I’ve sought to be…

A picturesque grotesque. I coined this phrase a few years ago, when searching for nonsense to slaver across my Facebook profile (as if a Facebook profile should be slavered in anything else). I think it’s more than a convenient rhyme, and actually a pretty accurate summation of what emerges in my acting. I can relate it to the words of theatre critic James Agate, in his comparison of the Lears of Laurence Olivier and Donald Wolfit: ‘Wolfit’s Lear is a ruined piece of nature’ whilst ‘Olivier’s is a picture of ruins most cunning presented’. I’m almost dangerously in love with the brutish, elemental power of Sir Donald Wolfit – an actor who seemed to have been cleaved from the muds of the earth. I know that, untrained or not, I’ll probably always be a rough actor; Dionysian, not Apollonian. Yet despite my prodigious energies as an actor – that ability to stagger on and on and on – I feel I lack the truly indomitable power of a Wolfit. The grotesque energies in me are therefore more staggered, more gestural; offered up, with Olivierian calculation, rather than unleashed on an unsuspecting audience. ‘Acting with Wolfit,’ observed Coral Browne, ‘was like being a speck of dust approached by a hoover.’ Despite my singularity as a performer (a mixed blessing), I don’t believe I’m capable of dominating as Wolfit did. I always put my singularity to work in a context that won’t damage others. Where Wolfit headed a repertory company with tyrannical ferocity – a role with which I would be incalculably ill at ease – I’ve most often headlined in the one-person form. I don’t think I could produce the elegant yet cissified Lear of Olivier – a rose among the ruins, essentially – any more than the smouldering lead crucible of Wolfit’s Lear. I exist uncertainly between the two: grotesque, but dysfunctionally picturesque in it. And while we’re on the subject of Wolfit, another of my aspirations is to be…

A curator of the cults of crackpots. I revel in being a simply massive fan. Of so many different people: the great dead, the less-than-great dead, the living legends, even a considerable number of friends. And, quite often, these people are actors. Within the confines of my own head, I’ve created a constellation of performers that inform the way I live and breathe the theatre. The constellation’s examples are largely spiritual. After all: how many twenty-something actors genuinely count Edmund Kean and Henry Irving among their heroes? This would reek of pretension if it wasn’t so bloody sincere. Wolfit, for example. For the longest time, the most noteworthy Wolfit performance I’d seen was his Dr Callistratus in the ignominious Blood of the Vampire. That might remain so. His Lear, Volpone, Tamburlaine and Overreach are lost to the sands of time; it was Ronald Harwood’s exemplary biography of Wolfit that really stoked my passion. It’s worth noting that this discovery of heroes comes mainly through reading; theatre in the passive rather than active state. There are exceptions: some quite off-the-wall film performances have influenced me. Only recently, it struck me that the one-two punch of those late thirties, schlock-Gothic, Technicolor witches – Lucille La Verne in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz – was more responsible than anything for my youthful interest in acting. But text remains the medium through which I most deeply connect with past actors. Now: what’s all this about? Is it simply the search for a role model? That’s a little too simplistic; as much as I revere them both, I know I’m not Olivier and I know I’m not Wolfit. So perhaps it’s more an effort to authorise a tricksy performance art – this bedeviled singularity that I’ve mentioned – by seizing on individuals through which it’s been shown to work. Perhaps there is a mighty line running from Thespis to the present day – and therefore a pool of energy in which every generation may share. This spiritual dimension to theatre never ceases to thrill me. And perhaps, like love, it reflects the desire to vanish inside the overwhelming otherness of an extraordinary human being. Which reminds me of why I’d like to be…

The cause that wit is in other men. Perhaps Shakespeare’s most memorable description of Falstaff – as delivered by Falstaff himself, in Henry IV: Part 2: ‘I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.’ I’ve long wanted to play Falstaff, but I’m the first to admit it would be a strained arrangement. The physical disparity could be bridged with some monstrous padding; rather more worrisome is the core of the man. I’ve never considered myself a particularly funny person. If I’ve ever been a funny actor, this has been an incidental (and sometimes unwelcome) effect; unrepeatable for being uncontrolled. There seems to be no purely easy wit in me: it’s either deftly mechanical or comes totally out of the blue. (Or perhaps these things do actually constitute wit, and I lack conviction in my capacity.) I’m sure there was a time when my dourness bothered me (a facet of my more general persecution complex?), but I came to accept it a long time ago. This was at least partly to do with the manifest superiority of becoming ‘the cause that wit is in other men’. I may not be very funny most of the time, but I dearly love to provoke funniness in others. I rarely achieve it. But if I can ever do as Dickens did, and elevate those around me by crowning them with wit – by laughing too long and too hard at their jokes – then that at least will have been worthwhile. If we take wit to mean quickness, keenness or cunning, this idea makes more sense. I, lacking in natural humour, might yet provide the raw material for a joke. So often in this life I feel as though I’m skirting round the heart of matters. One of the principal reasons I feel like…

A Victorian in orbit. Sir Cedric Hardwicke coined this wonderful phrase for his autobiography. I haven’t got round to the book, but the phrase has stayed with me. I had a fantastically long conversation with a friend recently, in which I pretty much concluded that I’d missed out on so much that is playful and youthful in adolescence and just became ME at an early stage. This feeling that others got the best of it is by no means new. A good example is how I felt, as a child, about children’s television. I wasn’t especially hard to please (I so wanted to be pleased!), but there were certain programmes that I never enjoyed. Now. It never once crossed my mind that the programmes were bad. Oh, no. I thought instead that the fluorescing garbage of CBBC’s 50/50 was unspeakably mature, and that one day – one glorious day – I would be bright enough to ‘get’ it. Of course, I would see clips of the damn things years later, and realise that I was now too old to ever really ‘get’ them. Whatever became of that golden period in between, when seer and subject were in sync? Odd that I never considered that such programmes would never appeal to me. I felt instead that I’d been cheated of a separate world of joy. (Involving the unspeakably base 50/50? Unbelievable!) This of course is the experience of love: the looking in on a garden of playful and youthful delights. And always from the outside. Only recently have I brooked the notion that those within the Wildean garden might look out through the bars at ME – in all my grey mundanity – and feel cheated of a universe of plodding stability. We go on desiring what we can’t ever have. I’m sure that some have wasted a lifetime in this way. For most of us, though, I imagine it provides a charge of romance. Bittersweet, but not unwelcome.

Leave a comment

Filed under Acting Theory, Essays, Personal Excavation

Preparing for Death

It’s just over a year since I played Quasimodo – so I feel it’s high time I wrote something about that.

Actors ranking their own performances is a pretty distorted and nauseating business. Nonetheless, I consider Quasimodo the best performance I’ve so far foisted on the world. I hope I’ll surpass it in the future; there’s otherwise little point in carrying on at this craft. Increasingly, though, I’ve come to realise that the reason Quasimodo worked was because it brimmed with personal resonance; a prism for that which effects and affects me. Really great actors are men (or women) of the moment: those happy few who perfectly suit – or, better yet, challenge – the dramatic requirements of their age. Each generation turns out only a handful of great actors (and let’s be honest: in this brave new world of digital encapsulation, there are many much-admired performers whose reputations won’t hold up). For mere mortals, it’s not within our power to bestride our age, Colossus-like. But there’s nothing to prevent us locating the ‘moment’ within ourselves – by finding the role that sounds most deeply within our souls. If I’ve ever found that, it was with Quasimodo: a part that started an echo that went on and on and on. I am not all Quasimodo – not by any stretch – but I certainly think that Quasimodo was all me.

The most obvious connection is purely physical: I am a hunchback myself. It still feels odd to write such a thing. Is that because the condition itself is uncommon or that the subject remains taboo?

In answer to the first, I can’t believe the condition is as uncommon as is generally assumed. To start with, a hunch is nothing as gruesome as it sounds. Only rarely is it an Elephant Man-like heaping of agitated flesh. Most often (and certainly in my case), it’s an unshakeable stiffness of spine; an exaggeration of a curve which is entirely natural. To be perfectly honest, I imagine that most kyphosis sufferers are undiagnosed – or simply find it more trouble than it’s worth to speak out on their condition. How many dentists or accountants or teachers really need to step outside the kyphosis closet? As an actor, of course, your body is your work – so it’s strange (or perhaps all too understandable) that so few actors are open and honest about it. As far as I’m aware, my spine has never lost me a role. Indeed, like other physical peculiarities – facial hair, extremes of weight, especially picturesque scars – it’s probably made me more ideally suited to many roles. Certainly the grotesque and macabre characters that I enjoy best.

As a person, kyphosis is a pretty rotten condition. As an actor, though, I’ve never considered it a particular disadvantage. The world has no doubt lost my Romeo. The world is remarkably fortunate. Too many young actors get suckered into trying to stay pretty, pert, and often, unintentionally, deeply uninteresting. Reality has always pressed down on me too forcibly, and always in making a mockery of my spine. But at least it’s spared me the humiliation of discovering that a straight-backed James Swanton would make for an almost equally pompous, drippy and ungainly Romeo.

As for the taboo surrounding kyphosis, I’m sure that’s connected with this prevailing climate of hush-hush embarrassment. You don’t have too many role models for this sort of deformity. If you do, they’re invariably negative, at least on the surface – mirror images of the hunchbacked old man staring at the young lovers in certain versions of the tarot (a fascinating read, that article). Quasimodo wasn’t real, of course. Yet historical figures are generally useless. Like the fabled Hunchback of Notre Dame Cathedral, Pepin the Hunchback is a man defined by his deformity. Moving into the present, I was recently ticked off to find that Richard III’s excavated skeleton bore signs of scoliosis – not kyphosis at all. Damn! What a loss. On review, I suppose the best kyphotic role models are those who don’t draw attention to their impairment. Which is precisely why they’re not known in the first place.

Despite all this, though, Quasimodo was no public airing of my neuroses. If anything, it was testament to my grandiose inability to make the connection. I performed the character without giving the least thought to my spine, except as some vague qualification for impersonating the character, as some vague arbiter of difference. Only afterwards came the medical appointments and the exercise routines and the feelings of crossness and confusion. My mind is so sneaky in other respects – but when it comes to personal truths I am often blinded to the most trouncingly obvious links between things. The first time I fell in love, I was in love for at least six months before I realised I was. For someone who spends an inordinate amount of time absorbed in writings like this, I’m appallingly slow on self-knowledge.

OCD can sometimes force my mind into action; I wrote at great length on the subject here, so I won’t go over too much old ground. Just recently, my mind has recently been flicking between my spine and my teeth. It’s an uncompromising dual struggle of ‘I must get these damned teeth straightened’ (they’ve relapsed a bit after some arduous orthodontic work) and the ultimately more pressing ‘ah, but you should probably do something with that dreadful back’. It’s a preposterous situation – in which, ultimately, nothing gets done. No doubt if there was a war on, I’d be bothering myself with that instead.

These are first-world problems. But then, they also link to a universal problem. I’ve flattered myself that my lot is similar to Stephen Fry’s ‘bent nose’ theory of the British monarchy: ‘The trouble with doing a thing for cosmetic reasons is that one always ends up with a cosmetic result – and cosmetic results, as we know from inspecting rich American women, are ludicrous, embarrassing and horrific.’ But I know, deep down, that that’s not it at all.

Mortality is at the root of it. Of that I am certain. I stare at my back and I stare at death. Shades of Andrew Marvell:

But at my back I always hear,
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

This is an expansive (somewhat petulant) statement, so it bears development.

Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

I’ve long revered the classic horror film. What separates it from the modern horror film is the actor’s contribution – the dying phenomenon of the horror star. And I’m convinced that what the great horror stars did was to prepare us for death. In their performances, they offered up reflections of death – but, in doing so, they made death bearable. Lon Chaney’s Erik, the title menace in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), was the character that first drew me to acting. In the best sense possible, the character is the essence of theatre. The character is also obsessively steeped in death. Erik bears the face of a skeleton, earning him the carnival epithet of ‘the living corpse’. Chaney’s self-applied makeup is unsurpassed: a monolithic memento mori; a nightmarish concoction of tragic clown, Anton Phibes and post-op Michael Jackson. Erik even sleeps in a coffin, which gives rise to a gloriously melodramatic intertitle: ‘It keeps me reminded of that other dreamless sleep that cures all ills – forever!’ I think now of Ray Bradbury’s words on Chaney, which sees actor and character overlap:

Chaney died when I was ten years old. It was the end of the world. I thought at the time that if death could die – and he personified death – if death could die, I wasn’t safe. So his death threatened me. It was the first real outside death in my life that was a terrible event.

Funnily enough, the most famous of Chaney’s other characterisations was Quasimodo – in the 1923 film of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I think playing Quasimodo inevitably brings you back to death. Quasimodo is so much a part of the cathedral that he becomes the cathedral (a vital personal maxim when I rehearsed the character). And the cathedral is a theatre that exalts death into life – whether in stone gargoyles, plaster saints or the blood-charged wine of the Eucharist.

A survey of horror cinema turns up countless reflections of death. There’s the reluctant ‘king of horror’ Christopher Lee – a distant ancestor of Pepin the Hunchback, incidentally, who was Charlemagne’s oldest son. Lee is no hunchback, but due to advanced age (ninety-one this year) he has lost a few inches of his formidable six foot five figure. Where teeth are concerned, Lee possesses some splendidly crooked gnashers – always has, a very strange grace note for the screen’s most prolific Count Dracula (wonder at his lower teeth in the close-up on ‘this was a Dracula indeed!’). Lee’s Dracula always returned from the dead. Indeed, it’s much fun recalling the ludicrous ways he was killed off from 1958 to 1973: burned by the sun (Dracula), drowned in a moat (Dracula: Prince of Darkness), impaled on a giant crucifix (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave), falling from a balcony in a deconsecrated church (Taste the Blood of Dracula), struck by lightning (Scars of Dracula), collapsed into a pit of stakes (Dracula AD 1972) and pricked by a hawthorn hedge (The Satanic Rites of Dracula). But these stupid, stupid deaths came with the vital disclaimer that Dracula would always return. Even after Lee had left the Hammer fold, Dracula returned in the guise of John Forbes-Robertson for 1974’s The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires.

In life, Lee also seems immortal: the living statesman – however reluctant – for a bygone age of screen horror. On receiving his knighthood, Lee privately said that Peter Cushing should have received the honour. Despite his outward protestations, Lee is aware of his legacy. It is a fine and mighty one.

There’s one other moment that warrants mention: Boris Karloff’s Monster, reaching for the watchtower skylight in Frankenstein (1931). It’s an unforgettable, breathtaking scene, and embodies the sublime verticality – the ascent to the heavens – that I also consider integral to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Karloff’s leading lady Mae Clarke had this to say on the scene:

It was like when we die, the beatific vision, which makes people understand the words: ‘Eye has not seen, nor ears heard, the glories that God has prepared for those who love Him.’

Horror cinema rarely broaches theatre directly. There are a few outstanding exceptions – usually involving Vincent Price, the most eminently theatrical of horror stars. But in what ways does theatre broach death? How is theatre like death?

Well, it ends – and it doesn’t come back. Yet in that ending, it secures a kind of immortality. There’s that wonderfully eloquent phrase from Prospero in The Tempest: ‘our little life / Is rounded with a sleep’. Theatre provides a graceful rounding off: the closure that life, with its infinitely tangled and troubled partings, constantly pulls against. The close of a performance is steeped in formality: the lighting changing, the players bowing, the audience clapping, the curtains closing. These trappings endow the chaos of the drama with order. They provide a bearable closure, a perfect closure – and, if the drama wasn’t much good to start with, a very welcome closure. Enacting the death of Quasimodo was no bereavement. It was catharsis, plain and simple.

Death is no doubt a preoccupation of mine. The working titles I have for my one-man Frankenstein and DraculaFrankenstein’s Fate and Dracula’s Death – also prioritise mortality. But I think it’s theatre, drama, storytelling – in whatever form it might take – that makes it all okay.

1 Comment

Filed under Acting Theory, Essays, Personal Excavation

Sikes & Nancy: Character Sketches

Whenever I connect with a character, it’s through an image. A year ago, I wrote a long-ish essay on this subject, reflecting on my experience with the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet. It remains the closest I’ve come to a personal theory of acting. So, in returning to Sikes & Nancy, it’s been my special desire to find a vivid image for each character. There’s such potential for mindless virtuosity in the one-man/multi-character form that a strong sense of who you’re playing – the instant you start playing them – is absolutely essential. To this end, I’ve been re-reading a few classical texts, scouring their little room for infinite riches. I found this, for example, in The Jew of Malta (Act II, Scene 1, Lines 1-6):

Thus like the sad presaging raven that tolls
The sick man’s passport in her hollow beak,
And in the shadow of the silent night
Doth shake contagion from her sable wings,
Vex’d and tormented runs poor Barabas
With fatal curses towards these Christians.

Barabas’s shameless malevolence, breaking forth like a ghost from a tomb, provides a wonderful template for Fagin’s delight in his own wickedness. It’s also a necessary antidote to Shakespeare’s compassionate yet joyless depiction of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. However, Shakespeare has been helpful in other ways. I’ve long believed that Macbeth fired Dickens’s imagination in the creation of ‘Sikes and Nancy’. (As Macready exclaimed after watching it: ‘TWO MACBETHS!’) Macbeth’s near-throwaway observation ‘light thickens’ is one of my favourite Shakespearean fragments; it vibrates with such atmosphere that I’m instantly in the mood for Sikes & Nancy. Here’s something else from Macbeth that excited me (Act II, Scene 2, Lines 56-60):

What hands are here? Hah! they pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

This perfectly articulates the almost wordless terror of Bill Sikes. Blood is everywhere in Sikes & Nancy, becoming ever more surreal as the piece wears on. It not only saturates the chamber of death – ‘how those stains were dispersed about the room!’ – but it invades Sikes’s addled brain, assuming form in the far-off countryside as ‘a human gravestone with its epitaph in Blood!!’ (Dickens’s punctuation). Not even the dog escapes; Shakespeare would have approved.

Examining old works can be very helpful. Using Sikes & Nancy to stimulate new works is a quite different activity. In this case, the new work is an image; the activity is drawing. I’ve never thought in great depth about the links between acting and drawing. On the surface, there’s a basic pleasure in the two acts emerging from the self. A simple mediator is required: on the one hand, the infrastructure of a theatre; on the other, pen and paper. Yet both remain largely free modes of expression: offered up to an audience, with no guarantee of their acceptance or rejection. This reception is the least important part of the process. A truthful work will always retain its integrity – the act emerges from the self, and, quite rightly, represents that self.

Most types of acting are dependent on a text. This makes it a form of interpretation, which many would argue is a semi-creative activity only. How can you truly ‘create’ when someone else has made up all the words? Michael Chekhov, however, was unbending in arguing for the actor as a supreme artistic creator – and nowhere more than through their command of images. From To the Actor:

The images which I see with the mind’s eye, have their own psychology, like the people surrounding me in everyday life. However, there is one difference: In everyday life, seeing people by their outer manifestations alone and not seeing behind their facial expressions, movements, gestures, voices and intonations, I might misjudge their inner lives. But it is not so with my creative images. Their inner lives are completely open for me to behold. All their emotions, feelings, passions, thoughts, their aims and innermost desires are revealed to me. Through the outer manifestation of my image – that is to say, of the character I am working upon by means of my imagination – I see its inner life.

Chekhov offers one particularly relevant example of an artist inspired by an image: ‘The whole morning, wrote Dickens, he sat in his study expecting Oliver Twist to appear.’ Certainly, there’s consolation here for outside-in actors such as myself, who too often feel like frauds for starting with a voice, a gait or a facial configuration. There’s also a protective megalomania in claiming this definitive grasp of your character’s inner life – in a medium as maddeningly uncontrollable as live performance, it’s very reassuring. All the same, I haven’t been into Chekhov quite as I’d imagined. The abiding lesson, I think, is that truths in acting are intuitive. No matter how good the teacher. This has struck me often while I’ve been working on my voice. My spine is far too idiosyncratic to square with the majority of breath-release, throat-salvaging stratagems. I’ve returned to my old techniques, won through experience, and I’ve been quite happy in doing so. There’s what works in the abstract and what works for the individual.

This lesson is also apparent in a survey of that rare species of actor-artist. The one who instantly springs to mind is Antony Sher. Drawings of every kind figured heavily in his preparations for Richard III, as shown in his tremendous book Year of the King. Yet Sher also took a year out of acting to focus on his painting. Which suggests art as an escape rather than an aide. But the enormous canvas that resulted – entitled ‘The Audience’ – is riddled with theatrical persons. For Sher then, acting and art are wholly integrated; ‘The Audience’ proves that there’s no set hierarchy or even any meaningful separation. Edward Petherbridge is another actor-artist, who’s placed many of his works for display on his self-maintained website. Petherbridge returns again and again to the self-portrait. Now, what can this mean? Is it an effort to more clearly visualise the fusion of actor and character? Or is it a kind of exorcism ritual, a reassertion of the self? (Last year, I took part in a mask workshop led by Roddy Maude-Roxby. He was adamant about the importance of a ritualistic separation of the personalities of actor and mask.)

Then there’s Charles Laughton. He was heavily influenced by Japanese art, often losing himself in a canvas for hours before solving some problem with a character. Yet Laughton wasn’t an artist himself, and likely had such refined sensibilities that he was unable to even doodle. That Laughton went on to play Rembrandt, in Alexander Korda’s meditative 1936 film, is somehow more appropriate for this lack of straightforward artistic ability. Rembrandt saw the soul revealed in flesh. And so did Laughton, in his acting. Sher, Petherbridge and Laughton all relate to the aesthetic world in very different ways. It seems, however, to release the right energies in all of them.

Let’s have a look at the drawings then: the six characters of Sikes & Nancy, etched in fine liner. The doppelgänger aspect of Sikes & Nancy has come to fascinate me recently, so I’ve paired each character with their uncanny ‘other’. (Click on each picture to get a substantially larger version.)

Fagin and Mr Brownlow

Fagin and Mr Brownlow first. Both aged, both mentor figures, both morally questionable. And yet both have redeeming qualities. Fagin’s salvation is his diabolical sense of humour. Like Barabas in The Jew of Malta, he only half-heartedly pretends to be other than what he is. And, like Barabas, he whole-heartedly revels in his wickedness, conducting himself with all the shambolic trappings of stage villainy. Brownlow’s redeeming qualities are those for which he’s generally recognised: his desire to save Oliver Twist and persecute Monks. Yet in ‘Sikes and Nancy’, taken as a fragment of the novel, Brownlow is the least sympathetic character. He’s scornful, patronising, mordantly ecclesiastical and – to Nancy, at least – downright cruel. (Conveniently enough, it escapes an audience’s notice that this is how most sensible people behave when lured under a bridge at midnight.) Brownlow is safeguarded, though – by being on the ‘right’ side of society – whilst Fagin is doomed from the outset. I really like how Fagin’s turned out: a misshapen, hook-nosed worm in a cowl. It’s more than a little Arthur Rackham (whose illustrated version of A Christmas Carol was the first that I owned). Brownlow is ruled by verticality: rigid and unbending, with a ramrod for a spine.

Nancy and Rose Maylie

Nancy and Rose Maylie now. The women of the piece, united by a shared compassion. Maylie barely appears in Sikes & Nancy, having only five lines. All are breathless exclamations of pity. Like most of Dickens’s slightly wet heroines – Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, Bertha Plummer in The Cricket on the Hearth, Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities – Maylie is valuable primarily for what she represents. Save one interjection, Maylie is silent during Nancy’s interrogation by Mr Brownlow. Yet Nancy speaks to her often, as an icon that represents all that she could have been – a Coventry Patmore style ‘Angel in the House’ – and, inevitably, all that she has lost. Maylie is also the character who provides my production’s sole prop: a white handkerchief. When that handkerchief is dipped in Nancy’s blood, the women experience a physical intertwining. It works as a confirmation – that Nancy is a fallen woman, doomed to this fate from the beginning. But it’s also a contamination – connecting the purest of women with the monstrous Bill Sikes. In the manner of J. B. Priestley in An Inspector Calls, Dickens tries to remind us of the following:

We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will come when, if man does not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.

Fire and blood and anguish all figure heavily in Sikes & Nancy. Speaking of fire, these drawings were both modelled on a candle-flame (thus all the tapering away and arrant leglessness). But there’s a difference. Nancy is festering, the personified contagion shed by the raven in The Jew of Malta; Rose Maylie is much more elegant, more akin to an angel in a medieval tapestry.

Bill Sikes and Morris Bolter

Bill Sikes and Morris Bolter last. These characters are linked by a structural point: midway through the story, Sikes takes over from Bolter as the instrument of Fagin’s revenge on Nancy. This exchange begs a larger question: at what point does a Bolter turn into a Sikes? Bolter is arrogant, dim-witted, absurdly rude and easily manipulated. But he’s never actively malicious. Sikes, meanwhile, is a walking wall of frazzled synapses, exploding into rage at the slightest provocation. And yet, if we believe the musical whimsicalities of Lionel Bart, Sikes had humble roots:

Take a tip from Bill Sikes
He can whip what he likes.
I recall he started small
He had to pick-a-pocket or two.

Part of the fun of Bolter is that he’s not quite a child. He’s a perverse, stunted adolescent, the negative reversal of Kit in The Old Curiosity Shop. But the possibility that this comic stooge might eventually transform into Sikes is remarkably frightening. In my drawing, Bolter looks a little like Phiz’s illustration of the Goblin who stole a Sexton in The Pickwick Papers; all that’s missing is the gravestone. Sikes looks bloody terrifying (to me, at least), with a Kabuki war-mask instead of a face. The coat reminds me of the ever-terrifying Mr X in Resident Evil 2. Many’s the time I hid beneath a computer chair, rather than survey that game’s hellish progress. Many’s the nightmare that followed.

In closing, I must once more remind you to book your tickets for the Colchester run of Sikes & Nancy! If you need further persuasion, Simon Callow’s now given the show a fiendishly lovely endorsement. You can read it at the link attached, while I plunge my burning cheeks into a pot of porter.

Leave a comment

Filed under Acting Theory, Sikes & Nancy

Grotesque Thoughts

In my short time as an actor, I’ve become a near-constant apologist for the grotesque. The word ‘apologist’ here is vital. Those actors who dabble in the grotesque are in for a strangely bipolar experience. The majority of the time, the grotesque will be damned, spurned and rejected, roundly dismissed as attention-seeking and shallow: upstagers, hams and charlatans all. The grotesque actor is not, and never will be, a ‘fashionable’ actor. But now and again, the grotesque will be praised to high heaven. By trial, they will hit upon something very rich and entirely unique. I believe that these are special moments indeed. I’m frequently dismayed at the lack of ambition in actors. Too often, it seems sufficient to give one solid performance after another, with no connecting thread. There’s no wider tapestry of meaning; no canvas to splash a wild and colourful paint across. Technique and polish will forever provide the ‘how?’ of acting. But it is each actor’s solemn duty to find their ‘why?’ – a ‘why?’ that differs for every single actor. And rightly so.

Persistently, I’ve discovered my ‘why?’ of acting in the grotesque. Anyone who’s seen me blasting on at full pelt will have some idea what I’m driving at here. Of course, my performances aren’t perfect – not by any means. However, equipped with that clearer ‘why?’, it is my hope that they may get steadily closer to that point.

How to define the grotesque more precisely is something to which we’ll return. What follows represents my present thinking on the subject: five basic principles that underlie the grotesque as I understand it. If they convey one iota of my passion for this unique performance art, then they have done their job splendidly.

1. THE IMPERATIVE OF EXPRESSION: The grotesque is only useful when expressive. Expressive for being heightened, and thus sharpened; good melodrama rather than bad. Only certain actors are inherently grotesque. The beautiful actor is almost never a grotesque. It is, however, always possible to become a grotesque actor. It is something that can be matured into. Age, for this reason, is an inescapably grotesque state. In one sense, the grotesque is a natural state; beauty, as a striving against impossible odds, is admirable yet superficial. We live in a very particular age, obsessed with an even more particular beauty. It is an unhealthy cult. And it continues to drive people dementedly unhappy, which nothing associated with acting should do. We cannot strive successfully to be more beautiful than we are. All humans are in a state of decay; after the short bloom of adolescence, it is the pattern to which life must conform. Better by far, if one is striving for something – and acting is always about striving, always about satisfying some need, some want – to strive for the grotesque. It is only age’s natural pattern, slightly accelerated. We all become wrinkled and hunched; we all become gentle parodies of ourselves. We all empty our heads of irrelevant details and, if we’re lucky, fill them up with wisdom. Manner and mannerisms both, accrued over an entire lifetime. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes particularly brilliantly of ‘the full granaries of the past’:

From this one may see that there is no reason to pity old people. Instead, young people should envy them. It is true that the old have no opportunities, no possibilities in the future. But they have more than that. Instead of possibilities in the future, they have realities in the past – the potentialities they have actualized, the meanings they have fulfilled, the values they have realized – and nothing and nobody can ever remove these assets from the past.

So clutch at your walking stick and doff your flat cap with pride. By invoking the grotesque, you are also invoking, consciously or unconsciously, the myriad complexities of age. This requires an act of supreme imagination. But once there, you will be mining a quarry of incredible heightened expression.

2. THE IMPERATIVE OF CONTEXT: What type of part are you playing? Grotesque characters tend to be rather small. Take Shakespeare, for example: Macbeth has its Porter; Titus Andronicus has its Clown. It is the Comedies that teem with grotesques: the Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the Watch in Much Ado About Nothing; the prostitutes in Pericles; the playmakers in Love’s Labour’s Lost. There’s a very limited time for these characters to make their special impact. Whilst they shouldn’t overbalance the whole, they do call for a certain attack: a much greater energy; a heightened style to the conception and execution, almost passing into sketch comedy; a dash of vividness, colour and relish. Dickens’s Public Reading ‘Bardell and Pickwick’, one insane character after another, is a fairly pure example of this.

It’s possible to argue whether such characters should be played as knowingly grotesque. For some, the word conjures up those ghastly scenarios in which comic characters derive lip-smacking, parading pleasure from their oddities. But this is unjust. The difficulty with Shakespeare’s Comedies (and even ‘Bardell and Pickwick’) is primarily one of language. This difficulty shouldn’t be ignored, no matter how pure the reasoning; rather, it should be faced head-on. A production that attempts to derive humour from the text alone will always fall short. But the grotesque can very often bestow an extra-textual grace on a character. Shakespeare himself offers a contextual key – so broad and so subtle that it seems extra-textual. As shown above, Shakespeare’s grotesques tend to form collectives: groups of people striving for a common aim. Their struggle is to do their jobs to the best of their abilities, to prove themselves competent, whether as thespians, peacekeepers, voluptuaries or classicists. The characters don’t trumpet on about this; never does Dogberry or Verges state ‘My! I really must do a better job of holding up these laws in Messina! And whoops-a-daisy! Look what mistakes I’m making!’ These characters are comic in their dread-inability to own up to their incompetence. So are we all comic; so goes the human condition. In the Comedies, Shakespeare created some very basic situations, often heart-rendingly funny and painful, to which we can all relate, regardless of language barriers. The grotesque energises these characters: it diverts an audience’s attention from a tricksy language to the purity and poignancy of the situation.

But Shakespeare makes the pattern apparent even when he isolates his grotesques. Peter in Romeo and Juliet is pretending to be a servant; Elbow in Measure for Measure is pretending to be (again) a policeman. The characters themselves are acting, which again justifies the grotesque approach. There is something deeply touching in these vulnerable creatures, limited forever by the very texts in which they reside, and yet always striving to better themselves and do their duty. This has much to do with why I find the marginal characters in Romeo and Juliet more affecting than the leads. It’s certainly why one’s heart soars when Dogberry, through no brilliance of his own, actually manages to save the day. They are beautiful in their inability to escape their absurdity, like the grotesques of Alice in Wonderland. That’s Shakespeare for you.

A grotesque will occasionally be thrust into the lead: Richard III, for example. The interesting thing about such parts is that they’re often not played grotesque at all. This makes sense. Grotesque actors rarely play the lead; beautiful actors much more often play the lead; beautiful actors rarely stake their vanity on the unremittingly grotesque (when they do, it’s often terrific). However: they are rare grotesque feasts, and always better for being played in a grotesque way. The humanity emerges from the grotesque; not the other way round. Again, it comes down to basic situations, exquisite in their pain: Quasimodo beseeching Esmeralda to see him as beautiful. The reverse of this – the odd grotesque flash amidst a sea of mundanity – is as contrived as can be. An indulgent dressing-up. Who, after all, would choose such a lot? The true grotesque is irretrievably so. Richard III may seduce Lady Anne, but he can’t erase the blot on his soul. His end is tragic from the get-go.

3. TRANSFORMATION IS CENTRAL: I’ve argued at great length elsewhere that transformation is key to acting – to how I perceive and relate to it, at any rate. An element of transformation is indispensable to the grotesque performance. Just how that transformation manifests is variable, though. It may be that the part is a transformation from the ground up; a reconstitution of the actor’s flesh. The results are often otherworldly: Lon Chaney as the Phantom, Laurence Olivier as Othello, Charles Laughton in almost any given part, but most strikingly the Hunchback. It may be that the transformation is lexical. I think to Richard III again, whose metamorphoses in the play-text far exceed any amount of Antony Sher crutch-vaulting or Simon Russell Beale toad-scurrying.

Possibly the purest grotesque performance is one where transformation is presented as a part of the drama. For this reason, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde may rank as the ultimate grotesque. The normality (Jekyll) is the basis, the ground-level – but the grotesque (Hyde) is the splendid chemical explosion, the performance’s fulfilment and summit. Countless film actors – John Barrymore (also a legendary Richard III), Fredric March, Spencer Tracy and Christopher Lee, to name a few – have provided a Hyde of magnificent power. A Hyde that relates to their Jekyll, but overwhelms it too – just as Robert Louis Stevenson prescribed. Indeed, the Victorian actor Richard Mansfield was so convincing in his transformations to Hyde that he became a suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders. A compliment grim but great. We may consider Hyde the dark counterpart to the joys of grotesque transformation:

This was the shocking thing; that the slime of the pit seemed to utter cries and voices; that the amorphous dust gesticulated and sinned; that what was dead, and had no shape, should usurp the offices of life. And this again, that that insurgent horror was knit to him closer than a wife, closer than an eye; lay caged in his flesh, where he heard it mutter and felt it struggle to be born; and at every hour of weakness, and in the confidence of slumber, prevailed against him, and deposed him out of life.

‘Caged in his flesh’ is very fine: the grotesque actor must offer constant such flashes. There is an inescapable bravura thrill in a transformation-based performance. The bravura is often (but not always) inescapable for a grotesque actor. Many actors recoil from the bravura, this acting that looks like acting, on the basis that it’s audience exhortation. Cheap tricks, childish, self-adulatory; actor’s theatre. Yes, it is actor’s theatre (genius phrase, that), but it is not self-indulgence: because audiences, by and large, enjoy acting that looks like acting. And this is because an audience vicariously lives out the thrill of the transformation. So often in this life do we long to transform from what we are; such is the impetus for almost any meaningful action; such is alarmingly Stanislavskian. Yet our inhibitions prevent the transformation’s occurrence. As such, we delight in indulging it – in the ‘safe’ context of a drama. By now, it should be clear this is a few steps beyond ‘disguise’ – another insult pelted timelessly at the grotesque actor.

4. BETTER TO GO TOO FAR: It’s universally declaimed in rehearsal rooms that it’s much easier to reduce a huge performance than to heighten a meek and quiet performance. I agree, but not for the reasons that many would. I believe that going too far is absolutely vital for expanding yourself as an actor. This isn’t too different to Michael Chekhov’s oft-quoted psychological gesture: in reaching your character’s furthest limits, you enable yourself to play them at every level. The warm-ups I find most helpful are those that stretch my instrument as far as possible. No, I probably won’t speak at my highest register in that play – but I could. It’s unlikely, I’ll admit, that I’ll clench and unclench my face with such violent fury – but I can and might. Possibility! Restoring possibility! Glorious freedom, glorious liberation – the only release from the rehearsal room tyranny of self-consciousness: flushed cheeks, palpitating heart, and a perpetual shortness of breath. This is the way ahead to attempting something remarkable. Rather than giving a coarse and unwatchable performance, it becomes possible to paint in the grotesque with infinite grace and delicacy. This is the finest grotesque creation.

But even grotesque failures are at least worthy of respect. Seeing the effort in an actor’s performance is, I think, admirable. Bela Lugosi and Kenneth Williams never gave less than their best in often appalling dreck, thus doing their audiences the most gracious service: delivering a performance better than the script (the extra-textual again). Those who scoff at such actors tend to advocate underplaying. Almost by definition, underplaying suggests that there are greater heights to aspire to (thus the ‘under-‘ prefix). But to suggest that there’s a one-hundred percent level that actors’ performances can reach – where they are utterly entrenched in their character and have supreme command of it – is a complacent nonsense. That’s the type of acting that can be counted a failure: the type where the actor feels they’ve nothing left to learn. As ever, the naturalistic camp tries to rubbish this aspect of the grotesque armoury – ‘I can see the wheels turning round’ is the common complaint. Personally, I like to see wheels turning round. That’s surely the point in watching an actor, provided we see the wheels of the character’s thoughts rather than the actor’s. Good melodrama again: the externalisation of emotional impulses. It’s safe to say you won’t see anything turning round in all but the most skilled of underplayers, such as Paul Scofield. Scofield was the least grotesque actor of the twentieth century. Mere mortals require a different route: go too far, always.

5. PAINTERLY UGLINESS: This is a short point; the point of the grotesque as I understand it, and a running theme in the four points above. The language of visual art has peppered this essay. So it seems appropriate to end with Charles Laughton’s great comment on the actor as painter:

Great acting is like painting. In the great masters of fine art one can see and recognise the small gesture of a finger, the turn of a head, the vitriolic stare, the glazed eye, the pompous mouth, the back bending under a fearful load. In every swerve and stroke of a painter’s brush, there is an abundance of life. Great artists reveal the god in man; and every character an actor plays must be this sort of creation. Not imitation – that is merely caricature – and any fool can be a mimic! But creation is a secret. The better – the truer – the creation, the more it will resemble a great painter’s immortal work.

The god in man. A grotesque performance is never genuinely repellent or repulsive. It is a representation of those states; repulsion and horror translated into art. German Expressionism is rife with such examples. Take Conrad Veidt’s Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Max Schreck’s Count Orlok in Nosferatu, even Rudolf Klein-Rogge’s Rotwang in Metropolis. There is a strange beauty to Cesare, gawky and tapered – not for nothing is he the cinematic twin of Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands. Count Orlok is terrifying, but hardly disgusting – it is the plague-rats that repel us, not Schreck’s dust-encrusted Renaissance gargoyle. And Rotwang is the standard Expressionist makeup of black-and-white, blessed with a manic visage that rises to its expressive challenge. The mechanical hand adds an authorising touch, illuminating the grotesque as man-made man. At its best, the grotesque will always make that which is ugly beautiful.

How would I paint the grotesque? I should think it would be a small sort of person, hampered and burdened by existence, and yet striving and striving – courageously, heroically, most of all stupidly – for that which will raise them up to heaven. It strikes me that the grotesque is a choice for life. So too is it a choice for life in art. Not to present the waxen or the polished or the monumental. But to create people of flesh and blood: quivering, malleable, sensuous.

Leave a comment

Filed under Acting Theory, Essays

Sikes & Nancy: Re-Rehearsals Underway

First off: a production note. Enormous thanks are due to Mr Edward Quekett, who was kind enough to refresh the Sikes & Nancy publicity materials – and patient enough to answer my persistent calls for tweaks. Unlike the vast majority of people who’ve been implicated in Cambridge theatre, Ned always knows exactly what he’s doing: an absolutely top man and a pleasure to work with. Ned previously worked miracles on the publicity for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, transforming my face into an entirely fitting sliver of monochrome gargoyle (and this a good two months before the makeup was decided). Here’s the London design for Sikes & Nancy, garnished with the original Cruikshank illustrations (click to enlarge):

Let it serve as a reminder to book your tickets forthwith! The first two performances are at York’s Golden Fleece Inn on 3 and 5 October (8pm); the third is at London’s Tristan Bates Theatre on 8 October (4pm). Scurry away to their respective websites and nab yourself a place…

Now: the acting business. Rehearsals have been a little more challenging than expected. As I hinted last time, the desire to change things for change’s sake is strong for me. The triangular formation of rehearsals, performances and now re-rehearsals sets up an unsettling chain of call-and-response. ‘Why am I changing that?’ you ponder, upon scrawling some new direction on the script. ‘Because I did it this way last time,’ replies the old noggin. ‘Well, why did I do it that way in the first place?’ you ask; a question to which there can be no right answer. If you find a reason, you’re forced to reassess, measuring past assumptions against an ever-shifting vision of the play. If you don’t find a reason, you’re in a troublesome bind. You can attempt to reverse engineer, moving backwards from the action to the initial impulse. I only ever get a vague ‘ah, well, you know, that sort of ish-ness, thingy-ma-bob, a-hm ha?’ type response. Death. More tempting is to quietly berate yourself as slapdash, fraudulent and thoughtless, a being too flighty to hold an opinion for more than ten minutes. In seriousness, though, I’m finding I’m much more secure when I don’t discover some shrewd gobbet of pragmatism informing a character’s every word. Surely it’s better to let them breathe a bit?

Morris Bolter is a case in point. In the first run, I pretty much let rip with him. I had a grand old time: winding my highly flexible teeth and gums around a slab of imaginary bread; allowing my flesh to flop lazily from my skull; stuttering, whooping and otherwise hollering with (S)wanton abandon. Further consideration now threatens to put the stopper on these happy excesses. Which I’m not sure is right. I’ve an instinct that, as with Shakespeare’s clowns, the best way to execute Dickens’s grotesques is to keep them resolutely unaware of their oddities. Yet that isn’t the same thing as playing the text deadly straight – or cavalierly pruning out the oddities. It’s more complex than that. The tactic requires a kind of accommodation. Silly voices, silly faces and silly walks are entirely necessary – imperative, even – but the actor must reach a point at which the silliness feels absolutely natural to them. (Like ‘ham’, ‘silly’ is a term that receives too much flack; rehabilitation is needed for both.) Mannerism must be thought of as a seed-bed from which the textual element sprouts. A seed-bed necessarily skewed and crooked, but one taken for granted as the performance’s natural origin. You’re not watching yourself to confirm your hilarity. You’re there, you’re in the moment, and you’re moved by forces beyond your conscious control. (I must add that I don’t think I’ve ever managed this with 100% success – but on good days, I would hope I’ve got close.) Yes, the occasional genius will hit upon a startling new way to infuse a clown with life. But if they’re successful enough, this characterisation will itself join the mythos of mannerism. Witness the usually appalling results when the Fool in King Lear is made a punk figure – an approach that can’t very well predate the eighties. Mannerism, improperly worn, is ugly indeed. But when it really and truly works, I think it’s among the bravest and most successful forms of theatrical expression.

Now, Shakespeare and Dickens are starkly opposed in the way they create their characters. So the presence of this continuity suggests a m0re general overlap – a more general truth about acting, in fact – and something that’s come to increasingly interest me: the art of the extra-textual.

I vividly remember a question-and-answer session with Simon Russell Beale at Cambridge. First, a very good actor (morally and otherwise) asked Beale whether he ever struggled with the temptation of ‘playing up to his audience’. Beale appeared to frown on the question; after all, this is the actor who claims to have built his career on plodding micro-analyses of play-texts. But that’s not to say that Beale doesn’t get up to such things under a different name. Nobody can deny that Beale is possessed of a enormous, generous, near-inscrutable stage charisma. Witness his show-stopping rendition of ‘Everybody Ought to Have a Maid’ at the BBC Proms. The best description of charisma I’ve ever heard is ‘the ability to influence without logic’. It’s a quality that defies intelligence. Furthermore, when a very bad actor (morally, which renders the ‘otherwise’ uninteresting) suggested that Beale must pooh-pooh rehearsal games as a result of his vast swathes of intelligence, Beale seemed a good deal more concerned. Nothing in the rehearsal room can be dismissed. Everything is potentially of use – and almost anything can, quite unpredictably, provide a path into a character. Whatever else Beale gets up to – consciously or unconsciously – you can be certain it’s more than microanalysis; after all, an English professor couldn’t manage the same. It’s not a question of vainglorious showboating. Such people are always found out. It’s more about approaching each task as a precious anomaly, and calling on every skill in your repertoire to coax it into life. And ultimately, it’s always a question of context. In the dressing room, prior to the talk, Beale himself described London Assurance rehearsals as an opportunity to strike dramatic poses. All texts require adornment. Some (much) more than others.

The other thing that’s resolving Morris Bolter is, funnily enough, inherent in the text. I’ve been discovering a series of patterns that I hadn’t previously grasped, which is certainly keeping the interest up. I previously perceived the Public Reading of ‘Sikes and Nancy’ as a very juicy fragment, rather than a drama complete in its own right. Yet a closer study reveals that Dickens crafted the piece with an understated brilliance. Or else got very, very lucky.

Since I always assume everyone’s as familiar with the Reading as me, here’s a brief outline of its structure:

Commission: Fagin, Morris Bolter
Flight #1: Fagin, Morris Bolter, Nancy
Interview #1: Nancy, Mr Brownlow, Rose Maylie (Morris Bolter watching)
Interview #2: Fagin, Bill Sikes (Morris Bolter dragged in)
Cataclysm: Bill Sikes, Nancy
Flight #2: Bill Sikes (Nancy as a ghost)
Absolution: Bill Sikes (Nancy as a ghost, Fagin interpolated in my adaptation)

There are many things worth noting here. With Bolter, it’s fascinating to see how his peripheral roles in each ‘interview’ subvert and therefore support each other. In the first, Bolter is voyeur to Nancy’s interrogation by Mr Brownlow. Although Bolter does not personally intervene in the scene, he enfolds it by his appearances at its start and end. This gives an impression of power over the destinies of fellow humans. Illusions of power are central to the construction of the Reading. Fagin’s countless evocations as devil transform him into the source of evil power amongst his associates; meanwhile, Bill Sikes’s swaggering boasts of physical power define him as fairytale ogre. Then there’s the metaphysical imagery that Dickens uses so effectively: the eyes, the ghosts, the darkness and, above all, the light. (Not forgetting the blood, which mediates between the human and the metaphysical.) Such images suggest the presence of higher powers.

In the second interview, Bolter is unmasked as a fool figure, bereft of any real power. To Fagin, Bolter is only a tool in his wider machinations; to Sikes, Bolter is a physical weakling, easily crushed (‘I’d grind his skull under the heel of my boot into as many grains as there are hairs upon his head’). Bolter departs the drama abruptly – humiliated and diminished. It’s not Richard II, but it’s still a removal of power that’s surprisingly poignant.

And it’s poignant because it’s important. The rest of the Reading is an unravelling of power, devastating to behold; Sikes meets an end that makes Bolter’s humiliation seem a charming reverie. ‘Sikes’ has a complementary two-part structure. Bolter dominates the first half, in however elided a form. Even when the audience isn’t consciously reminded of his presence (as in the lengthy scene between Nancy and Brownlow), they view this world through Bolter’s eyes. Sikes takes over in the second half, appropriating Bolter’s structure whilst subjecting it to a much greater darkness. If Bolter wields an influence over the audience’s outlook, then Sikes warps and fractures that outlook in the killing of Nancy. The Reading descends into nightmare territory, and we come to see the world more and more from Sikes’s unhinged perspective. Think of Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth doth murder sleep’ and you’re about there. When the ghost of Nancy causes Sikes to plunge to his death – with the supreme melodramatic bellow of ‘the eyes again!’ – the slide into the supernatural is complete.

My inclusion of Fagin’s ‘strike them all dead!’ rant, just before this climax, seems to me an extension on Dickens’s original intentions. In the novel, the scene occurs when Oliver Twist goes to Fagin in Newgate Prison, finding him demented with fear before his execution. Fagin has entered a world of complete fantasy, in which he’s still trying to escape responsibility for his wickedness. By placing this guilt at the drama’s end, Fagin may not receive his comeuppance, but he does provide Sikes with a justifying symmetry.

As I predicted early on, much of the struggle of Sikes & Nancy has been to keep my emotional engagement alive. No play is an essay. But personally, I find this sort of analysis to be indispensable. It’s like a relationship. The first spark of passion may fade, but there remain abundant, sometimes more persuasive reasons for sustaining an acquaintance. With the intellectual map laid out, the emotions usually follow; the ‘why?’ makes the ‘how?’ simple to action. I’m reaching Dickens saturation point at the moment. Not an unhappy experience, by any means. I’ll explain a little further in the next entry.

Leave a comment

Filed under Acting Theory, Experiences, Sikes & Nancy

Acting and Obsession

I considered calling this entry ‘Acting and Being an Unreasonably Uptight Bastard’ – so it’s appropriate that I start wound-up. Before proceeding, I want to make one thing very clear. This is not a soapbox. This is not a politicised or politicizing tool. This is not a plea for understanding or admiration or compassion. That’s not my type of blog entry. Instead, this is a well for self-absorbed ponderings, all of them particular to Me. The Individual can be effectively analysed, perhaps even effectively cured; never the Collective. I’m not going to be so arrogant as to claim knowledge of other people’s experiences – or what other people may want. Therefore, I am leaving the Collective alone. It is only with this curmudgeonly, slightly snarky disclaimer that I can proceed.

The stimulus for this entry was a recent attack of OCD, an addling of mind that I’ve been weathering for over a decade. First off, then: what is OCD? An anxiety disorder. There are two basic parts to it. First part: obsession (‘O’). Second part: compulsion (‘C’). These are drawn into a reciprocal circuit by the rituals they encourage. Obsession begets compulsion, just as compulsion begets obsession – and, as the circuit draws tighter, anxiety rises. The surest way to quench OCD is to quit the ritual (a strain of cognitive behavioural therapy). But give it a try, in the midst of the delirium! As with drug addiction, it’s nigh-on impossible to defer short-term relief for the long-term gain. My OCD is thankfully very mild. I know this because I’m not sufficiently strong-willed that I can plough through grievous interior upsets. Guilt, for example, will hound me relentlessly when it comes on. Since I appear to be living my life, I must assume that all is well.

At any rate, it’s the ‘D’ that’s most haunting: disorder. But this ‘D’ is perhaps less disordered as a diagnosis of unhappiness (which is self-evident), than as part of a name which itself begets misery. ‘Fear of the name only increases fear of the thing itself’ – so pontificates Hermione somewhere in Harry Potter. But this is wrong; the quick-fix of a name is rightly to be feared. All too often, a label is a front that obscures a deeper understanding. It reduces everything to an easy bitesize fragment: digestible for the Collective, destructive for the Individual (two more ‘D’s for you there). So it goes with OCD. Most people assume it’s all Howard Hughes hand-washing and germ-dodging. Bitesize OCD. But in reality, its manifestations are diverse. My own emerges as a perfectionism regarding books and related papery things. All must be pristine and uncreased. This can make them a high-tension nightmare to handle. (Looking back, I’ve no idea how I coped with three years of studying English!) Now that the term’s been absorbed into popular discourse, it’s even harder to know how to take OCD. ‘I’m a bit OCD about it,’ has become a vanity complaint, devoid of worth. So whilst I’m sure that David Beckham’s choice to come out with OCD was heartfelt, it hasn’t done much to shift the stereotype of OCD as a caprice of the wealthy and successful.

‘Injustice! Injustice! Injustice!’ you want to scream inside. Me being me, though, I remain too bloody moderate to indulge. Too bloody jaded too. In the course of my struggles with OCD, I’ve found it so hard to communicate that I’ve kept quiet most of the time. Because it’s pain without meaning, it’s pain of the most destructive kind. You have to work pretty damn hard to find a meaning in something that you yourself, the sufferer, can acknowledge as desperately trivial. I’ve considered that OCD reminds me of death and mortality (the decay of all things), my inability to get anything right (or, what’s more, to feel I’ve got anything right), my unhappiness with life in general (of which something so petty could be a symptom). But it’s all a bit academic and all a bit distanced from the sheer fluttery urgency of the anxiety. Pain without meaning is virtually impossible to explain.

It’s been this latest encounter with OCD that’s got me thinking about personal baggage more widely. I carry a fair bit of it. Being gay – an entry in itself, there. Love. Religion. The shape of my spine… Nothing earth-shattering, of course. Most of these are second world problems that have become (or are at least becoming) first world. Legitimate, uncontroversial, and therefore somewhat dull. Problems that have passed from the Collective to the Individual. So, monk-like, I have battled them mostly alone.

But, but, but – how have these things influenced my acting? Acting, when done properly, is the point at which the interior goes public. So it’s not fair to say that I’ve fought my devils alone. Acting, as ever, has dragged them out. Besides, you owe it to yourself to become reconciled to your potential disorders. Otherwise you end up twisted, embittered, and – most deadly for acting – debased in self-knowledge. For each of my devils, then, there is a complementary angel. This miniature staging of Paradise Lost in my head and heart has had a few consequences, reflected in my performance choices.

The first-hand experience of gayness has influenced a lot of my acting. Mostly for the better; for a time in my adolescence, it was a vital release for ‘that side’ of myself. From my acting alone, I’ve always considered it blaringly obvious where my preferences lie. I think of the Kenneth Williams/Alan Bennett amalgam of Syme in 1984; the unbridled flamboyance of Schuppanzigh in Black Comedy; the queenly, near-hysterical revelling in grotesquerie that infused my Richard III and my Coupler in The Relapse. I’d also argue there’s an element of it in the bravura multiple character romps for which I seem to be built. It’s a weird, weird conceit, queer on several counts: the sense of a covering-up (a covering-up that should be revelatory, but achieved through coverings reminiscent of closetings); the flamboyance, maintained through sheer virtuosity if not style; the changes of gender (I somehow played all the women in Scrooge & Marley…); the damned sensitivity demanded, as you unspool the drama’s heart and guts alone. Character acting is queer almost by default. ‘Queer’ with a small ‘q’ rather than a large, but queer nonetheless.

One of the things I find most risible in modern theatre is when actors impersonate characters who happen to be gay with dangling wrists, tightly-folded arms, and pallid, weakened voices. Yes, there are such people. But it’s the difference between calling on an aspect of life as simple mimicry versus absorbing it into the self so that the impulse may lead from within. Charles Laughton might have called it the difference between the caricaturist and the painter. Strikes me there’s something so obvious, so masculine – so bloody heterosexual in that blunt approach, that I’ve been bewildered when I’ve seen actors I know to be gay going through the motions. Such is the crisis of the modern gay male: ‘Sure,’ says Society, ‘we’ll accept you – but only if you remain safe, so we know where exactly to have you’. It’s why the beglittered drag queens of La Cage and Priscilla, raised high on their stages, detached beacons of camp, remain resolutely safe – but not the man in day-to-day life who dares to say ‘I love him’. I am what I am is safe; I am what you are isn’t. But this is another entry entirely. In retrospect, I think gayness went some way to releasing my acting. It pushed me in more brave and bold (if not exactly loud and proud) directions. The extreme of that is unwatchably over-the-top, but that’s a small price to pay for liberation.

Gayness remained the biggest shadow on my acting for quite some time, but love, religion and spines follow in roughly that order. My sexuality has only ever made sense to me when it’s erupted into love. Naturally, I must have a fairly low sex drive, because the mild social inconvenience in being gay usually outweighs any pleasure to be derived from it. Until love come a-calling. Oh, good God. I first fell in love shortly before I was cast as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, in October 2005. It really did change everything. For the first time, I realised I could show emotion onstage, achieve some form of catharsis. A twisted love has influenced every non-clowning part I’ve played since: Merrick in The Elephant Man, Syme in 1984, Cleon in Pericles, the Cardinal in The Duchess of Malfi… Over the last year, it became uncomfortably strong. Scrooge & Marley – my return to the Carol, as ghost rather than miser – completed the circle, but became almost dangerous in performance. A great deal of melancholy in Marley’s damnation, Belle’s abandonment and the misfortunes of the poor Cratchits. Meanwhile, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was rehearsed in a period of devastating heartbreak such as I’d never known. Depression, uncontrollable tears, panic attacks – the works. Most painful for me, the death of hope, something that I place in the highest esteem. A much-respected friend, knowing nothing of how I was feeling, accused me of treating the Hunchback as therapy. This troubled me for a while, but ultimately I don’t feel this was the case. I found performing the Hunchback exhilarating, but it was no emotional tempest. Not for me as performer, in performances or out of them. It was the thing that offered me relief from pain, by converting it into meaning; precisely what OCD doesn’t do, can’t do. Looking back at that experience, eight months ago now, the Hunchback remains the only meaning I have derived from it.

(Acting-as-therapy, conversely, is not therapy at all, but a twisted displacement – it does you bad rather than good. I don’t have much affection for the people who do try it, because they’re essentially grown-ups who are clinging, with knowingly picturesque naiveté, to their childhood dressing-up boxes. A nauseous innocence-cum-worldliness. Cambridge had a few of this ilk; something to do with that mingling of cleverness and artistic pretension. A charismatic facade that quickly wears thin. Peter Pan and the Lost Boys should go no further than Neverland. Even there, they were pretty damn infuriating.)

Religion now. I’ve never known why, but it makes me angry like little else. Most profoundly, because it channels my feelings of abandonment, outsiderness, left-outedness. There was a rather terrible Christian youth group that started to infiltrate my secondary school, fortunately as I was on the way out. They’ve now taken over the building, thus transforming a cosy, accepting, quintessentially English Christianity into an unlistening, unthinking, hellfire-for-all fundamentalism. In every way, the opposite of acceptance. It’s for this reason that I can only process the Bible in a state of scandalised bewilderment, awed at the greatness of Jesus, chilled by all those shut out from God’s keeping. The youth group remain a daft, styleless and morally foetid cult of brainwashers, who’ve recently attempted to heal a football injury on the local green by the power of on-site prayer. And all this I could forgive, were they not convinced they were right. A lack of thought never ceases to rankle. My worst moments are those when I cease to think. But nobody should ever be off the hook in this respect. There are good Christians, and they are the ones who keep on asking questions; who really earn their faith. Who appreciate that prayer won’t solve a sprained ankle… That’s just the problem, though. I get Christianity intellectually. But I’m fairly sure I don’t believe. Not really. Just as you can’t fall in love without that indefinable, extra spark of something, you can’t have Christianity unless you believe.

My attitude to theatre remains remarkably spiritual. My surrogate temple, perhaps. I maintain that it’s one of Dickens’s crowning achievements – to evoke an atmosphere of absolute benevolence; founded on the spirit of Christianity, but rejecting the wayward text. I think it’s the principal reason I’m drawn to acting and adapting his works – it explains the eternal goodness of Mr Pickwick, the redemption of Scrooge, the provoking selflessness of a Nicholas Nickleby or a Nancy. It’s served me as an alternative form of pulpit-preaching, bypassing the nonsensical lapses of judgement that arise from a scrutiny of the text. Time and again, acting has demonstrated to me that there’s no such thing as pure textual interpretation. Interpretation is always, inevitably, imposition. It’s why textual cleverness is so often dispensable to a good performance. There’s the odd actor it’s worked for, such as Simon Russell Beale. But then, you could argue that he was destined for greatness no matter what. (David Mamet argues that most drama schools operate on this basis; not so much creating talent as snapping up those who had it in the first place.) And due to a myriad of extra-textual variables – timing, precedent, self-presentation, audience viewing habits – Beale still falls short of Olivier, whose renderings of Shakespearean lines were often, to quote Alec Guinness, ‘meaningless’. ‘The readiness is all’ says Hamlet. The personality even more so. God I find an unreadable personality. My scepticism that any text can be read accurately means that’s unlikely to change.

And finally: onto spines. My genius friend Chrystal Ding hit on an uncanny few truths about spines when she photographed mine – in bilious ultraviolet – for her ‘Give Me Your Spine’ project in October 2010. They are at once a thing of great strength, great defiance and great insult, with turning your back on someone among the most physically powerful symbol of rejection. That casual closure is profoundly assertive; just look at how Orson Welles filmed Hal’s rejection of Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight. Yet the spine is also a thing of tremendous vulnerability. I’d hope that my efforts on The Hunchback of Notre Dame exemplified both qualities. In the first run, it was observed that I wouldn’t need much padding to produce the hump. Partly inspired by Antony Sher’s Richard III, I had always wanted a light accentuation of my natural shape, an exaggeration of the top-heaviness already there. I’m very aware of my hunchback. Still. It can hurt when it’s pointed out. Quite apart from feeling physically unappealing, there’s a significant health risk mixed up in it. In reality, my back has been misshapen since at least 2005; I vividly remember deploying it for Scrooge. Pantalone, too. Doctor Prospero. And a lot of my Dungeon characters. Oh, and Richard III. Reverend Pringle. Coupler. Drugger. Marley… Okay, it’s inevitable that many of my characters will have pronounced backs. Given that it’s a pronounced part of me. But, once again, acting provides salvation beyond the disorder, exchanging vulnerability for strength. Anyhow. I’m taking steps to make sure my spine doesn’t deteriorate. Beyond that, there’s not much to do but get on with my life. A useful enough commitment.

These uniform strivings against straightness (sexually, spiritually, spinally) return me to OCD. As wearisome and unwelcome as it’s always been, it’s hard to deny its links with perfectionism. Here’s where it all becomes difficult. As with my other brickbats, would I be drawn to acting without this aspect of my personality?

I once concluded that acting satisfies me because it forces you to let go of the insatiable drive for perfection. Acting thus establishes a balance. And balance, to me, properly recognised, is the essence of the best acting. The walker of tightropes; the spinner of plates. Although I can’t claim that it’s always made me a better actor, balance has also been my way around my numerous disordered elements. There’s that great scene in The Simpsons where a doctor explains that Mr Burns’s diseases hang in such tension that none can overwhelm his system. Thus, Burns can float off with a rapturous cry of ‘indestructible!’ – even though the slightest gust of wind might kill him. But it might not… We should all be so lucky with our own disorders!

The balance is all. Neither to reject nor accept anything – but to walk the rope or spin the plate that makes my situation personally right for me. And that’s all I have to say on the matter.

1 Comment

Filed under Acting Theory, Essays, Personal Excavation