Category Archives: Announcements

Creature Ascending

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

Frankenstein's Apple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fires of Industry

Much to my surprise, I’m feeling very content at present. I think because I’m immersed in abundant work. Everything’s expanding wonderfully after the minor annus horribilis of 2013. Whilst last year was soothed by the fulfilling dual tonic of Dickens and Dungeon, it sagged appallingly over the summer. This was principally the fault of some reprehensibly mediocre Shakespeare: low budget, low preparation, low ambition, low care for the company’s feelings, low everything to be honest – except misery (high). These stillborn productions are encapsulated in Lear’s words: ‘Nothing can come of nothing’ (and not for lack of trying from an admirable cast).

So: after mourning for what should have been, I feel I’m finding my feet again. As an aged Bette Davis said, bleakly but honestly: ‘It has been my experience that one cannot depend on human relations for any lasting reward. It is only work that truly satisfies.’ Which can leave you in the shit when the work goes wrong – but that’s a worthwhile trade-off for the moments of satisfaction.

In the spirit of nourishing work then, I have three events to announce: the eagerly awaited (by me, anyway) nationwide tour of Sikes & Nancy; my West End appearance as part of In the Penal Colony; and the bustling preparations for the Tyrannical Tudors show at The York Dungeon. I’ll go through them one by one…

Strangling Fagin

Last week, I received final confirmation that Sikes & Nancy will tour the country – from September through November this year. Just me, a long black coat and six wooden chairs, attempting to do justice to the darkest tale that Charles Dickens ever wrote. I find Sikes & Nancy an utter joy to perform. It’s a play that taps into so much that I revere: it demands huge reserves of energy, a relish for vocal and physical transformation, and that monomaniacal desire to step onto a stage and create an entire world (essential, I believe, for any one-person performance). Best of all is the direct contact with an audience: the chance to meet them head on, lock eyes, and give them a story. Magic.

In one light, ‘Sikes and Nancy’ exemplifies Dickens’ passionate devotion to work. It’s all over Dickens’ letters to friends. This, for example, in relation to his domestic strife:

I do suppose that there never was a man so seized and rended by one spirit. In this condition, though nothing can alter or soften it, I have a turning notion that the mere physical effort and change of the Readings would be good, as another means of bearing it.

Or this:

I must do something, or I shall wear my heart away. I can see no better thing to do that is half so hopeful in itself, or half so well suited to my restless state.

And not forgetting:

Too late to say, put the curb on, and don’t rush at hills – the wrong man to say it to. I have now no relief but in action. I am incapable of rest. I am quite confident I should rust, break, and die, if I spared myself. Much better to die, doing. What I am in that way, nature made me first, and my way of life has of late, alas! confirmed.

With ‘Sikes and Nancy’, Dickens’ work ethic spiralled, uncontrollable, from the manic to the purely maniacal. He worked himself up to multiple strokes – and died only months after renouncing the acting drug. Terrifying. Along with the blood-spotted Gothicism of The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Dickens’ final, unfinished novel), ‘Sikes and Nancy’ can be seen as the baroque climax to Dickens’ tempestuous life.

As with the show’s previous revivals (it’s just over a year since I last performed it), I’m hoping to engage more deeply with the material. Previously, I’ve looked at images, at Dickens’ other texts of crime and murder, and at the script itself, with microscopic intensity (a study which culminated in reintegrating fragments of the novel). My plan this time is to look outward rather than inward, and approach the piece as an echo chamber. Everything I study will resonate, no matter how faintly, in the final performances.

For Fagin’s sake, I want to look into how the nineteenth century created its Jews. There’s the uneasy, reactionary double-standard in allegedly sympathetic literature: Maria Edgeworth wrote the Jew-happy Harrington after she was criticised for the anti-Semitism of Castle Rackrent; Dickens himself tried to diffuse the impact of Fagin with an unconvincing Jewish philanthropist in Our Mutual Friend. Henry Irving’s production of The Merchant of Venice, today famous for its sympathetic Shylock, may have been equally manipulative: less political protest than a warping of text and audience emotions to command attention. Irving’s private belief about his performance – that ‘mine is the only great Shylock’ – suggests self-investment before genuine sympathy.

There’s also the Victorian popular obsession with crime, which broke out in a trail of forgotten sensation novels. These works memorialise dread criminals reminiscent of Bill Sikes: Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford and Eugene Aram, for instance – or William Ainsworth’s Rookwood and Jack Sheppard (the latter was published in Bentley’s Miscellany at the same time as Oliver Twist). Then there are the works of Poe (the first-person murder narratives) and The String of Pearls, that inaugural eruption of the Sweeney Todd legend, which good-naturedly plagiarises Oliver Twist‘s slew of beadles, bloodshed and persecuted orphans.

I’ll also be looking at the piece through a theatrical lens. There’s Henry Irving in his numerous crime melodramas: The Lyons Mail, The Iron Chest, but particularly The Bells, which in places reads like a transcript of ‘Sikes and Nancy’. But there’s also the exalted precedent of Edmund Kean in such lightning-crack roles as Sir Giles Overreach, Richard III, and – surprise, surprise – Shylock the Jew (the ferocious interpretation that Irving pulled against). Bernard Masters has usefully described such performances as Dionysian – ‘they make one feel the power of trance and hypnosis, that splendid but anxious sensation of being possessed’ – and this attack is indispensable for ‘Sikes and Nancy’.

The idea of touring is very exciting to me. It’s in the spirit of what Dickens did in the nineteenth century. By the end of the tour, I will have performed the reading more often than Dickens himself (Dickens gave his ‘Sikes and Nancy’ for the public on 27 occasions – albeit to audiences of thousands apiece). In what may be another milestone, this will also be the first time that ‘Sikes and Nancy’ has toured since Dickens’ time. None of my ‘Sikes and Nancy’ forbears – the Williamses Bransby and Emlyn, Donald Wolfit, Simon Callow – have taken the piece on tour. And whilst figures such as Dickens’ great great grandson Gerald Dickens continue to perform the Reading, it still hasn’t toured in isolation. (Not even Dickens did this, to be fair – he constantly changed the bill, and always paired ‘Sikes’ with a mood-lightening afterpiece.) So I owe it to this sensational drama to do it as well as it can be done.

As soon as I have details of dates and venues, I’ll post them up here and on my website. Stay vigilant!

In the Penal Colony

Moving on, I’ve been cast in a production of In the Penal Colony at the Arts Theatre, West End. The production is from the short story by Franz Kafka, reframed as an opera by Philip Glass. I primarily know Glass from his revisionist score to Tod Browning’s Dracula – and, like much of Glass’s music, it’s surrounded by controversy. I like Glass’s Dracula score well enough, but I agree with those who claim it plays better in isolation, divorced from the film that provoked it. This may shed light on the development of the Gothic. Browning’s Dracula stands less for the tradition of Stoker (which is disarmingly rationalistic) than that of Walpole and Radcliffe. Theirs is a heavily medieval Gothic, founded on fustian layering: tapestries, cobwebs, shadows, fogs. Layer upon layer upon layer – and all of these elements (crystallised in Bela Lugosi’s heavy, Kabuki-like performance) are present in Browning’s Dracula.

By contrast, In the Penal Colony represents the modern Gothic: a stripping away of layers; the search for the monster beneath the skin. I imagine Glass’s music is ideally suited. This penetrative quality is distilled in the torture device at the centre of Kafka’s story. Which is so unbearably horrible that it rattled even me. It’s a sensation that I only reliably get from H. P. Lovecraft. For Penal Colony, I’ll be reading not only Lovecraft, but as much Kafka as possible. I don’t know his work at all well, and given how often I’m splashing about in the grotesque, that’s quite an omission. (Have I even read The Metamorphosis? Don’t remember. Shameful.)

The Arts Theatre is where Waiting for Godot had its English language premiere; and, much more recently, where Simon Callow performed A Christmas Carol two years running. In the Penal Colony will play a two-night stand during the run of Ghost Stories. I’ve done one-day stands in the West End – my showcase at the Actors’ Church, Sikes & Nancy at the Tristan Bates – so two feels like a minor progress. It’s also worth mentioning that I’ll be acting, not singing.

So scribble down those dates: 16th and 30th June. Two Monday evenings. Be sure to book your tickets soon, via the Arts Theatre website. A sell-out is expected!

Henry VIII in Glass

Thus, long-windedly, do we reach the third point of interest. It’s the constant Gothic in my life: The York Dungeon. There’s a new show going in – ‘Tyrannical Tudors’ – which opens t0 the public on 4th April.

The Tudor show is a strong one, seizing and extending on a number of the Dungeon’s stocks-in-trade. As expected, there are the atmospheric (and heavily Gothic) sets and lighting – this time recreating St Mary’s Abbey, one of my favourite York landmarks. There’s gag after gag after gag – with some low-tech, pleasingly tactile elements jostling with more advanced tricks of light and sound. There’s also the timeless premise of a faceless monster hunting down the audience. This time, Henry VIII has been recast as the bogeyman. Like our Dick Turpin, we hear rather than see him; and like our William Brown, he can be glimpsed, but only at a remove (stained glass for Henry; Pepper’s Ghost for Brown). For the Easter period, there’s also going to be a disenfranchised monk entertaining the queue. To complete the effect, my comrades and I are being supplied with some monkly padding. Improbable in my case, but eagerly anticipated: it’s as close as I’ll come to playing Falstaff for the foreseeable future.

The Tudor show has been created on the former site of the mouldering dock scene, which formed the entrance to the plague surgery. So that means goodbye to the last bastions of the plague-ravaged street scene – something I fondly remember scarring me in childhood. I and a few other acolytes have salvaged the severed fingers of Clive, the old plague surgery’s notorious ‘jumping man’. This exemplary plaster digit lives on my desk now, a holy relic of a recent past.

The Dungeon’s slow transformation fascinates me. In part, it’s been organic, adapting to suit public demand: thus the transition from a humourless Chamber of Horrors to an immersive horror-themed pantomime. But the Dungeon’s transformation has also been crazy, fitful, uncharted; it’s gathered up the same crinkles and accretions as the histories represented within. The only places in the Dungeon that have stayed the same from my arrival (way back in 2008!) have been the Golden Fleece and courtroom sets, as well as a few spare oddments – the mannequins for Guy Fawkes, for example, or the writing-desk in Dick Turpin’s cell. Like Clive, these bastions of the past will one day be gone. But echoes will remain. If only in finger form.

The Dungeon remains dear to me for so many reasons. It may be the last attenuated gasp of repertory theatre. Where else do you get the chance to act with the same company of actors, sometimes for years on end? Or encounter so many different audiences? Nothing comes close. The Dungeon been (and continues to be) an ideal training ground. And a wonderful surrogate family. For all that, I honour it.

I’m hopeful that this year’s summer – and everything to follow – will be uncomplicatedly great. I’ll be hanging fire on the ol’ blog for at least the next month, to try and batter Henry Irving into shape. I’ll let you know how – and if – it all goes…

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Filed under Announcements, Dracula, Henry Irving, Sikes & Nancy, The York Dungeon

Scrooge & Marley: The Return

… Because some plays warrant more than a Facebook status.

It continues to give me bountiful pleasure to announce the return of Scrooge & Marley – the two-man production of A Christmas Carol that I adapted and performed in 2011. The new Scrooge & Marley will be running at the Waterloo East Theatre, South Bank, from 3rd to 22nd December. George Fouracres (né Potts) is my co-star (and this time, happily, co-adapter); Andrew Brock (who worked alongside Oli O’Shea in 2011) will direct. The production is being staged by Dippermouth, an up-and-coming theatre company founded by Quentin Beroud and Jack Gamble (obscenely pleasant gentlemen and all-round good eggs). Additional details can be found on the Dippermouth website, the Waterloo East website, and my own self-laudatory interweb haunt.

Scrooge & Marley

Two years on, I can summon back the euphoria of the original – a euphoria crystallised in coming on for the bows, drenched in the sweat of some twenty intoxicating characters, to John Gardner’s ‘Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day’:

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance;

Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

Like most songs about Christ, it’s a song about redemption. And I think it was redemption – in all sorts of forms – that made the original Scrooge & Marley such a purely enjoyable experience. That first production came when I was getting very disillusioned with acting (a not uncommon experience at Cambridge), and, in one cleansing hour, it turned everything around. Here was a story that brought uncomplicated joy to audiences, without pretending to any greater relevance or importance. That we were able to get away with this Christmas tale in early November seems to bear that out: regardless of the season, the story is life-enhancing. I’m not so disillusioned this time, but it’s again refreshing to wield some control over my acting destiny. When I played Scrooge at school – way back in 2005 – I had my first real sense of locating my theatrical niche. I hope the same may be true again.

Quite apart from my professional gripes, redemption is essential to the Carol. Dickens persistently returned to Christmas as a vehicle for conquering the ‘vague, unhappy loss or want of something’ that overshadowed his life. Dickens wrote such essays as ‘A Christmas Tree’ to come to terms with the pettifogging disappointments of life, most particularly mortality. Dickens’ Christmas is a lush and thriving memento mori: the ‘Lord, keep my memory green’ that forms the backbone of The Haunted Man. So painfully heartfelt are Dickens’ Christmas writings that they could bring a tear to a glass eye. How comforting to know that Dickens, in the end, managed to conquer death. He is as immortal as any writer can be.

I can relate to brittle old Jacob Marley as well – that immortal who comes to haunt Scrooge, and my character in the piece. Last year, an acerbic (read ‘gittish’) old pro told me that I didn’t convey much warmth, which would hold me back as an actor. Which is a terrible thing to say – like most unpleasant personal remarks, it sticks like a burr. Perhaps I don’t convey a great deal of warmth (I can’t deny I haven’t thought about that one), but that might itself prove helpful in creating a character more pinched and wicked than Scrooge. Pretty well the main point in Scrooge & Marley – as opposed to trotting out another serviceable Carol – is to give Marley his shot at redemption. A chance to go out in love. May we all be so lucky.

When I brood on cold actors, I instantly think of Christopher Lee. Those Lee performances that I count among my favourites – Rasputin, the Duc de Richleau, Lord Summerisle – are uncharacteristically hearty. It’s for his innumerable ‘cold fish’ portrayals that Lee is best known, ranging from the inhuman to the legitimately monstrous. As a personality, Lee is truly unreadable: indecipherably strange, strangely impressive. Lee, like M. R. James, radiates the sense of an astonishingly brilliant academic who fell in on the Gothic by accident. I have a great problem (bordering on a moral dilemma) with Lee disowning the horror films that made his name – it seems a rebuff to those, like me, who treasure up these films and hold them dear. Yet Lee has been so integral to my film-watching life, that I find myself stuck with him.

It’s in Lee’s friendship with Peter Cushing, his co-star in twenty-two films, that I’m reminded of Lee’s wonderful (and expertly hidden) humanity. Here’s a little of what Lee writes about Cushing in his autobiography:

… With varying commercial and critical success, but unvarying pleasure in working together, we knocked off a row of fantasy milestones. Most often I was the menace, and Peter was the force from academe, a savant, devoted to putting a stopper on me. As American golfers say of complementary partnerships, ‘We ham-and-egged it.’

He was the most tolerant of men, expressing for instance nothing but pleasure when I sang arias to him in our dressing-rooms. Only once did he say something that brought me up short. It was on the set of Horror Express … I went into a tirade about the food. ‘… I feel I’m going to die of this frightful food. This is a ghastly studio…’ A massive whinge. He looked at me and peeled his apple. He just said, ‘Well, there’s no good belly-aching about it, you know.’ That was about as severe as he could be. Coming from him, it was shattering.

He really was the gentlest and most generous of men. It could be said of him that he died because he was too good for this world.

The painful thing is that, armed with this knowledge, I suddenly feel very deeply for Lee. And I’m desperately sad that he may not have long for this world; his ninety-one years and increasingly frail appearance are a constant reminder. But why this sadness? He’s lived a long and full life, and still receives more recognition in ten minutes than most will receive in a lifetime. And I’ve no doubt he’s tired of simply wearing out (the same applied to his workaholic forbear Boris Karloff). The sadness comes from the knowledge that Lee once had a friend who he dearly loved. I’m reminded of Dickens in ‘What Christmas Is, As We Grow Older’:

We had a friend who was our friend from early days, with whom we often pictured the changes that were to come upon our lives, and merrily imagined how we would speak, and walk, and think, and talk, when we came to be old. His destined habitation in the City of the Dead received him in his prime. Shall he be shut out from our Christmas remembrance? Would his love have so excluded us? Lost friend, lost child, lost parent, sister, brother, husband, wife, we will not so discard you! You shall hold your cherished places in our Christmas hearts, and by our Christmas fires; and in the season of immortal hope, and on the birthday of immortal mercy, we will shut out Nothing!

Cushing and Lee

A great friendship can humanise the coldest of men. The coldness is rarely the full story. A Cushing-Lee Scrooge & Marley would have been a sight to see.

Accordingly, it’s a delight to be working with friends on Scrooge & Marley. George Fouracres is my co-star. He, like me, was generically typed as one of Cambridge’s mad character men, although this played out differently for both of us. George found the ideal niche for his characters in sketch comedy and pantomime (which isn’t to devalue his other work: his Tiresias was a rare marvel). George is ideal for Scrooge because he is a superlative comic actor (the same held true for Alastair Sim). Meanwhile, my area was the grotesque: the shape-shifting, the distorted, the Caliban-esque. I only really hit my stride when the one-man plays set in, and this was an inherently self-isolating pursuit. George is all lightness: musical, elasticated, expert communicator of mesmeric intuitive rhythm. I am all heaviness: booming, growling, wildly undisciplined, but now and again hitting on something worthwhile (or so I very much hope). George is Ralph Richardson; I am Donald Wolfit. Fortunately, the free-wheeling form of Scrooge & Marley allows us to come together in a way that’s mutually beneficial. There’s a taste of the music hall, but set within a funereal and ghostly frame. There’s a place for both of us in this vision.

Instrumental to the vision is Andy Brock, one of the two or three best directors I’ve worked with. His visual style deserves a coinage; ‘Brocktian’ has a ring to it. It’s a rag-tag explosion of opulent decay: part Dutch Golden Age, part Arthur Rackham, all hand-made, anarchic encrustation. But there is an absolute substance to this style: Andy is all about the storytelling – and not in the disingenuous ‘play the truth of the moment!’ way that one so often hears parroted. And as an actor himself, a fantastically good one (his effervescent Lord Foppington and Sir Toby Belch linger in the memory), Andy is a godsend in ironing out all that can go wrong in a piece of this nature. We are blessed to have him on board.

Not that it’s worth getting too reverential about these things. (George, in particular, does not do reverence.) These friendships descend – ‘escalate’ is more appropriate – into the same euphoria in the end. Raising hell at the Midsummer Common funfair or in the Hughes Hall kitchens on the eve of graduation. Or loudly watching Aladdin in Tooting, accompanied by a majestic Italian takeaway, all three of us nursing disparate theatrical nicks and bruises. If we can convey one iota of this warmth on stage, we will have accomplished our task marvellously.

So: what can we promise in the new Scrooge & Marley? With any luck, everything that we couldn’t cram in the last time. Cambridge terms don’t allow for much in the way of research and development, but George and I are already engaged in an eclectic romp. We’ve visited a phony Victorian street and a real (?) haunted house, we’re taking in everything from blood-curdling supernaturalism (The Phantom Carriage, The Innocents, Kwaidan) to first-class schmaltz (The Wizard of Oz, It’s a Wonderful Life), and we’re reading as much Dickens as possible. The revised script is turning into an intertextual hay-ride, with strands of Dickens’ other works (novels, Christmas Books, short pieces) intermingling with the text of A Christmas Carol. Such is my abhorrence of hubristic adaptors, who seem convinced they write better dialogue than Dickens, that I’d much rather interpolate than invent. Everyone can take much greater ownership of the piece, making it particular to us as much as faithful.

I think that about does it for now. Enough of this Christmas malarkey! There is Halloween to get through yet…

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A Letter to the Friar

Tomorrow I travel to London to start rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet and Love’s Labour’s Lost. Full details can be found on my website, as well as the Grassroots Shakespeare page. To get my thoughts in order, I thought I’d take a break from writing letters to myself and instead write one to Friar Laurence. This entry might also mark a two-month hiatus from bloggery: I haven’t worked out if I’ll have the time and energy and consistency of internet connection to go on through June and July. I’ve no doubt at all that I’ll be back in August. And in any case, thirty blog entries for a year isn’t bad going…

Dear Friar,

Is that going to work out? ‘Dear Friar’? I think Juliet calls you ‘dear father’ at some point, but this seems grossly impertinent coming from me. I don’t know what shoes you wear. I don’t know what you eat for breakfast. I don’t know the Bible at all that well. And I don’t know any Latin – save what I’ve learned by rote for Love’s Labour’s Lost. I know I’ll feel like a ghastly traitor until I’ve at least thought about these things – even though the towering likelihood is that you’ll emerge wearing my shoes, happen to eat what I eat for breakfast, and know precisely as much about the Bible and Latin as the play dictates I know. At the moment, I don’t know where to have you.

Small wonder that I’m not sure I deserve to have you. I’ve never had much luck with Shakespeare. I’ve acted in both of these plays before. I was Dull and Mercadé in Love’s Labour’s Lost in 2010; the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet in 2011. Tiny characters, existing on the fringes of their worlds – just as I’ve dithered about ineffectually on the fringes of classical acting. Dull was a prism for the parade of clowns, buffoons and lunatics I’ve been saddled with in most of my Shakespearean delvings. That sounds dismissive, I know, and no doubt reflects on my limited gifts to do something original with such characters. The end result always took me out of the play: any ‘humour’ was applied to the text with a trowel, rather than emerging from that text. On the other hand, Mercadé was played on that knife-edge of terror I’ve had whenever I’ve tackled a ‘serious’ Shakespearean role: the terror that everyone’s going to laugh at my voice before I get the first line out. In 2009, when I played Cleon in Pericles, this led to my only ever experience of stage fright.

Now, the Apothecary felt like a crystallisation. But of what exactly? Impossible to say. I’ve written and thought about the character a great deal – producing, on one occasion, a dissertation-length essay; my last word on acting at that particular time. The best I can say is that the Apothecary encapsulates my belief in the value of Romeo and Juliet. A belief founded on the ‘spirit’ of the play, as Donald Wolfit might have expressed it. For the spirit of the play is self-evident. Romeo and Juliet is, quite transparently, a play about love.

Love, dear Friar. Love, love, love. That elusive atmosphere of love is my quarry for the next few months. I’m ransacking so many golden memories for where it might be found. In books: in the sun-splashed endings of Dickens, or the rain-spattered ending of Wilde. In music: in Tchaikovsky, in Beethoven, in Michael Crawford, in the theme tune to The Animals of Farthing Wood. In times and in places: in a day spent in Knaresborough, or a summer spent in Cambridge.

I seek it everywhere but in people. I’ve been shut out of romantic love most of the time. All of the time, if I’m honest. It could be worse. It’s not remotely desirable to become the individual that others worry about constantly: ‘Is he alright? Did you notice how quiet he was today? Do you think we should call him up?’ Better always – always! – to be the individual that everyone assumes is alright, content, at peace with their lot. In time, it becomes the truth. And while I’ve never dived into another human being – in the sense that a full-comprehending love allows – I’ve always been permitted to dive into acting. Into characters. (Into you most recently, Friar.) It’s not that work is more important than life. Or that work is a life substitute. Work is the life. It has to be – and I’m not sure it wasn’t a choice either. I think this suspension follows on naturally from my heightened sensitivity to love.

The programme for that 2011 production of Romeo and Juliet contained a note by Tim Cribb (a wonderful man). After expanding on Tybalt as a symbol of hate, Cribb writes the following:

As well as being fully physical, their love is intensely ideal, a dream of human perfection, of what kinship, of what a family, a whole society could be. This is what begets the most wonderful poetry of the play, but it ends in the tomb, and Tybalt is there too. The repentant parents promise to erect a shrine to the lovers in pure gold, but that is in some future world after the play has ended and we have yet to see it.

To my mind, the most unheralded aspect of Shakespeare’s genius is his use of minor characters to suggest the world beyond the scope of the play: such characters as the Porter in Macbeth, the Clown in Titus Andronicus, and the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet. That ‘future world’ beyond the play stretches across all time periods, across all locales, into all manner of winding and convoluted human hearts. The Apothecary is emblematic, to me, of all of these sad, drifting, marginalised creatures, shut out of a world of more serious emotions. I’m harshly reminded of my first reading of Stephen Fry’s Moab is my Washpot, wrestling with my unwanted sexuality at age fifteen. One of Fry’s most breathtaking observations is that homophobia has almost nothing to do with disgust at the idea of anal sex – which is, after all, no more than the playground caricature of what gay people might do:

There are plenty of other things to be got up to in the homosexual world outside the orbit of the anal ring, but the concept that really gets the goat of the gay-hater, the idea that really spins their melon and sickens their stomach is that most terrible and terrifying of all human notions, love.

That one can love another of the same gender, that is what the homophobe really cannot stand.

I believe this to be true. It’s the inconvenient truth that’s ignored by the opponents of gay marriage: never do they dare to breathe the l-word. Fry’s buried suggestion is that love is always, always, always more powerful a force than sex. I believe this to be true as well: love is the meaning, sex can be (but, usually, isn’t) love’s expressive mode. It’s probably also the reason that I’m so reticent in discussing these matters. Sex doesn’t make any sense to me without love. I’m not a being of sex, but I am a being of love. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m still fifteen and frightened to death about how life and love will work themselves out.

I think this recollection will certainly inform my playing of Holofernes and Katharine in Love’s Labour’s Lost. I’m determined that neither becomes an attention-seeking comic ‘turn’. Both are different kinds of eccentrics. And an eccentric is nothing more than someone shut off from convention. Holofernes is bound to a love that won’t reject him, in his book-learning and pedantry. The tragedy is that it’s a love that takes him further and further from humanity, rendering him almost incomprehensible. Katharine is frightened into cynicism by her sister’s death at the hands of Cupid. She does receive a love beyond the scope of the play – but, as with that golden shrine, ‘we have yet to see it’. (Copies of Love’s Labour’s Won are not forthcoming.) I can see into that in how I go about with acting. I can also see the sadness of it.

But you, Friar… You mean something different to me. You do not quash or deny the love in your heart. You certainly can’t get at it romantically; your holy orders make that so. You are, to put it crudely, married to God. But I wonder whether it’s something more deeply engrained in your soul. It’s not for everyone to discover a fulfilled and fulfilling romance in their lives. And it’s wasted time to reflect on what wasn’t there in the first place. You’ll balk at this, Friar, but I feel the same way about the divine. Wonderful, if it exists – unashamedly wonderful. But unwise to place faith in it. For all I know, the kingdom will never come. But even you’re shut out of romantic love, Friar, you encourage it in others. You stand as an idealistic facilitator of love. A man stationed at the gate to the garden of youthful and playful delights: never to enter, always to peep in through the bars.

Now that I find profoundly moving. Not simply because it’s the most gracious service one human can do another. But because it’s an expression of the impossibility of a fully requited love for so many. A friend sent me this piece by Carson McCullers, saying it reminded her of how I prattle on about the subject from time to time. She wasn’t far wrong:

First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons – but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. Often the beloved is only the stimulus for all the stored-up love which has lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. He comes to know a new strange loneliness and it is this knowledge which makes him suffer. So there is only one thing for the lover to do. He must house his love within himself as best he can; he must create for himself a whole new inward world – a world intense and strange, complete in himself.

Never have I read an account of love that more closely parallels my own thinking. So many points here border on my own experience: the loneliness; the fact that that loneliness drives the lover to a kind of narcissistic introspection; the ultimate solution of ‘housing’ the love within the self. Shakespeare touches on the same in Sonnet 31: ‘Thou art the cave where buried love doth live, / Hung with the trophies of my lovers gone…’ That this passage comes from The Ballad of the Sad Café – a novella in which someone falls in love with the hunchback for a change – only makes it more precious.

I see you, Friar Laurence, as a shining example – for getting by in a world where love is by no means guaranteed. It’s only through acting that I have been assured a glance into the garden. I pray I might one day get past the gate. The brutal likelihood is that I won’t. The loneliness of the actor is sacrosanct. It’s rather like being a monk.

It’s on this basis, then, that I’m happy to come to you, Friar. The ‘dear’ can wait. For now, though, there is much to think about.

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Bits, Bobs and Odds

Baffling, isn’t it – how everything happens at once? And always right at the end of the month? You know, literally in the last few hours of the very last day? I mean, God forbid it’s more a case of me rushing, in an agony of guilty conscience, to meet my fanciful self-imposed quota of two blog entries per month – on peril of disappointing my hordes (hordes, hordes!) of diligent, conscientious, and (most unkindest cut) time denomination-obsessed readers!

No. No, I believe that month-ends carry an innate mystic charge. Howsoever traumatic and debilitating the peregrinations of blodge-upkeepery maysoever become, it’s all of a piece with some wider cosmic pattern. Which brings me swiftly (almost) to the point: I have three announcements to make!

Announcement the First: I’ve created a website for myself, located at! I felt this was an inevitable step, in order to establish a more stable online profile. To be honest, I haven’t much enjoyed the creation process: it’s meant a scattered week of excavating my own personality. I’m now bereft of any quirky, soupy or wacky details about my life; the website’s taken it all, folks (and there wasn’t all that much to begin with). As an actor, though, all I’ve really got to sell is me. So I’m forced to mine my quarry. And now the site’s largely finished, I’ll have an instant solution every time someone asks me for a date, a link, a quote, or a photo. (Alright, I’ll admit it: I enjoyed compiling the Photos section far more than I rightly should.) The website will also relax any pressure on this blog to carry out serious promotional activities. (Or meet that blasted monthly quota; though I’m not relenting yet!) The blog will instead be freed up – for the deranged, embittered and self-pitying invective on which I truly thrive.

Concerning this blog, the website has another useful function. I’ve created an archive of former blog entries, located on the Links page (two hyperlinks for you there). This should make older posts considerably easier to find.

In the next few days, I’ll be following up my website with other ghoulish self-publicity strategies – a Twitter feed and a Facebook page, I have no doubt! So do watch out for those. I’ll keep you posted via the website – which you are, by the way, duty-bound to Favourite.

Announcement the Second: Sikes & Nancy is returning on 23rd March! I’ll be performing as part of York Theatre Royal’s Imaginarium, which is being produced by Scrooge & Marley co-conspirator Oli O’Shea. Due to my show’s disturbing nature, I’ll be performing in the later time-slot of 9pm-12pm – so if you’re intending to see me, do please book for that one. Don’t rule out the earlier slot, though; I’m sure there’s abundant fascination to be had in both. There may also be ticket deals on the horizon. I can’t make any promises, but I’ll make sure to post anything beneficial on my website.

Imaginarium‘s set to be an eclectic kaleidoscope of very different theatre pieces: a feast of ‘the captivating, the bizarre, and the exquisite’ (I’m not certain which most appropriately describes Sikes & Nancy). The official line-up will be announced in the next week. I’ve been informed that some Edgar Allan Poe might also feature in the PG-13/midnight movie slot. This would complement Sikes & Nancy exceptionally well: I recently performed ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ as an audition piece, and the performance experience was eerily similar. (Actually, Poe admitted that ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ was inspired by Dickens’s inclusion of ‘A Madman’s Manuscript’ in The Pickwick Papers. I examined its influence on ‘Sikes and Nancy’ in a previous blog entry.)

I’m hugely excited about Imaginarium. It’s a pleasing next step in the continuing growth of Sikes & Nancy, which has rattled on for nearly a year now. Although I’ll have to abridge the script to fit a fifty minute time-slot, I’m convinced that my experience with the longer version will influence the way I play it. I hope it will be more concentrated, more focused, more deeply alive. The venue, St William’s College, also keeps up the tradition of playing Sikes & Nancy in ancient and (potentially) haunted spaces. Who knows what ghosts lurk in this medieval building, cast in the shadows of York Minster for three quarters of a millennium? Imaginarium will also be a homecoming of sorts. York Theatre Royal was where I cut my teeth on acting: both by practice (all those years with York Youth Theatre) and by inspiration (marvelling at David Leonard’s Shakespearean villainy in the pantomime). And it goes without saying that I’m delighted to be doing a professional theatre in my home town.

Announcement the Third: I’m very proud to be one of the actors reopening The York Dungeon! As you may know, the Dungeon faced horrendous flooding towards the end of 2012; a cursory Google search turns up the whole gory story. This meant a few quite lovely things: selling charity cakes outside the building (to frenzied screams of ‘CIKE!’ and ‘CUKE!’); accidentally filling my wellies with diseased flood water; crowningly, attacking Serena Redshaw with an umbrella in full monastic dress – only to see the footage appear on the national BBC News (pictured below). Redundancy, sadly, was inevitable, and it’s to the management’s credit that the actors were treated so kindly throughout the anomalous situation. It was the end of an era: the parting of a long-established team.

Evil Media Control

Now, however, the Dungeon is rising from the sodden ashes. Spurred on by the recent relocation/rebranding of The London Dungeon – which saw such scintillating additions as Brian Blessed – the York incarnation has been extensively reimagined. Obviously, I can’t give away too many details; apart from anything else, I don’t know that much yet. However, I have been told that every script has been redrafted. This is sure to have a knock-on effect. Denied the chance to salvage vocal patterns from the old Dungeon, every character will be galvanised into vivid new life. Those parts of the attraction hit by the floods – including everything mentioned in this post – have been pulled apart and built from scratch. And although we won’t have Brian Blessed, I’ve no doubt that we’ll have the great Bryan Heeley.

The costume designs and makeup effects are also getting an overhaul, in aid of greater authenticity. This will result in fewer faces of this calibre, but that’s a fairly small price for artistic integrity:

Vintage Dungeon Face

The doors creak open to admit the public from 29th March – so you’ll have chance to see me in action a mere week after Imaginarium! (Lucky public!) Two million of your finest recession pounds have been lavished on the Dungeon’s refurbishment. I have every faith it’ll be the best The York Dungeon has ever looked, sounded and, yes, most importantly, smelled.

That’s all for the moment. I must now go and stake my evil media control on Twitter.

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Doing a Professional Theatre

At the climax of The Flesh and the Fiends – John Gilling’s sterling 1960 body-snatching melodrama – William Hare is hounded through the darkened streets of Edinburgh. His last-ditch hideout is an abandoned old house. As he barricades the door, the mob lights its torches. As he canters ineffectually up a staircase, the mob beats his feeble defences down and throngs inside the building. And as he lunges for some iron bars, his terrified face is thrust at once into startling close-up. It’s an unforgettable image: Donald Pleasence, slime personified. The ravening mob takes hold of Hare, and drags him off into the dark.

By this time, The Flesh and the Fiends had become a film event for me. This had nothing to do with Peter Cushing (here, as always, the Olivier of horror), nor the admirable work of director John Gilling (who helmed Hammer’s superlative Cornish horrors The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile). Instead, this conviction came from an eerie sense of recall. Here again was the murderer running fugitive from the mob; here were all the old feelings of terror and guilt and a strange exhilaration; here was what looked suspiciously like (and, as it turned out, was) stock footage from David Lean’s Oliver Twist. That last close-up of Hare came almost as a premonition.

‘Hullo,’ I thought. ‘That’ll be me again next month.’

It gives me very great pleasure to announce that Sikes & Nancy is coming back. For three nights in February, I’ll be evading the torch-wielding mob at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester. To ensure that the details are branded on your memory, here are the precise times and dates in the boldest of bold capitals:


And while I’m at it, here’s a lovely new publicity image. Flocked wallpaper and blood spatters in bilious harmony:

Sikes & Nancy Publicity

Just marvellous. In the modern tradition, tickets can be booked online at the Mercury Theatre’s website. All manner of concessions are available, so it’s worth looking into. At the very least, do ‘Like’ the page and boost my fragile ego on Facebook!

But wait! Why should you bother coming to Sikes & Nancy at all? My arguments for the piece’s merits are well rehearsed by now. Sikes & Nancy is pure theatrical storytelling: I speak out to the audience and unfold the tale, without resorting to any artifice beyond myself and a few chairs. It has a clutch of the greatest characters in English literature – Fagin, Nancy, Bill Sikes – all of whom make a powerful plea to the emotions. Yet it’s also straightforwardly entertaining, deriving its thrills from blood-and-thunder melodrama as much as the fact that it polished off Charles Dickens.

More widely, Sikes & Nancy has received stonkingly good feedback. There have been five stars from TCS and Varsity both; student journalism and I don’t always get on, but I bow to the eminently correct appraisals of these particular critics. It’s been warmly received by audiences as far-flung as Cambridge, York and London’s West End. No less a legend than Simon Callow witnessed and enjoyed the West End rendition, before hurtling off to kill his own Nancy in The Mystery of Charles Dickens. And whilst Sikes & Nancy has never been short of interesting venues (not least Lady Peckett’s haunted mead room), the Mercury is a beautiful theatre with a glowing reputation, well worth visiting in its own right. Add to this the sheer length of time I’ve been working on Sikes & Nancy – ten months thus far – and you can rest assured it’ll be coming back stronger than ever. The script is being refined; the thought processes are bubbling up and strengthening; the acting is growing more distinct, more precise. I personally rank it among my two or three best performances.

My engagement at Colchester is significant in another way: I consider it my professional stage debut. ‘Consider’ because I’m not sure precisely when an amateur credit becomes professional. What of plays with professional directors, after all? Or those staged in professional venues? And where exactly does the Dungeon fit in? Nonetheless, this revival of Sikes & Nancy is a personal milestone. It’s providing me the first glancing possibility that I might be able to do this for a living. There’s some way to go yet, but the hope is very welcome.

I’m not sure how much I’ll be blodgering on the rehearsal process, since I’ve covered a lot of this ground before. Here are links to five previous posts, all of which focus on different aspects of Sikes & Nancy. Lest the play seem scarily well documented – or (God forbid!) ‘professional’ – bear in mind that each post is littered with digressions.

Two Goodly Announcements: My announcement of the play’s 2012 engagements in York and London. It also contains my all-time best argument for attending Sikes & Nancy. Digressions include EastEnders barrow-boys, Rotten Corpse and the Dungeon Halloween that was so cruelly stolen.

First Re-Readthrough: My thoughts after a close reading of the script. Inevitably in-depth, so if you have a copy of Oliver Twist, you’re advised to dig it out. Digressions on Christopher Marlowe, Alfred Hitchcock, Sweeney Todd, Ingrid Bergman, Stephen King and the Groke.

Re-Rehearsals Underway: A more general update, focused on the umpteen problems of restaging a play, from change for change’s sake to the art of the extra-textual. Also includes Edward Quekett’s gorgeous poster design for the original. Digressions: ‘Macbeth doth murder sleep’; ‘everybody ought to have a maid’; ‘ah, well, you know, that sort of ish-ness’.

An Exercise in QuotationA study of the original text of Oliver Twist, coupled with Dickens’s accounts of murder in The Pickwick Papers and Master Humphrey’s Clock. In other words (Dickens’s, to be precise), an opportunity to quote some rip-roaring prose. D: comedy catchphrases, social niceties, the Daily Mail (only two of those go together).

The London Adventure: My almost debilitatingly thrilling account of staging Sikes & Nancy in the West End. Dahl, Gish, Leonard, Sanders, Zucco, Seaward, Callow.

Of course, these foundations will count for nothing without continued development. My primary rehearsal aim is to make Sikes & Nancy as truthful as possible. Not by searching for a naturalistic truth, but an emotional truth. And not a naturalistic-emotional truth, but a more intuitive emotional truth, geared at all times towards heightened expression. I’ve been inspired in this regard by Charles Laughton. The BBC quietly aired a season of Laughton films over Christmas, marking fifty years since the actor’s death. His performances have been a highlight of the last few months: I’ve happily devoured The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Rembrandt (1936), Captain Kidd (1945), Arch of Triumph, The Big Clock (both 1948), The Strange Door (1951) and, yes, even Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952). Laughton is at his best when he breaks your heart, as demonstrated in his towering Quasimodo. I’ve found myself deeply moved by two performances especially: the eye-rolling, cuckolded grape farmer in They Knew What They Wanted (1940) and the pathetically defeated schoolmaster in This Land Is Mine (1943). The latter should be compulsory viewing for anyone possessing a heart and a soul.

Laughton’s genius was to discover an intensity in his characters, so overwhelming, so breathtaking, that he often transcended the limitations of the dramas in which he appeared. Yet Laughton seldom achieved this by imposing on his text: his gift was to convert his text into a dazzling, extrovert projection. This seems to me a sensible approach to Sikes & Nancy. Never to impose, but always to find where the energies of text and actor unite to the greatest expressive end. I’m accordingly reading Michael Chekhov’s To the Actor; his belief in the imagination as an ever-expanding resource is wonderfully freeing:

A sensitive body and a rich, colourful psychology are mutually complementary to each other and create that harmony so necessary to the attainment of the actor’s professional aim. You will achieve it by constantly enlarging the circle of your interests. Try to experience or assume the psychology of other eras by reading period plays, historical novels or even history itself. While doing so, try to penetrate their thinking without imposing upon them your modern points of view, moral concepts, social principles or anything else that is of a personal nature or opinion.

Chekhov states that physical and vocal physical freedom are imperative to this regime. Imagination is pointless, after all, when not permitted to get out. To this end, I’m going to be working at my voice. A stable grasp of my natural voice has long eluded me. In Sikes & Nancy, it’s essential that the narrator speak cleanly and economically, so a study of Cicely Berry and Patsy Rodenburg will be a great help. I’ve been up to a fair bit of physical ‘training’ recently, to counter my long-standing back problems, so I should be performing in a state of resolutely improving health.

Otherwise, I’m seeking to immerse myself in Dickens’s world (no, not this Dickens World) as much as is humanly possible. I recently finished The Mystery of Edwin Drood for the first time. Its shameful murder, Gothic streak and transcendent descriptions of light will all be very useful. (Dickens was performing ‘Sikes and Nancy’ for the last few times as he was writing Drood.) The moment I finish A Tale of Two Cities, I’m going to plunge into The Old Curiosity Shop, steeped as it is in the Victorian obsession with young, beautiful, dead girls. (Nancy has retrospectively fallen into this morbid tradition, thanks to her glamorisation in umpteen stage and film adaptations.) I’d also love to get round to Barnaby Rudge, having heard so much about its depiction of the mob, but I doubt I’ll have time. Meanwhile, Malcolm Andrews’s terrific Charles Dickens and His Performing Selves has been renewing my education in the Dickens Public Reading (a storehouse of knowledge long since banished to the murky realm of dissertation). There are also two classical plays that I’ve been meaning to get back to for ages: The Jew of Malta (the most positive statement that hilarious Jewish criminals need not be anti-Semitic) and Macbeth (in my view, the dramatic ancestor of Sikes & Nancy, and a play that Dickens revered).

I’m still refining the scripts for Frankenstein and Dracula (one more draft for each), so my workload will be intense in the weeks to come. But I’m utterly delighted that that’s the case. So please: do me that best of services, and make an effort to see Sikes & Nancy. I promise you won’t regret it.

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Most Goodliest Announcement

With the ink dry on the contract and the information on my Spotlight, I can finally loose the cat from the bag: I am now an actor with an agent! It gives me very great pleasure to announce that, as of yesterday, I am in the care of Ladida Management. It’s the next thrilling step in that never-ending ramble; my fanatical endeavour to pursue a fool’s dream and devote myself to what Oscar Wilde called the dynamic life, or – better yet – the artistic life. Hurrah!

Although I now feel more accepted by Oscar, I don’t want this to melt into an Oscar acceptance speech. How much I’ll work, after all, remains to be seen. However, I do owe a very large measure of thanks to everyone who’s supported Sikes & Nancy in some form or other. It was on the strength of that play that I secured representation, and no play – not even a one-man play – can ever exist in a vacuum. So, once again, my utmost thanks to those who’ve helped me stage the production in Cambridge (Ailis, Phil, Ned, Lawrence), in York (the indestructible Mark Watson), and in London (the quite excellent team at the Tristan Bates). And an equally massive dose of thanks to those who’ve been in the audience. (A select few troopers came twice! Twice! There’s no accounting for taste…) I don’t want to make a full career of the monodrama, but I’m sure it’s a form I’ll be tinkering with for quite some time to come. Frankenstein and Dracula will eventually happen. And I can confirm that Sikes & Nancy will return; I’ll furnish you with the details in the not-so-distant future… For everyone who’s missed out so far, there’ll be another chance yet to catch the bloody spectacle!

Now, for those of you wondering ‘how the hell did he manage that?’ – and believe me, I’ve wondered this more than anyone – I still find this difficult to answer. In the end, it’s down to an invigorating tonic of compulsive letter-writing, email-composing, headshot-snapping, interview-attending, publicity-pushing, theatre-hiring, spending-money-to-make-moneying (graargh), Callow-badgering, brain-dulling clichéring, and also a little bit of acting somewhere near the end. Because it’s been spread over six months, none of this has felt like a particular strain.

My message, then, is one of hope: THIS IS ALL TRICKY BUT VERY POSSIBLE. This time last year, I would never have believed I’d have an agent by now. A fair bit has happened since then to raise my confidence: Scrooge & Marley, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Marlowe Showcase, latterly Sikes & Nancy. To varying extents, these projects were gifts of the theatre in Cambridge. But I can’t help feeling it was the frustration of creating theatre in Cambridge that’s been more useful in securing representation. For all of the giddy freedom of possibility, there’s so much in Cambridge which is life-suppressing – much which you have to make a conscious effort to screen out, in order to get at acting more purely. As much affection as I have for Cambridge’s theatre scene, there were so many things that weren’t any fun at all: poor directors (those without talent or discernable enthusiasm!), transparent nepotism, not getting cast in certain pantomimes (that one still niggles), jealousies concerning very good friends, feeling like a criminal because you’re not writing your essay and – the crux of it, in many ways – those risible characters who forget they’re learners and masquerade as experts. I’m not really annoyed by any of this. And certainly not now. Every time my Eden was spoiled, I worked like crazy to make it GOOD again.

If I hadn’t been rejected after so many auditions in my first year, I’d have never devised my first one-man play. If I hadn’t been disappointed at how compromised that play was, I wouldn’t have attempted the form again. If I hadn’t been annoyed at getting so little interest from the Marlowe Showcase, I wouldn’t have kept up my demonic letter-writing campaign. I never felt like a part of the theatrical establishment at university. I’m not sure it even exists; it might be a myth kept alive to frighten freshers. Rejection is a very underrated driving force. But you must never, never, never say ‘I’m beaten’ – you must always, always, always say ‘I’ll beat you yet!’

Now, I maintain that THIS IS ALL TRICKY BUT VERY POSSIBLE. But I think that this comes with a vital disclaimer: You have to be YOU. Well, I can’t speak for others; all I really know is that I had to be ME. One of the most heartening aspects of this process is that I’ve zipped through it in a spirit of honesty. I always knew it would be professional death to pretend to be something I’m not. Yes, I can do sturdy naturalism. When pushed to it. But it’s never been what’s really fired me in acting. Or what’s pushed me to continue it. Sikes & Nancy, for better or for worse, shows me for what I truly am: a bundle of mad idiosyncrasies, tempering naturalism with the ridiculous, the hysterical and the flat-out grotesque to produce something more Swantonian. I’m delighted to have acquired representation as such.

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Two Goodly Announcements

A newsy-type update this time round. Can’t tell you how nice it is to be writing about current affairs for a change! (I’ll be making up for that in future entries, I’m sure.)

My first important message: Sikes & Nancy is at last coming back! To be fair, it’s only been two months since the Cambridge run – but virtually everything related to that blasted institution seems a lifetime away. Three dates for your diaries, then:


A few things worth commenting on here. The London performance is, fairly transparently, a showcase intended for industry figures. Unfortunately, this is a necessary evil if I’m ever to fulfil my dream of playing a barrow-boy on EastEnders in twenty years. However, I’ve always been determined that these slimy concessions receive support from an ethical framework. Sikes & Nancy is much more than a negligent monologue/duologue mash-up. Where I’m concerned, it’s a labour of love. And pervasive love, not self-love; it’s a theatrical construct I’m eager to share rather than parade myself in. The vital distinction with the one-man form.

Sikes & Nancy unites many a thing that makes me gibber and foam with excitement. I love Dickens with a passion quite indiscriminate, but I’m a particular acolyte of his early works. Sikes is drawn from Oliver Twist: Dickens’s second novel, sandwiched between The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby (which together formed the basis for Pickwick & Nickleby, my first one-man show). Yet Sikes was also the Public Reading that formed the terrifying final act in Dickens’s performance career. Youthful anarchy fused with the obsessive mania of age. An appealing theatrical cocktail. I’ve always had a special affection for Oliver Twist (originally through David Lean’s remarkable 1948 film) and it’s a thrill to bring it to the stage in some form. A large part of my affection for Lean’s picture was due to Alec Guinness’s infernal performance as Fagin. As ever with Dickens, it’s the characters, the very best characters in English prose, that draw me in. Their hold is so great that they demand impersonation; a direct incarnation! I relish entering into these people, so far removed from my everyday self: whether the brutishly masculine Sikes, or the pathetically defeated Nancy, or the disgustingly wicked Fagin, an overgrown sewer rat in his filth and cowardice.

Yet a sharply etched grotesque is nothing without an emotional pulse. Sikes & Nancy has that going for it as well. I find it emotionally stirring, in the same way that A Christmas Carol, properly told, will bring me to tears of joy. But where the Carol is moving – by its light, its hope, its redemption – Sikes grips by its pitiless streak. By its darkness, its hopelessness – its damnation, of each and every character. I enjoy performing something unrepentantly dark, provided there’s an emotional justification. And Sikes, unlike the vast majority of Victorian melodrama and Gothic horror, really does earn its emotional engagement. Now, I love melodrama and horror even when poorly handled – witness my adoration for carnival ghost trains, Tod Slaughter’s barnstorming and the lesser Hammer films. But not once does Dickens extort or manipulate. He extends a hand – with belief, with compassion – and, provided you’re willing to go with him, he’ll transport you to extraordinary places. If that’s not the point of worthy theatre, then I don’t know what is.

Passion’s the heart of my argument. I can only persuade you to attend Sikes & Nancy by my very great affection for the play. It doesn’t work because of my performance. It works because it’s bloody good theatre. With good theatrical bloodiness. Another thing I adore. Eager parties can book for the London performance on the Tristan Bates website (tickets for the York performances will be available on the door). I’m sure I’ll wind up posting something on the process of revisiting a one-man show (an experience that’s entirely new to me). If you’re after more lively updates and reminders than the ponderous world of blodgering allows, then I suggest you join the obligatory Facebook Group.

My second bit of news: I’ve received some awards for my work with The York Dungeon! At the end-of-season party – the delectably titled ‘Rotten Corpse’ – I collected the 2012 gongs for ‘Best Actor’, ‘Scariest Actor’ and ‘Ego of the Year’ (the last for the highest number of public votes). In result, two exquisitely crafted voodoo dolls and a resplendent gold skull have entered my inventory. I’ve also extended my Dungeon contract to Bonfire Night. (So if you fancy coming to see me, you’ve got an extra two months for it!) The very great excitement here is that I’ll finally get to spend another Halloween at the Dungeon! My last Halloween was also my first season, way, way back in 2008 – nearly four years ago now. This year, we’ve been promised a seasonal revamp of the Witches show to incorporate a Mother Shipton theme. Just how we’ll defame the benevolent old hag to fit the Dungeon brand remains to be seen… Beyond that, though, the Dungeon’s atmosphere becomes highly charged at Halloween. It’s the actor’s dream: the public flock in, so you can entertain the belief that the world revolves around you… And pumpkins! The Dungeon will be crammed with pumpkins. That means enough pumpkin soup to last till Christmas… And Christmas! Everyone likes Christmas! And Halloween! By God, we’re onto a winner here.

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Return to the Dungeon

Yesterday I returned to The York Dungeon! First time I’ve been back in almost a year – save my visit on Christmas Eve, which was quite the best idea I had that holiday. Usually, I find being reborn to decay a fairly emotional experience, but this time exhaustion prevailed; I’ve been recovering from a mysterious sore throat, which has only just started to fade. Accordingly, I rounded out my eight hours of darkness with relaxing walks into and out of York, a restorative shower, and a blissful kip on the sofa, the edu-fun-tional delights of QI buzzing away in the background. Today, I’ve mostly been sittin’ and figurin’ – wondering how Dracula, that sprawling haunted castle of a book, might become a worthwhile play. As I hinted in this interview, it’s a text with the potential for a monodrama in the Hunchback mould.

Before I tumble back into Stoker’s epically silly story, I’ll collect some thoughts from yesterday. A day at the Dungeon is less a coherent narrative than a series of vivid ‘moments’. This time, I’ll be focusing on that which, like me, is new to the Dungeon:

New corpse in Plague: The corpse – a recent casualty of the Black Death – is the centrepiece of the first half of the show. As the plague doctor’s assistant, your job is to root around inside, pluck forth the innards, and now and then elucidate the symptoms of plague. I’m not convinced that the new chap is better than last year’s model. He’s certainly different. The detail is now astounding. Around the mouth are individual flecks of stubble – which feel, unsettlingly enough, like stubble. We also have eyebrows, eyelashes, a good head of hair – and, best/worst of all, a fine fur covering the chest and arms. The sort of detail that an audience really isn’t likely to notice, but will alternately please and traumatise me whenever I set to rubbing and stroking my friend. On the downside, the hands and feet strike me as less realistic than previously (people inevitably touch the extremities to work out if the corpse is an actor; it’s essential that they convince). The old body was also filled with water. This made for a fantastically disgusting squelch as you rummaged about inside, allowing you to fleck your audience with fresh corpse-juice on the sly. I suspect the new fellow has been secured against the damage that water did his predecessor: the organs are now enclosed in a rigid (and dry) wooden casing. In result, the figure now warrants a more voluptuous approach. Rather than the demented splashings of a rat in sewage, there must be prolonged and sensuous communion with intestine, heart and lungs. The new corpse is also, regrettably, a eunuch. The previous figure was handsomely endowed, and proved a special favourite with hen parties.

New darkness in Plague: Various lights have been angled or extinguished to make this first chamber as dark as possible. A shame in one sense, given that the surgery boasts some of the Dungeon’s most detailed set dressings. But it’s definitely more unsettling now. The new darkness is more than visual; the script been tweaked to give the actor a sharper edge. This transition is going to be a challenge for my Plague character, William, who is very much Kenneth William(s) in voice and manner. But then, Williams was often the most frightening thing about the films he made, high camp and grotesque horror wandering in hand with the sublime… In line with the tonal shift, there is a new call for silence. Last year, the actor would introduce himself to the public by ringing a bell, bursting through some doors and screaming ‘BRING OUT YER DEAD! BRING OUT YER DEAD!’ I felt there was merit in this approach; in beginning the tour with a jolt, the faint of heart could slink away without spoiling the experience for others. The subtle version is certainly more unnerving, but I’m not convinced that it prepares audiences for how insane the Dungeon will eventually become. And, needless to say, when I slithered towards a school party yesterday – in silence – the air was rent with piercing shrieks for a good thirty seconds. Some things simply can’t be changed. In the demented hurly-burly of crowd control and nervous exhaustion that is the Dungeon Summer, subtlety has no place.

New rug in Ghosts: The frame for Ghosts is the ancient Golden Fleece in York – allegedly the most haunted pub in the most haunted city in England. (Swap ‘haunted’ for ‘superstitious’ as you see fit.) We now have a suitably pubbish rug covering the wooden floor, through which William Brown’s ghost makes his presence known. My first thought was ‘how splendid – now when children vomit, we can simply roll up their leavings and continue undisturbed’. Closer inspection reveals that the rug has been nailed down. No doubt it will cause the stench to linger. On a less odorous note, I’m relieved to find Ghosts still in place. It’s by far the best bit of theatre in the Dungeon. There are shows that offer more visceral entertainments (Judge and Torture especially), but none that are quite so disturbing. The standard Dungeon show is episodic. For example, both Judge and Torture adopt a three-part structure of audience interaction: the judge metes out three sentences, while the torturer samples three of his wrought-iron trinkets. In Ghosts, meanwhile, every effort is made to build a narrative into the five-minute experience. The core of the show is a literal storytelling, as the innkeeper recounts the hanging of William Brown. However, it receives an enormous lift from the enfolding and enabling mechanics of that storytelling. Similarly, the special effects that comprise the climax to the show are fairly modest – but they gain in power for creating a progressive encounter with the supernatural. The audience is first subjected to purely visual stimuli – first, a number of blackouts (contingent on vision deprived); second, the manipulation of physical objects (a lantern moves, a tankard crashes to the ground). From here, we progress to a heightened visual manifestation (a transparent shade appears to visitors, through the magic of Pepper’s ghost). Finally, we have what can only be described as a bolt of wind, which shoots from behind a curtain and provides tactile, physical experiencing. Neatly structured for cumulative impact, and a fine complement to the actor’s intimidation of the audience.

New Labyrinth of the Lost: Two years ago, I just loved this show. In the person of a dead Roman Centurion, I’d bleat utter drivel at an audience before clapping them without warning in a darkened room. Last year, however, the show had been destroyed – the toilets belonging to the nightclub above the Dungeon flooded, thus rendering the Labyrinth toxic and unusable. This year’s replacement is excellent. The premise of Labyrinth is historically dubious: the claim that a Roman legion became lost in a series of tunnels hidden beneath York Minster. Convenient lies aside, the new Labyrinth certainly looks the part. Where once there were mirrors ensconced in plastic are now detailed faux-marble carvings, pillars and busts. This chamber forms the gateway to the mirror maze. The maze itself is saturated with brilliant scare effects – a skeleton rattling for freedom against its chains; a deafening clatter of iron from above. With gags like these, the Dungeon pays homage to its ghost train roots – the pneumatic irritation of the pop-up ghost sustained in eclectic new forms. As a child, I hated jump scares of every kind. Nowadays, I find them one of the most entertaining scare tactics, and certainly the most instantly gratifying. There is also a novel chance to become the pop-up ghost. The new maze design contains an alcove fronted with two-way glass, which means that the actor can sneak in and unexpectedly illumine himself, thus terrifying those within. Two-way glass is another illusion cribbed from the Disney Haunted Mansion, which used it for the legendary hitchhiking ghost effect (prior to the ghastly CGI updates).

New Execution show: Dungeoning depends on repetition, so a new feature is always a strange phenomenon. As I mentioned earlier, Dungeon shows tend towards the episodic. Execution is as fragmented as they come: as the executioner’s dogsbody, you bait the crowd, trash the south for a bit, slap someone in the pillory, show off the severed heads on Micklegate Bar (Thomas Mowbray and Richard Le Scrope, traitors each to Henry IV), try out the Halifax gibbet, and finally fail to chop off a fresh head. This fragmentation doesn’t make Execution a bad show; it just necessitates that the character becomes as malleable as possible, the liquid substance that will draw these elements into cohesion. I had a few run-throughs after closing time with Mark Watson, Performance Supervisor and fellow Dungeon actor. Bafflingly quickly, I find myself adopting a persona similar to Frosch, a character that I played in Die Fledermaus in February. Frosch was a character that I came to despise. I wanted something dark and subversive – the needle that bursts that innocuously fluffy champagne bubble of an opera – while everyone else wanted the flat, the functional and the insipidly vivacious. What we wound up with was polished (the measliest arbiter of quality in opera), but essentially quite dull; an unmotivated and (to me, at least) largely unfunny explosion of shoutings and grimacings. I maintain that the only non-singing character in an opera should remain operatic – in conception and realization. Not suffer reduction to an unadventurous music hall skit. So Execution might also be a chance for rehabilitation, allowing me to test what dark potential Frosch really had. It’s curious how characters you’ve played in ‘serious’ dramas come back to you in the Dungeon, jostling for new life. That stirring moment at which theatre becomes a ghostly echo-chamber. I’ll go public with Execution in the next few days. The technical challenge of multiple button-presses, all of which require precise timing and physical grace, will no doubt prove the more pressing (ha!) concern.

Next time, I’ll aim to report some gems of public behaviour. The Dungeon is nothing without its victims. And, as much as I love ’em, they tend to be the weirdest people on earth…

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Mission Statement

You are now surveying the blodgings of James C. Swanton – twenty-one year old character actor and occasional writer. I am physically distinguished by my longishness of limb, hunchedness of back and mobility of face; vocally distinguished by my cavernous, death-rattle voice. Born, raised, schooled and now once more living in the city of York, I find myself too much in thought. I can scare tourists in the dark to my heart’s content – but I also need a subject to wrap my thoughts around, a digitized forum in which to publish those thoughts on a semi-weekly to intermittent basis. And, in my experience, nothing erases thought like more time at the computer. Bring on the blodgering, I say!

I’ve recently finished an English degree at Cambridge University. Or so I’ve been told – it’s felt rather more like a degree in high-pressure play-making. In my time at Cambridge, I appeared in twenty-four shows and played over eighty characters. I created a trilogy of one- and two-man shows based on the works of Dickens: Pickwick & Nickleby, Scrooge & Marley (alongside George Potts) and Sikes & Nancy. I became a favourite childhood monster (Quasimodo) in a one-man version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I did Shakespeare (Macbeth, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, a bit of Timon of Athens). I did Aristophanes (Lysistrata) and Jonson (The Alchemist); I did Webster (The Duchess of Malfi) and Vanbrugh (The Relapse). I did opera (Die Fledermaus) and musicals (A Children’s Guide to the Birth of Christ, Guido!) and panto (The Pied Piper). I did the world’s first ever completely silent pirate play (Silent Cannonfire). I had surreal run-ins with Stephen Fry, Simon Russell Beale, Ian McKellen, Simon Callow and Max Stafford-Clark. I developed a fetish for monotonous lists. And I established Bottled Lightning (more of that in the ‘About’ section). In short, I was a hatefully (and probably reductively) prolific dabbler in the arts dramatical. Had the unthinkably glorious Yankee system of ‘credits’ been in place, this sainted nonsense might have had some academic capital. Instead, I’ve left the institution with that common mixed feeling of thankfulness and betrayal – thankful for the wealth of opportunities that Cambridge opened up to me; betrayed by the stressful constraints in which my paradise flourished.

What with three summers spent ghouling at The York Dungeon (and another to come), I have reached dramatic saturation point over the last three years. But I’ve never really tired of it. My greatest fear, post-graduation, is that I’ll slide into an unproductive malaise. Certainly, I’ll never again be stimulated by such an instantaneous glut of projects. Not in the real world. The fall is natural. The way forward, then, if I’m to make a go at this crazed profession, is to treat acting as a vocation first, a career second. For acting is most definitely a way of life – and a good and healthy one at that.

‘But wait!’ I hear you cry. ‘Surely founding a life on acting is massively introverted! More than that, massively self-absorbed, self-obsessed, self-loving – a supreme narcissism, in truth, a vice to be abhorred!’ Well… no. That’s to complicate how passions work. To connect meaningfully with that which lies outside yourself, you must look inside yourself to discover what fires you. By looking in, you learn to look out – and you learn to regard the world with eyes that are alert and interested, rather than worn with disillusionment. Besides, I’ve always had affection for those who nail their passions triumphantly to their masts and allow others to share in the colours. Not those who stand sneering from the sidelines. Surely that’s the foundation of true narcissism – the idea that a person’s ego will absorb nothing unless that same ego deems it worthy. Basically, I’ll be up front with you if you’re willing to believe I’m being up front with you. Let’s discard any cynicism and second-guessing of motives and get down to an honest discussion of things that matter. To me, initially, and then, with any luck, to you. And let us try to have fun!

Until next time, then! I’ve kept numerous blodgerings since March 2006; most notably Pickwick & Nickleby, to promote my first one-man show. That died a death – and understandably. The basis of its existence was itself fleeting, but the main reason it stalled was the unseemly dual constraint of time and fatigue. I was too busy reading and rehearsing Dickens to do him justice in reflection. Nor was the (self-imposed) pressure to knock out a few entries each week conducive to good writing. Posts became interminable rambles instead of pointed, palatable rambles. Once Michaelmas 2010 kicked off, I gave up any illusion of sustaining it. There remain only a few husks of unfinished entries – hopelessly outdated now, hopelessly unpublishable. However, those inaugural blodgoogerings on acting did have a few benefits. I think it’s essential to think about acting in a constructive forum. It makes the brief candle a little less so; restores those flailings and shoutings that can seem so hopeless to their place as art. The bloodge also gave me a better taste for writing as a habit. Whilst my default prose style was never less than ultraviolet, it was a style that I found very comfortable. It’ll be a few months before I’m properly warmed up, but it’s going to be a real pleasure to pin down that elusive writer’s voice again.

I’ll be back soon – with Dungeony updates, I shouldn’t wonder! (I would say ‘comment!’ but nobody ever, ever comments on these things. So don’t be contrary; don’t comment.)

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