Category Archives: Dracula

My Desert Island Discs

I’ve been drawn back to this BBC warhorse for many a year now. Most often, the eight records constitute benign interruptions within a rambling biography of the guest. So rare and precious are those occasions when the records seem to stand for constituent pieces of that human’s soul. On that basis, I’ve made choices that I hope would outshine any biographical ramblings. I’m not terribly interested in writing my biography; still less is the public in reading it. But combine all the pieces – with their bizarre voices, their baroque theatricality, their deep vein of harmless melancholy – and there you have me, in inchoate musical form. When the BBC finally invites me over, I will no doubt be venerable, grey-haired, and fixed on markedly different choices. But I like to think a few of the below would make it.

Newley MicAnthony Newley’s ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’ – Each us who loves Newley carries our own version of him. Here’s mine: a Newley of grandstanding showmanship and big-hearted schmaltz, forever prone to unsparing confessionals. In this song, Newley mixes some very disjointed showbiz images – circus, stand-up, vaudeville – as a channel for his abiding self-pity. I’m sure it’s unlistenable for some. But once you reach an accommodation with Newley, even his self-pity becomes rousingly cathartic, generously human. Key to navigating Newley is getting to know his unique voice, that caramel discharge of rumbling, reverberant emotion. The climaxes of ‘The Fool Who Dared to Dream’ (robust vibrato) and ‘I’ll Begin Again’ (a more aged, tremulous vibrato) are exemplars of where the Newley voice could go – and each is, for me, perfect in its imperfection. Newley’s vibrato has sometimes reduced me to tears. This time, Newley translates his talent for building to these devastating climaxes into a different form: a short story that runs down musical tracks. I’ve previously written on ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’ at length: by all means have a look. The song is a balm for any and all disaffected entertainers; and should I ever acquire a singing voice, I damn well want it to be Newley’s.

Lee DraculaJames Bernard’s ‘The Victory of Love’ from Taste the Blood of Dracula – For its acolytes, Hammer Films represents a distinct world, one that might as well exist. There is its surface terrain of quaint inns, drawing rooms and churches in muted shades – which then explode with the high-coloured, galvanic demonism of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. It’s close to a surrogate religion – the imagined other world, the heaven-and-hell divide – which might be why this Bernard piece works on me so. It closes the film, just after Lee’s Dracula suffers his fourth ignoble destruction (he had three still to come). The strings build up, up, up – seemingly to the heavens – before their release in the love theme from the film’s beginning. And all within the confines of the village church. There’s a persuasive argument that the Gothic Revival was built on a superficial (and often camp) regard for high church trappings; thus the tricksy medievalism of The Castle of Otranto. Bernard accomplishes this for me in musical terms. His yearning strings reminds me how transporting the trappings of faith can be, if not the substance. I would make for a first-class lapsed Catholic. For me, Bernard’s other most evocative themes are the main titles for The Curse of Frankenstein and, especially, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (the film that inducted me to Hammer). All prove that so-called horror films can be breathtakingly beautiful.

SamsonRegina Spektor’s ‘Samson’ – This song is a melancholy prism. It speaks to me of people I love (it was recommended me by a close friend); it reminds of people I used to love (the line ‘your hair was long when we first met’ carries me right back to scenes at university); and it reminds me of people I’ve loved but lost (Samson’s long hair has fallen away; it is a song of cancer as much as myth). ‘My sweetest downfall’ is a brilliantly economical way of expressing how we’re at once destroyed and created in opening ourselves up to other people. Kindness and acceptance will leave us as quivering and vulnerable as any cruelty. Spektor has a wonderfully haunting voice. It’s a little tarnished, cracked, smokey; a fine crystal tumbler filled with clouded water. As with Newley, any quirks of sound production are less mannerism than idiosyncratic sincerity. The piano anyway gives that quirkiness a stabilising background.

BrideFranz Waxman’s ‘The Creation’ from Bride of Frankenstein – I’m no longer sure that this is my favourite horror film. But it’s certainly one that I can’t do without. This piece is straightforwardly thrilling, scoring as it does the ‘birthing’ of the monster’s mate. The pulsing drum mimics her beating heart, which Frankenstein has in his laboratory. There’s a primal excitement to that; a womb-like imperative to gather life from the rhythm. But the keynote is anarchy. James Bernard’s scores are the Gothic distilled. Franz Waxman is happier to subvert, turning his ‘Creation’ into a melting pot of widespread cultural influences. There are dissonant flashes that remind me of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring; alarming creaks that put me in mind of that Looney Tunes stock piece ‘Powerhouse’; and a decadent, intoxicating glamour that reminds me that this heady perversity emanated from Golden Age Hollywood. The unforgettable theremin looks ahead to 1950s sci-fi, not to mention ‘Bali Hai’ from the musical South Pacific. It reminds me of the diverse reasons I fell in love with vintage horror films. And makes me question why I devote my time to anything else.

Giants SkyStephen Sondheim’s ‘Giants in the Sky’ from Into the Woods – My favourite of all of Sondheim’s songs – although it has stiff competiton from ‘Move On’, ‘I’m Still Here’ and ‘Not a Day Goes By’. Funny, actually, how all of these titles have a spatial dimension. ‘Giants in the Sky’ harnesses space with innocence and awesomeness both: locating the imagination way, way up in the clouds. It transports me back to the fairytales of early childhood, when the likes of Disney’s (grippingly macabre) Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs constituted my whole imaginative universe. I love the child-like boldness of expression: the heaping-on of adjectives in ‘big, tall, terrible’ is genius, as are the breathtaking exclamations of ‘not till the sky!’ and ‘after the sky!’. Throughout is a note of nagging yet gentle acceptance – something I’d argue as the most painful but necessary of emotional rites. I stumbled on this song just before leaving university, in the bittersweet twilight between last exams and graduation. These words in particular rang out: ‘And you’re back again only different than before’.   My Sondheimian runner-up would be ‘Loving You’ from Passion, which follows acceptance into the darker territory of emotional martyrdom.

Orange TreeDamien Rice’s ‘Dogs’ – A puzzle to be solved on each hearing. Thanks to its striking images, lightly (and ambiguously) worn, the song encourages a meditative state, a heightened concentration. Aside from that, it’s very pleasing to the ear. Playful lyrics, full always of circling, child-like motion; I’m particularly fond of ‘we drive around and she drives us wild’. The gentle tweakings of the acoustic guitar. Rice’s voice, soulful almost to androgyny. There’s also a structural reason to like it: on Rice’s album 9, ‘Dogs’ comes directly after ‘Rootless Tree’. Which is deadeningly bleak. It is therefore like the sun coming out – just as in Fantasia, where ‘Ave Maria’ follows ‘A Night on Bald Mountain’. A phoenix from the ashes. It’s given me hope in darker periods. This hope is so much more precious for being hard-won; equally precious are Rice’s other brighter spots, in the likes of ‘Older Chests’ and (more arguably) ‘Colour Me In’. Rice seems to average one fit of optimism per album. ‘Dogs’ is a modern transposition of the sun-dappled, life-giving finales of Dickens’ greatest novels. We know that despair and death are real, but we are content, for the present, to bask in the sun.

Frollo-3Tony Jay’s ‘Hellfire’ from The Hunchback of Notre Dame It’s been ten years since Tony Jay left this planet. He took with him my all-time favourite voice. In many respects, it’s a peculiarly constrained voice: the thickened diction, the narrow range, a timbre alternately bone-dry and clammy as the tomb. But it carries with it an outsize, all-pervading Gothic atmosphere, ideally suited for Victor Hugo. ‘Hellfire’ puts Jay’s voice through its paces – composer Alan Menken was determined that Jay sing it just slightly beyond his comfortable vocal range. Jay’s voice is also a magnificent throwback: within it, I divine traces of George Zucco and Henry Daniell, to name but two. Underrated character actors, much like Jay himself. But all have found an immortality in the cinema. Tony Jay bears much responsibility for getting me interested in acting (I saw the Hunchback a good six or seven years before Lon Chaney sealed my fate). Quite apart from Jay’s contribution, the song is laudably audacious. Its central ‘hellfire’ refrain, amplified by the choir, transposes ‘The Bells of Notre Dame’ to a minor key. Thus, one can take the villain song as the film’s dark heart. It has always seemed so to me. I’ve written on ‘Hellfire’ in a wider context here.

Wanda-posterJohn Du Prez’s ‘Finale’ from A Fish Called Wanda – This piece I find purely and ecstatically joyful. Precisely why is a bit elusive. I’ve a degree of affection for the film, particularly its depiction of a beautiful eighties London (it holds a certain romance for those of us lucky enough to not actually have been there). Yet I’ve never found it as funny as John Cleese’s other works. I do vibrate to the saxophone – the end of ‘Old and Wise’ by The Alan Parsons Project, for instance, and Lisa’s immortal ‘Jazz Man’ from The Simpsons. As with ‘Dogs’, there’s the beauty of the acoustic guitar. Perhaps all that’s enough. But let’s chalk it up to a choice intersection of music and moment. I recall being drawn to the film, aged thirteen or fourteen, because Stephen Fry has an incredibly brief cameo. Fry was a figure who gave me a certain hope about my (then dread-inducing) future as a gay man. The likes of Wilde, Williams, Crisp and Callow were to follow and eventually usurp him. It’s that long-ago spark which imbues it with hope for me. Along with Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique (the third movement, specifically), it might be my gay anthem.

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

The Mystery of Christopher Lee

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

Lee Portrait

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

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

Lee Thorns

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

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

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

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

Lee Creature

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lee Creature Again

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

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

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

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

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

Lee Rasputin

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

Lee Tears

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

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

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

Lee Saruman

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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Filed under Acting Theory, Dracula, Essays, Henry Irving

Horror of Draftula

Having watched two Yuletide episodes of Keeping Up Appearances – there may be more, I’m really not certain – I’m forced to concede that Christmas is upon me. This has been stonkingly pleasant on the whole. It’s meant a merry jaunt to London, to take in Will Seaward’s one-man extravaganza The Exotic Adventure of Michael the Christmas Pudding. I’ll be furious if the Seawardian monodrama doesn’t take off as a yearly tradition: it delivered a funniness intoxicating, paralysing and near-supernatural. I took advantage of the train ride to read The Cricket on the Hearth, Dickens’s third Christmas Book. This was so much better than The Haunted Man; I particularly enjoyed evil toymaker Mr Tackleton, likened to ‘the concentrated essence of so many ravens’. I’m now sat listening to ‘Fairytale of New York’ on a compulsive loop: shedding the odd tear, but mostly feeling very content. Christmas is a time of great happiness and sadness for me. I think of all the people I’ve lost, and then all the people I haven’t, and the effect is quite breathtaking. A Christmas Carol has summed it up best for me these past seven years, so it’s natural that I’m off to see Simon Callow performing it at the weekend. Busy, busy, busy, busy, busy!

My only nightmare before Christmas has been Dracula. I’m a little over halfway through my first draft, and hoping for a complete first draft before the twenty-fifth. It’s shriekingly awful at the moment, glutted with clunker lines, pompous neo-symbolic description (which reads like so much New Age hogwash) and turgid, non-dramatic situations. However! There seems to be promise in it. To complement my piece on Frankenstein – a post-text post – here are my developing thoughts on Dracula‘s developing text.

In the one-man play (as opposed to the one-man show), character is the principal, arguably the sole focus. Dracula is proving a desperately unlikeable character. Not because he’s a blood-sucking demon from hell, though. Dracula is unlikeable because he’s so bloody narcissistic. Not for nothing is ‘narcissist’ virtually synonymous with the word ‘vampire’ – a word, incidentally, that I’m fiercely reluctant to have Dracula use. I’ve been wrestling with this vision of a supremely narcissistic Dracula since almost the project’s inception. So I was recently very pleased to come across this passage in Dibble and Zayn’s Narcissistic Lovers (‘N’ stands, of course, for narcissist):

N’s have been compared to vampires. This analogy makes a lot of sense when breaking down the characteristics of the disorder. The vampire is considered to be damned and cursed with his fate, just as the N is cursed with his disorder. Neither the vampire nor the N willingly chose his fate. The vampire uses people as tools and sources of supply to continue his existence… his constant, futile search for deliverance. The N uses people as supply as well; he needs them to keep his ‘false self’ alive while he continues his futile search for ‘ideal’ love and deliverance of the disorder which enslaves him. The vampire cannot see his own image in a mirror and neither can the N. This is because the N has worked so hard to keep his real image hidden. He spent years trying to create and cultivate his ‘false’ self; he has pieced it together from bits of supply to which he was attracted. Therefore, when he glances into a mirror, he sees his supply staring back at him. He sees a cracked and plastered vision of several people, none of which are even remotely similar to the ‘vile and disgusting’ real self he has carefully hidden. Vampires are considered ‘soulless,’ doomed to roam the earth, snatching souls from innocent victims. Many people consider the N to be ‘soulless’ because he seems to have no conscience or pity for his victims. Victims of N’s often say they feel as if their soul has been raped or even robbed by the N. Like the vampire, the N seems to roam the earth acting as a victim of his own disorder, gathering supply, almost unwillingly as he searches for some sort of cure or deliverance. Destruction of the vampire comes about when he is exposed to light, and the N will cease to exist when his ‘true’ self is ‘brought to light.’

Two main points here accord with my own thinking. First is the idea of a creature without a soul. To my mind, Frankenstein is the story of a being who wins his soul, through suffering and trial. Dracula, meanwhile, is the story of a man whose soul has left the building. One moves for life, the other moves for death. And this is all the more interesting for springing from antithetical contexts. The Creature, stitched together from different people, is intensely bodily – yet lays claim to the spirit. Count Dracula is so much spirit that he dissolves into mist – yet is forever denied the ultimate spiritual consecration. Increasingly, I believe that our sensitivity to monstrosity stems from some fatal disconnection: an arrangement unexpected and therefore threatening. There is nothing obvious in a truly effective monster.

The second point that excites me is that of an ‘ideal’ love, perceived as antidote for the vampire curse. This seems to me the most convincing basis for Dracula’s attraction to Mina. She’s not unique, after all – Dracula’s three brides are ancient proof of that. And in Stoker’s novel, the entanglement is never perceived as romantic (except by the most tenuous extrapolation: Francis Ford Coppola, toiling in the wake of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, worked this angle to the hilt). But that doesn’t mean Dracula wouldn’t delude himself or the audience about the true nature of his feelings. When you’ve been about for 500+ years, God knows you need something to occupy you. More to the point, you need to create meaning for yourself, to keep vivid the illusion of a personal fulfilment. What meaning is possible for a creature deprived their soul is a tantalising open question.

One of the most potent expressions of narcissism I know is the song ‘Meadowlark’ (worth a listen). It’s the Act One finale in The Baker’s Wife, that criminally underrated Stephen Schwartz musical about learning – in the words of Friar Laurence – to ‘love moderately’. Moved by my idolatrous passion for Alun Armstrong, the first song I listened to was ‘If I Have to Live Alone’ (also worth a listen). Which is exquisitely painful, for being so earnestly delivered. I came to ‘Meadowlark’ later, and found it exquisitely painful in a different way. The song has returned to me often enough in the last year – the legacy of hurt and confusion in love – that it’s worth analysing now.

‘Meadowlark’ is an ambitious fragment of storytelling, spilled out by the heroine as she wrestles with leaving her kindly older husband for a sexy younger man. The tale of the meadowlark unfolds as a gloriously rich intoxication: a cloud of voluptuousness worthy of Sir Epicure Mammon. First, a warty old king calls on the meadowlark: a blind songbird with a voice of transcendent beauty. He offers her ‘fruit and nuts from an ivory chalice’, ‘a priceless jewel and cloth of brocade and crewel’ – along with the promise of love everlasting, should she only sing for him. The meadowlark consents. Later on, though, the god of the sun is so moved by the meadowlark’s song that he bestows on her the gift of sight. He then makes his conquest, promising ‘a feast of the plums and peaches, just as far as your vision reaches’ – if she’ll only fly with him. It’s all quite brilliant. There’s a simply gorgeous richness, a sense of luxurious adornment, to Schwartz’s lyrics. Schwartz may never rise to Sondheim’s intricate clockwork precision, but his lyrics here, as in the animated Hunchback, are gratifyingly generous and evocative.

The meadowlark declines the god’s advances, choosing instead to stay faithful to the king. Then comes a tragic sting worthy of Oscar Wilde’s fairy stories: the meadowlark dies of grief. Here is the heroine, Genevieve, as she pulls out of the narrative:

And now I stand here starry-eyed and stormy
Oh, just when I thought my heart was finally numb
A beautiful young man appears before me,
Singing ‘Come – oh, won’t you come?’
And what can I do if finally for the first time
The one I’m burning for returns the glow?
If love has come at last it’s picked the worst time
Still I know
I’ve got to go…

It’s remarkably powerful. Souls are being wounded here. Someone else has always to be hurt, as we home in on our emotional and romantic fulfillment – or at least what we perceive that fulfillment to be. For how many really achieve it? There’s a fantastic full-blooded eroticism in Schwartz’s lyrics (another quality indispensable to an effective Dracula): not only in ‘a beautiful young man appears before me’, but the description of ‘this beautiful young god so proud and strong’. Men in particular aren’t called beautiful often enough (who knows, there may be a shortage of beautiful men). It seems a cultural taboo. Yet at the same time, it’s a word that’s been dulled and made worthless by overuse. But it is the duty of any Dracula – good, bad or indifferent – to gender-bend for all he’s worth. It suggests sexuality perverted into an offensive weapon, and that’s certainly always been a notion that’s got under my skin. So perhaps language is a way to get at that. The word ‘beautiful’ was spoiled for me in childhood; only much later has it been redeemed. I think of Dickens’s inscription on the tombstone of his sister-in-law, who he loved far more deeply than his wife: ‘Young, beautiful and good.’ Need we carve such words into gravestones to reclaim them?

As I chip away at Dracula, I’ve found myself wondering if there are any likeable narcissists. Lord Henry Wotton, bitchy Mephisto of The Picture of Dorian Gray, is the only one that springs to mind. Lord Henry feeds on a very particular aspect of gay culture – still veiled at the fin de siècle, but nonetheless socially evident. It’s the sad fact that social attentions, at almost any gathering of gay men, are polarised by the most camp and bitchy and the most sexy and beautiful. Lord Henry is the former; Dorian Gray is the latter. (Poor Basil Hallward is left dithering somewhere in the middle.) But despite his resplendent narcissism, Lord Henry and Count Dracula are entirely different animals. Lord Henry shows that England secretly loves its homosexuals, provided it knows where to have them (it was inevitable that John Gielgud would play him). Dorian Gray is the dangerous one – because sexually unknowable, sexually threatening. Dracula must embody aspects of both. I am of course the world’s worst casting choice for a Dorian Gray, though not, I flatter myself, for the Nosferatu-style walking corpse of Stoker’s novel. And Hurd Hatfield’s frighteningly waxy performance in the 1945 film goes to show that Dorian need not be particularly sexy.

One reason that Lord Henry’s so likeable is because he’s a version of Oscar Wilde. Wilde himself made this clear in one of his letters: ‘Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be – in other ages, perhaps.’ Wilde has been instrumental to writing Dracula so far: an admirable man, though guilty of countless misdemeanours. Mainly bred of narcissism: his off-hand cruelty to his wife; his casual dismissal of lover after lover after lover. It’s the narcissistic conceit that others are only worthwhile as an aspect of the self. Hedonism was the order of the day, not the good of others, and this is why I struggle to acknowledge Wilde as a gay saint. I’m not questioning Wilde’s suffering. But he worked like hell in the dock to avoid owning up to his nature. And this after being hubristic enough to start the proceedings that entrapped him. Anyway. I’m purloining many a Wildean characteristic for Dracula. As first conceived, I wanted my Dracula to mimic the style of An Evening with Quentin Crisp, but it simply wasn’t dramatically free enough. (Crisp was every inch the gay saint that Wilde was not. And his books are just as witty.) I’m now listening to a semi-legal recording of Diversions and Delights, Vincent Price’s one-man show based on the life of Oscar Wilde. It’s wonderful, but it’s also little more than a cascade of epigrams, cunningly knitted together. (Which is still quite a lot, especially with Price’s overripe, trilling voice to bring them into being.) The audience roars throughout, but it seems a near-mechanical response to thoughts beautifully phrased. Nothing wrong with that, but I’ve always felt Wilde’s epigrams work best when you have time to reflect on them – and realise how true even the most flippant and scurrilous of them are. But the laughter itself suggests the instantaneous seductive power of the narcissist. Even Wilde’s greatest enemies fell in love with him.

It troubles me to write about narcissism, because theatre is an inherently narcissistic profession. At its finest, of course, it is narcissism redeemed. Narcissistic reflection is converted into an extrovert communication, inward-looking ranges suddenly outward. But no actor or production has ever reached this ideal with an absolute purity. Those that come closest are the ones worth celebrating.

In light of Frankenstein, I can say that the Creature is the one I identify with. Dracula is the one I fear.

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Dracula Research Project

Now that I’ve polished off my first reading of Dracula (I’ll no doubt be returning), the time has come to educate and re-educate myself in everything vampiric. The reading has been the most exciting thing so far. Little by little, I’m amassing any literature that might prove helpful. Here’s my current agenda:

The New Testament (Most particularly the Gospels. My lightweight Methodist upbringing means I feel as if I’ve read them already, but I know I haven’t. In many ways, Count Dracula is no more than Jesus Christ viewed in a Satanic glass. The uses and implications of blood symbolism should also prove interesting. To this end, I might look to a few mystery plays.)
The Vampyre (There was devilry in the summer of 1816. On the same night that Mary Shelley devised Frankenstein and Percy Shelley threw together some nonsense about a living skull, John Polidori concocted this early vampire tale. Stoker had Sir Henry Irving; so too did Polidori have Lord Byron to influence his charismatic male vamp.)
Carmilla (Vampire tale from Sheridan Le Fanu – a folklore-steeped Irishman, like Stoker himself. I’ve seen the delightfully twee lesbian vampire flicks to which it gave rise – good old Hammer! – so the original should be an eye-opener.)
Varney the Vampire (I’ve wanted to have a bash at this legendary penny dreadful since I devoured Sweeney Todd thriller-chiller The String of Pearls last year. In my edition, it runs to nearly a thousand pages of teeny-tiny type. Definitely one to tackle in pieces.)
The Jewel of Seven Stars (Stoker’s most famous novel after Dracula. This is principally because it initiated another monster icon: the living mummy. However, our modern conception of mummies has more to do with Universal Pictures than Bram Stoker. Predictably, the Hammer film that took Jewel as its source, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, is stiflingly dull. I hear the novel’s a bit of a let-down, but I’ll be reading it for completism.)
The Lady of the Shroud (More vampire shenanigans from Stoker. I know virtually nothing about this one, but it’s collected with my edition of White Worm, so I’ll give it a go. I hear there’s an aeroplane battle towards the end; Dracula meets King Kong?)
The Lair of the White Worm (Stoker’s last horror novel. Just finished this one. Some commendably horrid descriptions of maimed and putrified flesh; a good complement to Dracula‘s countless evocations of decay. It’s hard to dislike a novel with a house called ‘Doom Tower’ – or the line ‘I never thought this fighting an antediluvian monster would be such a complicated job’. We can all get behind that.)
Trilby (Published in 1894, Trilby was a sensation on the scale of The Pickwick Papers. Unlike Dracula, Trilby got its due in its day and has been fading ever since. The two aren’t so very different: a flamboyant black-clad foreigner hypnotises women and lures them into living death. Nina Auerbach has argued that Dracula was the template for the Opera Ghost; Svengali is definitely on the same continuum. I’m trying to lay hands on both the novel and play versions.)
I Am Legend (Richard Matheson’s vampire apocalypse survival thriller. I’ve seen the two important film versions – The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price and The Omega Man with Charlton Heston – and both were fairly uninspiring. But I hear the novel’s terrific. Matheson’s written screenplays for a few things I really love – such as House of Usher with Vincent Price – so I’m very excited!)
Anno Dracula (Kim Newman is a man whose work I have endless time for, so this is long overdue; Dracula reincarnated as consort to Queen Victoria. Newman is a classic horror obsessive, so he weaves in references to obscure filmic vampires such as Countess Zaleska, Dr Callistratus and Baron Meinster. I’m also told that Bill Sikes is in there.)
Hollywood Gothic (An old favourite: David Skal’s brilliant study of the Count’s rise as pop culture icon. Skal makes the connection between Oscar Wilde and Dracula in a manner that I find pleasing and persuasive.)
Resident Alien: The New York Diaries (I have a theory that Count Dracula and Quentin Crisp are the same person. Both seemed to live forever; both marked the end of their lives with a journey across the sea. I’ve read Crisp’s two earlier volumes of autobiography; Alien is the last.)
Bram Stoker and the Man Who Was Dracula (This seemed the most interesting of the various Stoker biographies. No doubt I’ll get round to a few others; no doubt a few are being ground out to mark the centenary of Stoker’s death. It’s been riveting so far. I’ve started to identify with this repressed, hero-worshipping, ardent-letter-writing six-footer to an unexpected degree.)
The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (Where better to learn about the decadent sexual practices of the 1890s? Homosexuality was only slightly less acceptable to the Victorian public than vampirism.)
The Book of Renfield (An alternate history of Dracula, focusing on the character of Renfield. There’s always a danger that this type of thing will lapse into glorified fan fiction – but I’ve heard very good things!)

I’m also taking this opportunity to renew my acquaintance with Dracula’s handsome filmography. My horror checklist informs me that I’ve already got a few versions of the story lying about:

Nosferatu – Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922; One of the most popular of all silent films. Also one of my absolute favourite films. My renewed acquaintance with the novel has shown me how brilliantly Nosferatu captures its spirit, most often by casting natural settings in the Expressionist mould: the countryside, the castle, the ship, the plague-stricken city. And the terror – the terror! It’s unbelievably frightening at times. If I’m to play Dracula, the anti-romantic Max Schreck will soon become my oracle.)
Dracula (1931; Creaky but imperishable warhorse. It’s no masterpiece, but there’s so much that’s delightful. Dwight Frye and Edward Van Sloan are often weirder than Dracula himself, theatrical to the point of effeminacy and rigor mortis; sins for which I’m always willing to forgive an actor. And I’ve been imitating Bela Lugosi’s hand contortions for roughly a decade now. Most importantly, Dracula established the look and feel of the great Universal horrors of the early 1930s. I saw this again last week, stirred into action by the hoo-ha surrounding Universal’s Blu-Ray restoration.)
Drácula (1931; Simultaneously produced Spanish version. Not dubbed, but filmed with different performers at night. It’s safe to say it’s better than the English version. It’s also rather more camp. The acting is somehow even more exuberant; the eye-poppingly gorgeous visuals smack of the pretty as much as the Gothic. Perhaps this is inevitable when you’re consciously seeking to outdo someone else’s work. I think the Spanish Drácula gets away with it, but only due to its precise historical timing. That said, the film’s restaging of the ship sequence provides one of the most terrifying moments in the Universal horror canon.)
Dracula (1958; Christopher Lee’s inaugural vampire outing. Also acknowledged as the seminal Hammer horror. Further to this reputation, I remember being disappointed the first time round; I preferred Hammer’s more cerebral The Curse of Frankenstein. But the Hammer Dracula has really grown on me since. As in the novel, Dracula rarely appears, instead hanging over the proceedings. When he’s back, it’s heart-in-the-throat action. And I challenge you to find a more exciting death for Dracula.)
Count Dracula (1977; I’ve never seen this one, but I’m looking forward to it. It’s BBC drama at the dawn of their undying Shakespeare series. This should guarantee textual fidelity, powerhouse character acting and exquisitely grainy location filming. Frank Finlay is Van Helsing; he plays a mean Jacob Marley and Witchsmeller Pursuivant, so this can only be a good thing.)
Dracula (1979; Frank Langella remake of the Lugosi classic. Many people come down hard on this one, possibly because it cuts the Transylvania scenes, but I rather like it: a genuinely scary Lucy (superfluously called Mina in this one), Donald Pleasence as Seward and a John Williams musical score. That said, Laurence Olivier is at his most absurd; Pleasence outshines him without effort. It’s probably the most faithful rendition of Stoker’s caricatured ‘ain’t these foreigners queer!’ Van Helsing, but there are good reasons it’s never played that way.)
Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979; Arthouse Werner Herzog remake. Without doubt, the most atmospheric film I’ve ever seen. From the first prowl through a mummy-strewn tomb to the Wagnerian finale, it’s as unearthly an experience as I’ve ever had with a film. The Popul Vuh soundtrack is unforgettable. As the Count, Klaus Kinski exudes the character’s essential melancholy with a near-apocalyptic intensity; I can think only of Smike’s cries of ‘no hope!’ in Nicholas Nickleby. Probably the best version of Dracula since the original Nosferatu.)
Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979; Essentially the same film, but with the actors speaking English in alternate takes. They handle it pretty well.)
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992; Bloated Ford Coppola masturbatory exercise. Gary Oldman is unimpressive, Winona Ryder is pallid. Keanu Reeves deserves execution. The colours are an argument for black-and-white. But the Kilar music is so very excellent… I’ll be giving it another spin. If you have the choice, go for the companion piece Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: more daft, less offensive.)

Film-wise, this is only the tip of the vampire’s tooth. From 1936 to 1948, Universal knocked out a ton of sequels – Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein – most of which were more interesting than the leaden original. Hammer was even more frivolous in its Dracula output. With the exception of The Brides of Dracula of 1960 (the best of the lot) and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires of 1974 (the last – and worst), all of them starred Christopher Lee: Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (my first Hammer film!), Taste the Blood of Dracula, Scars of Dracula, Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula. For whatever reason, I’ve never got round to Satanic Rites. And, like Stoker’s novel, it’s set in the present day. There may be lessons. There will definitely be Peter Cushing.

There’s also a ton of non-Dracula vampire films that are nonetheless deeply interesting. Titles that spring to mind include the highly atmospheric Vampyr (1932) and The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967); Hollywood horrors Mark of the Vampire (1935), Return of the Vampire (1943) and Isle of the Dead (1945); and some of Hammer’s non-Dracula vampire outings, such as Kiss of the Vampire and the Karnstein trilogy (the afore-mentioned twee lesbian vampire romps). There are some things I’ve never seen. I’ve got wind of a television version of Dracula starring actor-god Denholm Elliott, so that’s obviously a must. (Filmed for the same series, Tales of Mystery and Imagination, was a version of Frankenstein – with Ian Holm as both creator and created!) Christopher Lee never passes up the chance to talk about how faithful (if compromised) a version of the novel Franco’s El Conde Drácula (1970) was, so I’m excited for that also.

And yes, I might even watch Twilight again. I’m firmly of the opinion that the best way to produce something respectable is often to expose yourself to that which you dislike. It’s often been that way with acting, at least. The future’s bright! The future’s bloody! And it’s absolutely covered in Dracula! If I’m not desecrating graves and summoning wolves by year’s end, then something has gone desperately wrong.

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Draculean Derring-Do

I’ve just finished reading Dracula, which means I’m well placed to gather my thoughts on the subject. I’ll save up some Dungeon stories for next time; given the nature of this post, it’s a shame that their legendary Vampires show is long-defunct.

In relation to the other great monster novels, Dracula ranks somewhere near the middle. It rarely ascends to the transcendent, spiritual heights of Frankenstein and The Picture of Dorian Gray – each crying for a God who never arrives, begging huge questions that go unanswered. But then, Dracula also discards the tedious mystery trappings that plague Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Phantom of the Opera (‘mysteries’ to which a modern reader inevitably knows the answer). Dracula shares their epistolary form, but the point is never to verify the Count’s existence so much as stitch it together. Thus, the impression is that of a conventional group of people, engulfed by a presence on the very fringes of their understanding. I would argue that this is the novel’s greatest achievement. Dracula himself almost never appears, but his presence throughout is oppressive to the point of claustrophobia.

In other ways, Dracula does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s the most straightforwardly horrific novel I’ve encountered since working through Monk Lewis’s repertoire last summer. The expected stakes are hammered home – and with such ferocity that the victims tear their own lips to a bloody foam. Infants meet ends appalling enough to rival Stephen King’s It. Early on, Dracula feeds a baby in a bag to his vampire brides; later, numerous children are attacked by the nightmarish ‘bloofer lady’ in a London park. The links to be drawn between paedophilia and vampirism are interesting. I think it’s worth noting that Dracula himself doesn’t prey on children – only women he’s converted to the undead. Perhaps the gender delegation takes the edge off; precisely why warrants examination. Stoker is at his most brilliant when evoking an atmosphere of decay. Dust-strewn cobwebs and crumbling masonry converge with impenetrable darkness in such massy, cluttered detail that Gothic landscapes become sublime. Smell is one of the more poorly represented senses in literature. But Stoker is in his element here; rarely have I recoiled from a novel as when imagining the halo of rot and decay surrounding the Count. And, very often, an unsettling detail will simply linger. For example, a modest shaving bowl sits on the dining-room table in Dracula’s Piccadilly residence. The water has a reddish tinge.

Dracula also boasts enough that’s unexpected, quirky and downright weird to keep the interest of the most jaded horror fan. It’s hard to forget the passage where Dracula’s brides appear as ghosts in the Transylvanian skies – or reappear, in a torrential snow storm, to Mina and Van Helsing. The close association of vampires and ghosts is too often lost – the natural consequence, I suppose, for a monster whose dining habits are unabashedly corporeal. I found myself reflecting on the deaths of the vampires in Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932). In the former, Count Orlok suffers exposure to the rising sun, fading through the smoothness of a lap dissolve and dwindling into ashes on the carpet. In the latter, the staking of the old hag is spectral rather than visceral, her skeleton gleaming through her flesh before finally replacing it. Stoker keeps up the ambiguous relation of the bodily and the ghostly – not least in the near-absurd range of limitations to Dracula’s supernatural powers, from running water to the felicitous need for an invitation before entering a property. J.K. Rowling has stated that one of the greatest challenges of the Harry Potter series was to show that magic had its boundaries; Stoker admirably tackles the same problem in Dracula. That conflict between the extremes of limitation and power becomes one of the character’s most interesting qualities. Another memorable detail comes when a wounded Dracula sheds coins rather than blood. (Colonial subtext, maybe? The filthy foreigner who literally sucks the country dry?) Most tantalising of all are Stoker’s allusions to Dracula’s past as alchemist and warlord. For the purposes of a one-hour monologue, these hints of what Dracula got up to in his other four hundred and ninety-nine years are invaluable.

Especially appealing to me is that Dracula is also a novel about basic human goodness. I think this is often taken as ‘PATRIARCHY!’ and ‘MISOGYNY!’ by those stupid enough to believe the Victorian age (and only just, at 1897) embodied nothing else. (That the period’s named after a celebrated Queen is the sledgehammer blow to that line of thought.) Mina is not limited by her kindness and softness. It is what empowers her beyond her male protectors; it is certainly what puts her in a position to thwart Dracula. The numerous scenes of the hardened vampire hunters weeping over some little bravery or sacrifice from Mina might be too Little Nell for some. I personally find them very affecting. As with Dickens’s sentimental moments – the ending of The Pickwick Papers, the fates of Nancy in Oliver Twist and Smike in Nicholas Nickleby – they’re seen through with such good-hearted sincerity that I can’t help but go with them. What little sympathy is evoked for the Count also comes from Mina. It’s nothing like the wanky adolescent fantasies of Francis Ford Coppola or the Twilight franchise. Stoker’s evocation of sympathy is much closer to Christopher Lee’s treatment of the character: a fleeting insight into the terrible loneliness of evil. In many an interview Lee’s repeated much the same thing (possibly to legitimise his lengthy horror resume): ‘with all these characters, I always look for one particular element that runs through them all, and that is a kind of sadness’. In adapting Dracula for the stage, I want to experiment with how to get at such sympathy. It should be challenging. For Dracula must remain what he always has: a blood-sucking demon from hell. The best devils, like Milton’s Satan, are charismatic and seductive and endlessly persuasive in converting you to their own point of view. And, as with Hitler, you don’t even realize you’ve being converted – until you step back and marvel at the intricate frame of frighteningly logical evil. This seems to me the way to go.

So: well done, Bram Stoker! A sizzler, all in all. I’d encourage everyone to give Dracula their time. 2012 is the centenary of Stoker’s death, so it’s a more historically apposite time than most.

The next stage is to educate and re-educate myself in all things Dracula. In one sense, I’ve been preparing for this for a lifetime – and quite without realising! The reading is going to be thrilling. But then, what’s the dread Count without a monster movie marathon…?

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