Category Archives: Essays

Devil Music

I’m ever more convinced that the villain song is the modern equivalent of Victorian melodrama: that wonderful tradition of plays that set a dazzlingly charismatic evil-doer at centre stage. The villain song accomplishes this, if only for a few minutes. A villain song is a set number in a musical (or movie musical) where the villain explains and justifies their wickedness, or puts some wicked scheme into practice, or simply gloats over the joys of being wicked. The opening soliloquy in Richard III – ‘I am determined to prove a villain’ – accomplishes all of the above; were it set to music, it would prove the most comprehensive of villain songs.

But that does little to explain the unexpected complexities that turn up. ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ from, er, The Phantom of the Opera disperses its villain’s aura across an overture, umpteen orchestral reprises, a twisted love duet, and the hysterical cries of chorus girls. The result is, to put it mildly, distancing. In like fashion, villainy is transferred to the crowd for ‘The Mob Song’ in Beauty and the Beast and ‘Savages’ in Pocahontas. As echoes both of James Whale’s Frankenstein, this transference makes sense: angry villagers are the real villains, not the so-called Monster. And a song such as ‘Die unstillbare Gier’ from Tanz der Vampire builds sympathy for the villain out of all proportion to the story’s alleged goodies, completing the monster’s conversion to tragic hero.

Trouble with the Fireplace

‘Hellfire’ from The Hunchback of Notre Dame is also atypical. Judge Claude Frollo is certain that he is ‘a righteous man’, and his song is angst-ridden wail rather than moustache-twirling villainy. Yet I’ve never really doubted that ‘Hellfire’ is the greatest of all villain songs. It stills floods me with deranged elation. I can’t conceive of a time before ‘Hellfire’ entered my brain; like most of the highlights of childhood (or a Lovecraftian Elder God), it feels as though it always existed.

I can try to deconstruct ‘Hellfire’, but it’s a very tall order. So many elements make it ignite. At the centre, there’s the acting: the Shakespearean villainy of Tony Jay. In my estimation, Jay possessed the greatest voice of all time: a tight-coiled spring, crackling with dark, sepulchral majesty. It’s about the only voice that could make ‘the common, vulgar, weak, licentious crowd’ ring true (Frollo surely has the most literate vocabulary of any Disney villain: ‘Why invite their calumny and consternation?’ is another favourite). That Alan Menken raised the pitch of ‘Hellfire’ to make it a slight strain on Jay’s voice may account for the performance’s tattered emotion.

It’s vindicating to know that Frollo was Tony Jay’s salvation from a lifetime of junky (if fun) roles in Western animation. As he said at the time: ‘It’s my bid for immortality.’ Jay also had some outspoken views on the Hunchback, as this rare interview makes clear:

It’s a marvellous movie, you know … Disney pushed the envelope there, in an evolutionary sense. They took it a little farther than they normally do, and a lot of people stayed away because of that. There were things they couldn’t understand, but it wouldn’t maim them for life … It only made $102 million. By Disney standards, that is disappointing. It was not as much as Pocahontas made, but it was ten times the film Pocahontas was.

Jay’s voice completes the remarkable character design of Frollo, derived in part from the formalised paintings of van Eyck: the incredibly complex head (Frollo has to be the hardest Disney character to draw; his face has the emaciated complication of Peter Cushing circa Twins of Evil), the black-and-purple robes ever-swirling (a classic Disney colour combination, imported from Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty), the spindly legs. It’s wonderful, perfect. All credit to supervising animator Kathy Zielinski, a more powerful actor than the vast majority of actors. I can hang up my performing shoes in peace once I’ve achieved anything as incendiary as Frollo.

She Will Burn

On top of that, there’s the sound design. The roaring fire and the howling winds; the Latin chanting; the full-blooded organ-heavy orchestrations. And the art direction is glorious. We are privy to nightmare figures: a disarmingly sensual Esmeralda (reanimated by a worried studio, to make clear she’s wearing at least some clothing), a choir of red-robed monks. It’s also profoundly disorienting, with stone walls shifting – in seemingly every other shot – into a cycloramic expressionist void. The climax of the song is especially powerful. What’s casting these trailing shadows? The red-robed monks again? Knight paladins? Crusaders? Figures plucked from burial tombs – or Notre Dame herself? It’s never explained (how could it be?), and more unsettling for it. There are select moments where Disney enters onto the sublime – tracts in Fantasia, the evocation of St Paul’s in Mary Poppins – and this is certainly one of them.

God Have Mercy

There are so many other gems in ‘Hellfire’. There’s fact that the Latin comes from the Confiteor (the ‘mea culpa’ refrain also opens Judge Turpin’s ‘Johanna’ in Sweeney Todd, a likely source for ‘Hellfire’). There’s the way the song’s full perversity only insinuates itself when children turn adult, having lost their primary innocence, and entered, in a sense, into the Frollo way of life. But most thrilling of all? The fact that ‘Hellfire’ is a minor-key reprise of the Hunchback‘s title song, ‘The Bells of Notre Dame’. For me, that locates it at the dark heart of the melodrama. For all of its wisecracking gargoyles – an ill-conceived effort to wrest stone monsters into inoffensive play – it’s the purely Gothic that dwells at the film’s core.

I remain adamant that The Hunchback of Notre Dame was the last glorious laugh of the Disney Renaissance. The next year’s Hercules is tremendous fun, but a few steps down in my reckoning. I think largely because it no longer takes its villain seriously (or provides him a song, a trend that continued in Mulan and Tarzan). A good melodrama needs something to pull against.

Really, it needs the Devil.

It strikes me that ‘Hellfire’ has an exalted precedent – in the Brocken scene of Henry Irving’s 1885 Faust. The Brocken scene was a shameless and spectacular reimagining of the Witches’ Sabbath found in Goethe’s original Faust (Irving’s play was the work of Lyceum stalwart W.G. Wills). The scale was breath-taking, reckless, prodigal: the Brocken’s inaugural stagings boasted up to 500 supernumeraries clad as goblins, imps, witches, sprites, and associated nasties. As Michael Booth wrote in his Victorian Spectacular Theatre: ‘The Brocken scene was one of the grand spectacles of nineteenth-century theatre, and probably the most extraordinary scene of its kind ever performed on the English stage.’


There are numerous echoes of the Brocken in ‘Hellfire’. There’s the use of infernal choirs and music (Faust had a pit orchestra of between 35 and 37 – less theatre than grand opera); the vision of a maiden through the chaos (Ellen Terry’s Margaret); most importantly, the all-pervading fire, produced by a rain of gold tinsel, sparks of electricity and red-tinted gaslight. And then there’s the dominating figure at the centre: in this case, Irving’s red-clad Mephistopheles, who controls and manipulates the fire. The best compliment I can pay ‘Hellfire’ is that Sir Henry would have approved of it. And possibly even have thought it indecent. Incidentally, Irving would have made a fascinating Frollo. His most renowned performances (particularly Mathias in The Bells) were centred on a soul-destroying guilt. One of Irving’s greatest roles was as Louis XI, who Victor Hugo makes into a comically black villain in Notre Dame de Paris.

There’s a long-standing nonsense put about that W. G. Wills’ version of Faust was astonishingly bad. I took it upon myself to read it in the British Library and it’s a good deal better than its detractors give it credit for. Its verse is rough-hewn, yes, but always robust, pitched somewhere between John Webster and Dr Seuss. In the Brocken scene, Wills’ raucous verse aspires to music:

What a crowding, pushing, squealing!
What a roaring, grinning, screaming!
Whirl! leap and chatter! shine and spirt!
Give us the true witch element!

Wills also seems to gather inspiration from his contemporary, W. S. Gilbert – whose ghost-suffused Ruddigore might be another contribution to this Witches’ Sabbath on stage. Faust may not be high art, but it is very far from bad – and (returning to ‘Hellfire’) I think that Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics are often underrated in this respect. As with any good lyric, the words are completed by the music – and, more than that, the event. It’s as Irving’s Mephistopheles closed the Brocken: ‘Now music wild, hellish, infernal, and then mad!’

The theological origins of the Witches’ Sabbath are fairly murky. The Sabbath creeps into fiction with the likes of Lewis’s The Monk and Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, in which dubious Catholic officials persecute their ‘witches’ in the dungeons of the Inquisition (not so far removed from Frollo’s treatment of Esmeralda). The Sabbath found a still-unrivalled realistic depiction in the silent cinema, with a vivid sequence in Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 Haxan. It’s a film that demands to be seen, matching (and exceeding) The Exorcist in giving a sense of real evil forces. In a curious twist, it was Disney itself that created the twentieth century’s most enduring Witches’ Sabbath, via the ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ sequence in Fantasia. Here, again, are the elements that make ‘Hellfire’ so bewitching: pervasive flame, undefinable demons, and a glorious musical accompaniment. It’s also, ironically, a villain song without words. The dreadful fellow looming from the mountaintop, Chernabog, speaks nary a word, yet remains the studio’s purest evocation of evil. The dark side of Disney should (and possibly does) have a book devoted to it. It’s the aspect of their imagination that’s stayed with me.

These elements fall into yet sharper focus in later villain songs, in which witchcraft becomes explicit. Take, for example, ‘In the Dark of the Night’ from Don Bluth’s Anastasia – the honorary Disney villain song (from the film everyone assumes was made by Disney). Anastasia is a campy and diverting mess of a movie, worlds removed from Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH: punch-drunk Broadway spectacle rather than considered chamber piece. Its villain might be its most successful aspect. Rasputin is an interesting proposition: a decaying litch (‘a corpse falling to bits!’) in a children’s film. And this a good few years before Voldemort started growing his body back. Happily, Rasputin ensures that voiceover king Jim Cummings gets his day in the sun; he’s the actor who filled in (uncredited) for Jeremy Irons in the last verse of ‘Be Prepared’ in The Lion King. Then there’s ‘Friends on the Other Side’ from Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, sung by ‘Shadow Man’ sorcerer Dr Facilier. It’s something of a masterpiece, particularly come the frenzied climax, suffused in ghost-train pinks and greens. The music blooms into a variation on Raymond Scott’s ‘Powerhouse’ – the insistent ‘bohm-bohm-bohm-bohm’ from the Voodoo masks seems a direct channeling – helped along immeasurably by Keith David’s vocal pyrotechnics, alternately cavernous and oozing.

It’s interesting too that most villain songs find a way to get the Devil in. We need look no further than the offbeat selections of the second paragraph. ‘Die unstillbare Gier’ turns positively Miltonic with the line: ‘I want to be an Angel or the Devil himself…’ ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ doesn’t mention the Devil – but the Phantom casts himself in that mould later on: ‘this loathsome gargoyle / Who burns in hell…’ (quite a falling-off from the Angel of Music). The imagery of ‘The Mob Song’ derives from the baby-eating antics of the Witches’ Sabbath: ‘Set to sacrifice our children to his monstrous appetite’ wouldn’t look out of place on a Haxan intertitle. Meanwhile, ‘Savages’ hits satanic saturation point: ‘their skins are hellish red’, ‘dirty shrieking devils’, ‘the paleface is a demon’ and (most bombastic of all) ‘Demon! Devil! Kill them!’

More Trouble with the Fireplace

‘Hellfire’ is a particularly strong villain song in light of the above. It converts Frollo into a surrogate wizard – like a Rasputin or a Dr Facilier, he manipulates the forces of darkness even as they engulf him. The idea that the self-deluding Frollo is in unconscious league with the Devil is compelling in light of Victor Hugo’s novel, in which the citizens of Paris suspect Frollo of sorcery: ‘From the cloister, his reputation as a learned man had passed to the people, among whom it had changed a little, a frequent occurrence at that time, into reputation as a sorcerer.’ Although Disney – toiling as they do in religion-happy America – chose to downgrade Frollo’s official standing from archdeacon to justice (the same change that shaped the 1939 film), there remains that confrontation with religion. Not with the church institution, as such, but the underlying idea of religion – it’s the very notion of good that comes under siege.

Perhaps the true greatness of the villain song is in troubling the divisions between good and evil. In ‘Hellfire’, religion and devilry play out in symbiosis – yes, the Devil may attack the Church; but then, the Church might create a Devil and deploy it as a weapon. It’s these shifting relations that make this Devil Music so thrilling to listen to. One of the finest lines in ‘Hellfire’ goes: ‘He made the Devil so much stronger than a man…’ But thanks to the infernal mechanics of the villain song, this remains a debateable proposition.

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Filed under Essays, Film, Henry Irving

The Curse of Ham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Acting Theory, Essays, Personal Excavation

Neo-Gothic Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Furniss - Louis XI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irving - Cardinal Wolsey

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

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

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

What Halloween Is, As I Grow Older

I don’t much enjoy Halloween. It’s that one day of the year when I feel less special than everybody else; my life-long, questing obsession demoted to candy-filching and drunken carousing. In the words of Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira: ‘My whole life has been a Halloween party!’ – but an idealised Halloween party, devoid of candies and alcohol, which resides only in my imagination. The title is an obvious swipe from Dickens’ phenomenal Christmas essay, but there’s also a deeper link. I’ve taken a moment to reflect on the interconnectedness of all things Halloween in my development (a continuing process, I hope). What became clear is that the Halloweenian been life-shaping in a way that’s increasingly, perhaps completely, unmeasurable. Deciding what to leave out of this rollicking account was by far the most difficult task. It’s an imaginative playground that continues to give and give and give.

Champaigne - Still Life with a Skull

It all started with a skull. Specifically, two skull masks, brought into the house on one of my first Halloweens. They live on in my wardrobe, but I don’t need to get them out. I recollect their squat, flattish faces, with heavy black encircling their empty eyes, triangle noses and individual gritted teeth. That these first skulls were masks is itself significant. My macabre obsession would soon develop into covering up myself in order to release something – and looking for the monster just beneath the skin (the skull is that monster distilled). Skulls and skeletons soon became a habit. I collected innumerable plastic and metal effigies of skulls, like a native chieftain accumulating shrunken heads: from key-rings to fish-tank ornaments to Mighty Max figurines. I had earlier been obsessed with wheels – wheels of all kinds – and a skull shares that pleasing regularity and symmetry. There is an architectural flair to a good skull, bordering on art deco: I remember fixating on two skulls in a stage production of The Wizard of Oz, where they topped the banisters in the Witch’s Castle. This early theatrical rumbling, characteristically shallow, suggested that my dramatic instincts would run towards anything other than Hamlet.

Our old television set jolts into life, and the magnetic delights of VHS. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had a fair few skulls, spread about the Wicked Queen’s dungeons and alchemical laboratory. In over a decade of investigating screen horror, nothing has quite recaptured this early thrill. Walt Disney did good service in the skull trade. The Horned King in The Black Cauldron bore an unmistakable skull visage, dressed up with brown hood, green flesh and demonic red eyes – all of which were to be ripped away in the finale. There were also some skull-headed wraiths in Fantasia‘s ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ – as perfect a visualisation of All Hallow’s Eve as I can imagine. The Nightmare Before Christmas disappointed somewhat, subordinating the beauty of a natural skull to Jack Skellington’s golf-ball cranium.

It was Disney that carried my macabre inclinations from the sepulchre to the theatre. There is a radiant, demonic flamboyance in the best animation, offering up a theatre of perfectly choreographed voice and movement. This was exemplified by two particular black-clad villains, their garments rimed in rich purple: Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty and Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The latter was particularly shaping: how I thrilled to the Shakespearean villainy of Tony Jay. I was intoxicated, out of my brain on the grand, gothic atmosphere of these unexpectedly macabre spectacles. It was inevitable that I would try to become these characters. I have a photo of myself wrapped up in my blanket, trying to replicate the cowl of the Old Witch in Snow White. There was also a Sing-Along Songs tape – ‘Disneyland Fun’ – with one spot in particular watched over and over again. The visual accompaniment to ‘Grim Grinning Ghosts’ offered unfairly tantalising glimpses into Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion…

I had to wait many years before riding The Haunted Mansion in person. But the images of that tape are still vivid with me: a floating candleabrum; a woman’s head in a crystal ball; skeleton hands prising open a coffin; swaying ghosts on a chandelier and waltzing ghosts in a ballroom; a top-hatted organist, every pipe of his organ releasing a hooded wraith. The dark ride was the ultimate frame for my over-stimulated young imagination. They offered sights, sounds and smells – oh, the glorious chemical smell of these places! – that were wonderfully transporting. It was in summer trips to Blackpool Pleasure Beach that this passion was given full rein. Their multi-storey, high-rise Ghost Train was topped by a gigantic skeleton, picking off a stray cart like an emaciated King Kong. Painted in glaring, laser-like fluorescence within were related delights: a skull that detached itself from its skeleton, to zoom suddenly in on the rider; a grim reaper in a ramshackle graveyard; and crowningly, unforgettably, a rag-tag shower of skeletons on bikes.

The Pleasure Beach had too The Haunted Hotel, with a wide range of beasties peeping out through the net curtains on the ground floor. By the time I visited, it had been rechristened Trauma Towers. I still thrill to that attraction’s exquisite danger – the sort that exists only in certain sorts of theme park, here exemplified by guests walking over planks suspended over shallow pools of water. Also at the Pleasure Beach was The Haunted Swing, a tame but hypnotic old library that rotated round about the captive spectator. Scarborough’s Terror Towers was an altogether darker challenge (a non-stop assault of horror movie characters), but it left me with much to talk and think about – and burned ‘Funeral March of a Marionette’ on my brain for years before I knew the piece’s name. I wound up by creating dark attractions for myself in the house. A lamp behind a curtain, flicked on and off to simulate lightning. Some fishing-wire to move small objects around; the same applied to a rocking chair. The acquisition of an ultraviolet lamp was a special glory. I could make things glow in the dark.

It was inevitable that I’d develop an interest in ‘real’ ghosts. I collected a pile of books on the paranormal, which still reside on my bookcase, forming a neat enclave at the bottom. But then (as now), I struggle to really engage. My greatest fascination was always for ghost photos – an attempt, always, to pin down and scrutinise that which is inscrutable. There was a difficulty, however: the more palpable the account, the more incredible the ghosts – and the less believable. And so the less and less I believed. If I was to cram my life with ghosts, they had to be ghosts which delivered. It was no surprise that I turned to the film section in the Osborne Book of the Haunted World, the ghostly giving way to palpable monstrosity. No need to yank it off the shelf: I see the pictures in my mind again. There stands Boris Karloff, prostrate in a dungeon doorway in Frankenstein; there leers Bela Lugosi, in the exquisitely lit person of Count Dracula in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein; and there looms Christopher Lee, dribbling blood over Melissa Stribling in the original Hammer Dracula.

My journey proper into the classic horror film began, of course, with the skull: Lon Chaney in and as The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux’s pitiable living skeleton. My first viewing did not frighten me. But it moved me, painfully. My path was more clearly defined now. I would go towards the soul of the monster; the skull beneath the skin. Yet I moved straight from the soul to the wholly soulless: my second excursion into classic horror was Max Schreck’s Count Orlok in Nosferatu. Paradoxically, I delight in these surface trappings – to a degree that borders on camp – even as I try to penetrate beneath them. And then came the Universal Horrors: Lugosi as Count Dracula, Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster. And from there to Christopher Lee’s vampire, first glimpsed in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave; the Book of the Haunted World avenged.

So many images come back to me from the classic horror universe; seductive surfaces all. I see Henry Hull’s demonic, underlit visage in Werewolf of London. I see the picket fence and the silhouetted house of The Night of the Hunter; I see the Castle Borski in The Gorgon, a swirl of autumn leaves and crepuscular blue highlights. I see Boris Karloff in The Black Cat, communing with the elements on a windswept Carpathian mountaintop. I see Peter Cushing descend from Byronic arrogance to doddering insanity, in the sombre sixteen-year fade between The Curse of Frankenstein and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. I see a bleached Vincent Price in House of Usher, impeccably decked in scarlet frock-coat. Proud at the centre of this imaginative universe is still the Opera Ghost. Whether he appears to me as Lon Chaney, Claude Rains or Herbert Lom – in that theatrical Olympus of the Paris Opera House, he has stayed with me. I truly believe it was the Phantom who brought me to regard theatre as a feast for the emotions. Promoting me, in spirit at least, from melodrama to drama.

A little while later, I was to become the monster, and enter into my employ at The York Dungeon. I was now in the company of skulls and skeletons that looked remarkably real: hanging from castle walls, devouring giblets in a plague-ravaged house, propped up on a desk in the condemned cell. And each morning, I would make a skull of my own face, in kabuki-like black and white. A theatre squalid rather than grand (more often than not, my skull-visage had sweated away by day’s end), except in my heart. And except in those glorious moments when it really, really worked; when contact between actor and audience was at its strongest. It’s a poignant delight to deliver on the old dressing-up games. To know that, post-university, I’m still at it. ‘Squalid’, to me, has remained the ultimate theatrical endorsement: that which is mired in melodrama and music-hall and Punch and Judy rather than state subsidies and social propriety. The best of theatre is mired also in Halloween: David Leonard’s fairytale villains in the York Theatre Royal panto taught me this secret at a very young age. The Dungeon surely sowed the seeds for The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Sikes & Nancy, both singularly macabre entertainments. One-man entertainments, as well – perhaps pointing the way to a lonely future in the horror trade.

Yes, my Halloweens have been felled by disappointments – mostly those inseparable from growing up and growing out. But that’s been corrected this year, all over again, in being back at the Dungeon. The York Dungeon, like Scarborough’s ancient Terror Tower, has ‘This is Halloween’ blaring away at the entrance, betokening the pumpkin-strewn revelry within. I can think of no warmer welcome. Halloween signifies much for me, but it has yet to signify death. It is always vivid new life.

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Filed under Essays, Experiences, Film, Personal Excavation, 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

Reviewing the Reviewer

I’ll begin with an obvious truth: I am remarkably thin-skinned. I get very hurt at nasty comments, of which I’ve had my fair share over the years. Where reviews are concerned, I do seem to make a habit of rubbing my nose in the dirt. And taking to heart what I find there. Yes, I’m hyper-sensitive – yes, I’m desperately insecure. But then, I’m only twenty-two, I’ve been acting professionally for less than a year, and I’m still trying to find my niche – not just in theatre, but life at large. The last time I wrote on theatre criticism, it was in a purposefully idealistic light, stressing the need for a collective ambition. On this occasion, though, I want to be more personal. How do I, as an actor, take and respond to criticism?

Respond! How critics scoff at the proposal! The standard reply being that ‘AN ACTOR WHO RESPONDS TO CRITICS IS NOT BEHAVING LIKE A PROFESSIONAL!’ This strikes me as nonsense: the knee-jerk defence of those who are too frightened to bob out of the shadows and risk exposure to criticism themselves. I don’t believe that actors should keep quiet out of fear. Least of all the fear that they’ll be punished in some nebulous future review.

Not that I’m suggesting that actors deserve nothing but empty-headed praise. It’s hard to disagree with Nicholas de Jongh’s observation that ‘actors get more praise in ten minutes than most people get in a lifetime’. But it’s harder still to disagree with de Jongh’s reflection that ‘theatre criticism is an evasion of life, a living of life elsewhere’. It follows that many critics despise confrontation. ‘WELL, YOU SHOULD BE MORE THICK-SKINNED!’ is the standard defence. That people who profess to know about theatre can’t make the alarmingly obvious correlation between someone who’s involved in theatre and someone who’s engaged with their emotions is, to put it mildly, worrying.

However, I don’t want to speak from a position of lofty superiority. In the interests of a full disclosure, here’s a far-reaching selection of negative comments about me and my acting. To mix things up a bit, they’re from critics and directors both:

… Occasionally runs the risk of slipping into caricature.

A lack of self-discipline in Swanton’s performance…

… Enough ham to make the production neither kosher nor halal.

Nobody has ever been that mental.

Stop overselling the character!

Throw off all the mannerisms!

… Indulges in facial acrobatics and extreme gurning that is initially amusing but soon becomes irritating.

There is an indulgent and overdone approach to a whole parade of unfunny and unnecessarily twisted gargoyles … the ever-manic James Swanton as Coupler [is] particularly guilty here.

… An absurd, gurning (and, as the front row of the audience can testify) spitting grotesque.

And my favourite (accidentally sent to me in an email by a disingenuously apologetic reviewer):

He was crap, that’s the problem.

There are a few words around which these comments pivot, with boring predictability: caricature, indulgence, ham, gurning, gargoyle, grotesque, guilt (lots of g-words). ‘Oh, here we go again…’ I find myself thinking. I can usually compose my reviews in my head. I sometimes wonder if I’m the ‘wasp cake’ of various different productions: unfailingly drawing attention to myself – for better or for worse – and opening myself up to every kind of attack. How smug I must seem; how full of myself.

This brings me to my major point. A critical attack, everyone seems to agree, is based on something you’ve done – never what you are.

Personally, though, I don’t ever see the difference.

In my case, I don’t think there is a difference.

Whenever I’ve been criticised, it’s been for some form of overacting (a difficult word, but we’ll go with it for now). That much should be clear from the quotations above. ‘WELL!’ the critic might well sniff, ‘IF WE KEEP TELLING YOU NOT TO DO SOMETHING, THEN YOU SHOULD LISTEN FOR A CHANGE! NOT GO ON REPEATING YOUR MISTAKES!’ Yet whenever I’ve been praised, it’s been for exactly the same thing. When I look back on the positive reviews I’ve received (and there are some), they’re pretty well all commendations for going too far, for doing too much, for pushing myself and the play beyond a place of safety and attempting something more heightened. I suppose I’ve been applying Boris Karloff’s mantra on cinema to the theatre for quite some time:

The secret of success in Hollywood lies in being different from anyone else. Find something no one else can or will do – and they’ll begin to take notice of you. Hollywood is full of competent actors. What the screen needs is individuality!

Let’s return to those words flagged up earlier. One critic thought my Friar Laurence ‘risky’ because caricatured; another considered it a ‘marvellous caricature’. Yet another critic praised Scrooge & Marley for allowing me ‘to deliver a goody bag packed with caricatured delights’. ‘Grotesque’ seems to be the word with the most positive capital (it’s certainly a word I’ve pondered at length elsewhere). My Quasimodo is ‘positively stunning in his grotesqueness’ whilst the ‘grotesque contortion’ of my Coupler (lambasted above) is elsewhere acclaimed as ‘flawless acting’ (the sort of egregious hyperbole which actors apparently dream about). For Love’s Labour’s Lost we have ‘James Swanton makes a wonderfully grotesque Katherine’. The latter review consolidates this general critical schizophrenia, in locating the positive flip-side of even ‘indulgence’ (still the word I think most abused in theatre criticism): ‘It’s over-the-top and self-indulgent but the audience loved it’.

You can begin to see why I find critical assessment so aggravating. No description of my acting has ever contained the words ‘subtle’, ‘naturalistic’, ‘restrained’, ‘nuanced’, ‘shaded’, ‘quiet’, ‘kept his head beneath the ramparts’ or anything vaguely comparable. It’s fast reaching the point where I can’t draw satisfaction from the positive reviews. I know what they’ll say before I’ve even seen them. (Let alone the fact that I never quite believe them.) Instead of providing a description of what being in the audience for that show was like – a revelatory practice, and one that largely died out with the Victorians – reviews tend to provide something baser: an opinion. I recall being at a dinner with Howard Jacobson, who expressed an opinion of his own: that opinions were worthless. As time goes by, I don’t think he was far wrong.

A review of my performance in Romeo and Juliet crystallised this for me. It came from the website of Nick Holland, an online reviewer of deathlessly prolific output:

[I] found James Swanton’s Friar Lawrence actively detrimental to the show overall – inexplicably channeling Vincent Price, I found him hard to watch, and he drags out the character’s final speech, making the speedy running time feel as if it’s acquired that lost hour again…

This is about the most venomous thing that’s ever been written about my acting. ‘Actively detrimental’ – ‘hard to watch’. I seriously doubt Mr Holland would have the courage to say such things to my face: the unfailing acid-test for separating judicious negativity from outright nastiness. And cruelty. It does strike me as odd that a man who communicates through such over-the-top linguistic contortions can’t stand my performances, which – by his own admission – are nothing other than over-the-top contortions. Caliban’s rage at his face in the glass, perhaps.

But what stopped me from taking this too much to heart was the mention of Vincent Price, a man who I’ve loved for over a decade. Price was an actor whose performances were, I believe, uniquely good and wide-reaching. I’m more entitled to my opinion (that word again) than most, having sought out over forty Price films: everything from Laura (1944) and Champagne for Caesar (1950) to The Whales of August (1987) and Edward Scissorhands (1990), by way of House of Usher (1960; a film I’ve discussed here) and Theatre of Blood (1973). Having just rewatched The Raven – a 1963 Poe bastardisation, with Price outrageously camp as a medieval wizard – I find it impossible to believe that Price took his screen image seriously.

Theatre of Blood (1973)

But what was Price’s screen image? What exactly am I being compared to here? It’s not my Vincent Price (a damned good actor); it’s not the ‘real’ Vincent Price (whoever that was). Rather, it’s an opinion about who Vincent Price was. And an opinion so lazy that Holland didn’t even originate it: that of Price as the deranged old ham, embarrassing everyone by the baseless over-confidence of his performances. It’s the very image that Price lampooned so expertly in Theatre of Blood, playing homicidal thespian Edward Lionheart. If only Holland would watch the film! (Watch, not review.) He might discover he was attacking me with a ghost that Price himself laid to rest forty years ago.

The opinions pound on. I frankly don’t care that Holland considered ripping Romeo’s clothes off ‘a seriously understandable impulse’, or that he is, in general, ‘easily distracted by attractive men on stage’. I do dote for a moment on the virtues of possessing the amiable plasticity of a GQ model rather than a body like an attenuated candlestick and a leering hatchet-face that naturally operates like a morpine-fuelled Crash Bandicoot villain (you see, we can all play childish games with high-colour adjectives). Possibly then I’d have been praised. Whether I want that sort of praise from that sort of man is something else again. I wonder if Holland would have the courage to confront his innumerable pert-buttocked young actors with his fantasies. I’d be interested in their reactions.

I’m left only with the impression that Mr Holland doesn’t know what the hell he’s on about. I’m learning about him, certainly – not least his startlingly original comic insight that priests are invariably child-molesters – but not my performance. I know he didn’t like it; I just don’t know why. But given that I know what I didn’t like about my performance – and we’ll get to that – what’s to be gained from yet another opinion? Sadly, I am what I am. I simply wasn’t capable of a repressed, naturalistic and (for Holland’s benefit) resolutely unembarrassing Friar. No more than Holland was capable of writing something insightful and coherent rather than sniping, odious and swollen with pederastic rumblings. Not at that moment, not in those circumstances. Too bad – for both of us, I suppose.

It’s a shame. I wasn’t swanning about in my days in Romeo and Juliet (or Love’s Labour’s Lost) with a sense of how glorious and earth-shattering and downright bloody definitive my performances were. Quite the opposite. I was wracked with insecurity and the merciless, pettifogging feeling that I was letting people down by not delivering something I was at peace with. Some of this insecurity stemmed from the fact that I’m so rarely allowed to play a human being. I’m forced to quote Karloff again, this time in the person of the aging horror star in Bogdanovich’s Targets: ‘I couldn’t even play a straight part decently anymore – I’ve been in the other thing too long.’ None of this is the audience’s problem. I’m not asking for sympathy here. But I am asking for understanding. I’m not some complacent, over-confident, ego-fuelled monster who constantly needs putting in his place. My other point is purely pragmatic: that there’s no amount of unpleasant things you can write about me that I haven’t already thought or said or even written myself. This critic takes the biscuit, though, trashing not only me but one of my all-time heroes. That’s some sort of achievement.

Nick Holland’s linguistic masturbations bring me to another point. Blogging has a worrying parallel in masturbation. Being a blogger myself, I think about this fairly often, scrolling through endless sheafs of dangling, comment-less posts, all just floating off into cyberspace… At what point do these writings intersect with the human race? It scares the hell out of me. It’s something that always daunted me about the Cambridge University Library. I’d go off in search of an obscure academic monograph – on Monk Lewis or Thomas Peckett Prest. I’d find it by means of the online catalogue, before traipsing past hundreds of thousands of books to read it. I’d pluck it off the shelf; the front papers would instantly inform me that the book hadn’t been taken out in ten, eleven, twelve years. I don’t intend to take it out. All I do is look in the index. Read two paragraphs at most. I’m done in five minutes. And it’s left on the shelf again.

There’s a litany of unbelievably horrid things I could say about Nick Holland. But why bother? What little I know of him doesn’t fill me with rage. I feel sorry for the man. I certainly know I wouldn’t want to be him, any more than he’d want to be me (or rip my clothes off, for that matter). He’s a cautionary example; I want to do my utmost to avoid turning into him when I’m grey-haired and middle-aged. I don’t want my passion for the theatre to disintegrate into a series of tired and cynical detractions from it. Nor do I want to spend my adult years emptying my creative energies into the premature coffin of an internet blog.

We all make our own worlds – some of them remarkably lonely – and then go off and lose ourselves in them. It’s our right to do so. I hope to do so with my acting, once I find my elusive niche. This is all fine and admirable and good – provided we don’t wound other people in the process. Critics can deny the fact that they upset people with their remarks. But such remarks are often so far from constructive criticism that they veer into ostentatious, grand-standing, show-boating cruelty. A shoddy investment of human life.

Of course, that’s only my opinion. We all have the right to an opinion.

It’s that inclusiveness that makes them so worthless.


Filed under Essays, Personal Excavation

Sublime Misanthropy

This essay was written six months ago, with a view to its appearance in another publication entirely. However, I really can’t be bothered to keep chasing people up, so I though I’d whack it on here. For the most part, the piece is an appraisal of two of my personal heroes: Quentin Crisp and Kenneth Williams. If you don’t know them (shame, shame!), then chase them, pin them down, discover what makes them so great. I hope this piece will be a starting-point on that quest. I also take a glance at Oscar Wilde – a man who I wish was more of a personal hero, but one I find rather troublesome. It seems an ultimate heresy to criticise the noisy cult of Wilde (particularly when you’re gay yourself); I’ve found myself wondering (incorrectly, I hope) whether this is the reason the article didn’t see publication. I don’t think I’ve rubbished Wilde outrageously – it’s impossible to feel any less than compassion for the man – but I’ve certainly prodded him a bit.

Alright, enough innuendo. On with the article.


Homosexuality and the Catholic Church are a very old arrangement. The gay hagiography is organised according to a strictly Catholic lexicon: the ‘gay icon’, the ‘martyr to gay causes’ and, most compellingly, the ‘gay saint’. Martyrdom is often a facet of sainthood. An icon, meanwhile, is a form of reproduction – often offering a reflection (inevitably diminished) of a primary sainthood.

To be canonised as a Catholic saint, a candidate must be responsible for miracles – at least two of them – after their death. To be canonised as a gay saint, then, an individual has to have left a truly remarkable legacy.

In looking back on the twentieth century, Quentin Crisp (1908-1999) and Kenneth Williams (1926-1988) strike me as prime candidates for gay sainthood. They’re not very fashionable choices. They’re not fashionable full stop: Williams clung religiously to greying suits and ties; Crisp’s eternal mantra that style and sincerity were the same thing made his silk scarf and fedora a second skin, too personal to be quoted by others. No one has ever accused these men of being attractive: Crisp was a sort of benevolent metropolitan vampire, Williams the consummate shape-shifting grotesque. Most heinous of all, neither one is Oscar bloody Wilde (whose 1900 death brings him up for consideration).

Saints are expected to have suffered. But the derision with which Crisp and Williams are today regarded suggests they were the enemies of gay liberation. Since their deaths, there has been much unfavourable journalism: in The Independent, Peter Tatchell demonises Crisp as ‘an often self-hating, arrogant, homophobic gadfly’; in The Guardian, Justin Quirk claims to speak for the English public when he describes Williams as ‘a nostril-flaring, camp absurdist’. The case for the defence is not aided by Crisp or Williams themselves, who turned upon the counter-culture for which they’d become eccentric figureheads. Crisp did well to smash such faux gay icons as Princess Diana; less honourably, he pronounced AIDS ‘a fad’ at the height of the mid-eighties epidemic. Williams dismissed the musical La Cage aux Folles as ‘dire sentimental slush about two old queens’ (perhaps some will agree). He never acknowledged his sexuality in public, instead gracing the chat-show circuit with suggestively veiled denials: ‘I don’t do it… I’m asexual… I should have been a monk!’ But like many a celibate monk (or high-ranking cardinal), Williams did want to do it, and – occasionally – did.

And yet there was more to Quentin Crisp than anti-monarchism and indefensible tabloid sound bites; more to Kenneth Williams than acid drops and a fumbling, feigned asceticism. Gay liberation is dependent on its lofty misanthropes. These are the gay saints: those individuals who, by merit of their outsize personalities, do inestimable work for the gay community – and often quite by accident. The misanthropic stance that opens Crisp and Williams to abuse is what made them influential in the first place.

They were curiously dislocated characters. Both had an extreme approach to hygiene. Crisp never cleaned his tiny apartment, clinging to the belief that ‘after the first four years, the dirt doesn’t get any worse’. Williams was his polarised opposite: haunted by the idea of contamination, he insisted his guests use a public lavatory rather than sully his own. This neurosis made celibacy inevitable. Yet Williams had no qualms about owning up to his celibacy, often using it as the basis for double entendres: ‘I live a life of celibacy. I’m not interested in the other.’ Of course, such jokes depended on his homosexuality being the most open of open secrets. Everyone knew what Williams was. Crisp had no fear of dirt; indeed, he was casually employed as a rent-boy in his youth. His celibacy resulted from an absolutist personal creed: ‘If I was to become Miss Arc’s only rival, it wouldn’t do to be picked up by strange men. This would give people the opportunity to say that I had only adopted an effeminate appearance for that purpose.’ In evoking Joan of Arc, Crisp makes a tongue-in-cheek bid for gay sainthood. Celibacy was the final step in the construction of the Crispian persona, already laid out in the make-up and dyed hair.

It is a paradox of these gay saints that they were gay in every facet of their being – except for their sex lives, which were non-existent. Yet this displacement was also their completion. Crisp and Williams demanded attention, and they got it, but always on their own terms. Their lives were shaped by their sexualities rather than defined by them; they were less gay men than men who happened to be gay.

Oscar Wilde endured all the agonies of martyrdom, but he was no gay saint. His hedonism remains a black spot on his character. Wilde hurt innumerable people with his sexuality: not only lover after lover after lover – most of whom were left reeling from his bewitching narcissism – but his wife and his children. There is no denying Wilde’s suffering – but the suffering he inflicted on those around him is too often overlooked. In groping for stars and gutter both, Wilde fashioned a double life that made him a figure of damaging dislocation.

Damaging Dislocation - Oscar Wilde

Crisp disliked Wilde for one very simple reason: ‘He never faced anything!’ During the court proceedings against the Marquess of Queensberry – which Wilde himself had started – Wilde denied his homosexuality again and again. This can be excused: Wilde, after all, faced a dreadful punishment. But even in De Profundis, his confessional, the play-acting went on. There is a flash of self-knowledge when Wilde writes that ‘my ruin came not from too great individualism of life, but too little’. But this soon explodes into a fanciful identification with Christ: ‘You can see to what intensity of individualism I have arrived – or am arriving, rather, for the journey is long, and “where I walk there are thorns.”’ That the ‘thorns’ allusion is taken from A Woman of No Importance reveals Wilde’s suffering as self-dramatising: an extension on the play-acting that cloaked his sexuality. In consorting with the Son of God, Wilde seems to have coveted gay sainthood. He didn’t achieve it. He didn’t know himself.

Benevolent Vampire - Quentin Crisp

Quentin Crisp never pretended to be other than he was. Unlike Wilde, he made a courageous stand for his sexuality. Here is how Crisp approached the London gay community of his youth: ‘At first I only longed to wallow in their misery, but, as time went by, I longed to reach its very essence. Finally I desired to represent it. By this process I managed to shift homosexuality from being a burden to being a cause.’ Thus did Crisp break from the furtive majority to make some serious progress. He risked his life every time he walked the streets. The best-known record of Crisp walking the streets is found in the music video for ‘An Englishman in New York’. This song (‘be yourself, no matter what they say’), along with the John Hurt teleplay The Naked Civil Servant, delivered Crisp’s ‘cause’ to a worldwide, predominantly straight audience. Crisp did more for gay people by simply appearing as himself – wise, warm, elegant, and quite at peace with the world, as immortalised in the Sting video – than most civil rights campaigners gave him credit for.

Kenneth Williams never found a satisfactory outlet for his idiosyncrasies. He disguised his unhappiness with his sexuality in all but his private diaries, in which he vented his anguish in tortured, spidery language. Yet for a man whose channels of communication were so severely disrupted, Williams did much to expose how gay men communicated. His double-act with Hugh Paddick as Julian and Sandy on Round the Horne snuck Polari onto BBC airwaves – the underground slang responsible for such phrases as ‘friend of Dorothy’. Similarly, the Carry On films blessed gay men with a consistent presence in mainstream cinema. It’s too easy to rubbish Williams’s performances as shrieking, effeminate nightmares. They are also an assertion of difference – a statement of sexuality, no matter how distorted – and this has an inherent political value. These British comedies were always fundamentally safe. Yet they were surprisingly progressive, in daring to present gay men in a context detached from the Hollywood tradition of the demonic and monstrous – as exemplified by a Charles Laughton (The Sign of the Cross) or a Laird Cregar (The Lodger).

Consummate Grotesque - Kenneth Williams

Such is the weirdness of the Carry On universe that Kenneth Williams became a beacon of heterosexuality, his gawky frame and Olympian nostrils stirring the deepest passions of Hattie Jacques. The union’s transparent improbability was the joke. Wilde likewise gave homosexuality a coded release in his work, allowing his style to betray his substance. But given that Wilde was infinitely comfortable with his sexuality, this seems teasing rather than progressive. Wilde ultimately brought all his darkness on himself. Williams harnessed his predisposition to darkness, and raised awareness of the sexuality that tortured him in private.

Kenneth Williams never lived to see the influence he would have; Quentin Crisp lived perhaps too long, and lost the good opinion of many. Both fell, late in life, into the traps of their bizarre personalities: wheeled out on chat-shows, repeating the same jokes and stories – ‘just living off body fat’ as Williams put it. Yet it was by mastering their strangeness, their isolation, their inbuilt misanthropy that these men made enormous steps for gay liberation. These gay saints seemed simply to happen, like freak natural phenomena: unexpected, inexplicable, and completely inimitable. A kind of miracle, in fact.

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Filed under Essays

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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A Demented Fictionalist

There’s a history to how I write fiction. A necessary history, which I only hope won’t bore you.

In the second year of my English degree, there came the option to write a short bit of prose or poetry – which, in an emergency, might bump up our overall class mark. This shortish thing was known as the ‘Original Composition’. As if that square moniker hadn’t frightened all the fun out of the task, I was running chronically low on ideas. Besides: I lacked conviction in my ability to write fiction of any kind. I still recall – with an icy shudder – my hubristic attempt to write a novel, aged only sixteen. I began by meticulously mapping out the symbols I would use. The novel was as good as dead from that moment. Perhaps there is some truth to the idea that the GCSE syllabus ruins one’s relationship with literature. Indeed, the humiliating lesson of my first few terms at Cambridge was that I really didn’t know how to write – and therefore to think – very well at all. (I do not state that words are essential to everyone’s thought processes; this was simply the situation I encountered.)

I always felt like a disappointing recusant of an English student. Sir Ian McKellen has referred to himself as being ‘a plodder’ at Cantabrigian English, but he at least had the advantage of: a) being Ian McKellen; b) not really trying that hard in the first place. I was James Swanton, and I tried bloody hard. I had no other option. The irritation of my work ethic is that it stretches even to pursuits that I don’t feel particularly invested in; less work ethic than dutiful doggedness. So I spent far too much time in the library and a little less time in various theatres. Which still worked out at twenty-four plays, but could so very easily have been twenty-five…

Thus did I embark on my Original Composition in a spirit of indignant self-immolation. I resolved to write the most ostentatiously pretentious story I was capable of. I turned out a few pages of senseless drivel. To drive the point home, I made up most of the words. This is borne out in their titles: at the end of second year, I wrote ‘My Homely Ownsome’; before my finals, ‘Skelterton’s in My Clubbet’. The towering irony is that the marks I received for both were far in excess of any marks I ever received for my academic work. If there’s a lesson there, it’s also a taunt. Like the parable of the Prodigal Son, it raises a truth that I’m happier not facing.

A little context before I get quoting. Both stories are an encapsulation of my simultaneous fear of and desire for entanglement with the human race. I suppose they’re also a rudimentary map to the contents of my brain. This is particularly clear in their unending connections to all kinds of cultural (but not necessarily cultured) artefacts. In the extracts below, I’ve found echoes of the following: The Simpsons (many and many a time); The Secret Garden (the film, not the book); the stage directions of Tennessee Williams (more than once); the artwork on the Sun-Maid Raisins packet; William Blake; Alice in Wonderland (for me, the word ‘wow!’ is overshadowed by that text); Universal’s House of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein (two films that couldn’t be more different); Shakespeare (I make out bits of Troilus and Cressida, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Lord knows what else); The Phantom Lament (an ambitious but fatally flawed play I wrote a few years back); Alfred Hitchcock; Stephen Fry’s anatomical analyses (those areas which are dark and tufted); the musical The Baker’s Wife; the history of the Technicolor film corporation; the village of Poppleton; ‘Little Miss Muffet’ (ludicrous word); Pozzo in Waiting for Godot; Tod Browning’s Freaks; my dear friend Callum’s coinage of the word ‘portalise’; the Marx Brothers (one of the more obvious ones); the Manor School Art department; etcetera, etcetera, ad infinitum.

Now. This roving intertextuality isn’t my attempt to pass myself off as some great genius, or qualify myself for special plaudits. Oscar Wilde said it best:

Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.

Best not to contemplate the implications of having quoted the above… My point, I think, is that unconscious quotation is a process that goes on for everyone. My stories are unconscious quotation turned inside out: exposing that sticky membrane that underlies too much of my thinking. I’m forever making off with other people’s ideas, which limits my writings to various strains of pastiche. Maybe I’ll arrive at something really ‘Original’ one day.

Looking back on these extracts, I’m also reminded of a Quentin Crisp-ism:

Push your neuroses into a place where they don’t hurt.

Happy reading.


‘My Homely Ownsome’

Light Becomes Him

Boy is being rent at the seams and the creases and dark corners and crevasses by the shrieking pierce shooting in, laser-like, through the chinks in the great wooden barn-door that blocks free typewriter expressway, easy-access cavern monorail service; exposings whooshing, knife-like, far in and under-lash for pryful lid-well-aways, rending flesh to perambulate a span or two on dewy outreach bubble-yolks – jetting in, thundering, arrow-like, disruptive, beams quaking at the clamour, registering, noise-like, but then not actually or that’s just what I’d have said for myself, and myself now approach, I do – I approach robed and resplendent in noise. But not for ownsome’s.

The dread is palpable and indifferent. The light: yellow.

Up close, some radiant boy. A great smouldering garland of hair, black and rooky-woodening, befeathered at the endings and leaning cosmic. Face a monochrome mosaic, a children’s play-garden of black plant-life and white rocky bases. Black seashells on his shore. Of limbs, a ripening primacy, a budding into youthy vigours, like crush of fruit on sun-drivelled vine, like that likeishness preserved for me on a hundred moist raisin packets, all that particular drivel. Fairly drizzles from his massy, overwhelming brows. Snub nose. Stolid edifice. No hint of sphinxing, no bull-shitting here. I come into my most treasured rest. And I sit; and I stagnate; and I only ever but intermittently acknowledge the thrice-repured gather-ins of Baroness and Pinkin and the Grubbins in too.


‘My Homely Ownsome’

Perversion of O!

It would be comical had not the little centre of attention been caught at it and in it and at it again and again. A most improper puritan. But stomping always gives out full well away to romping, with the little black boy’s little black bed a very treasure-house of syphilitic plashing: forth and back, and out and in, and over and around again and in and in and in. And that of course is full precisely how imprecisely they come into his own – the devil’s own, for that is where He would say the devil went – spilling out like mewling cubs, oozed in amniotic bridal gowns, plucked new bright and bleating from the blackened womb: a-planted like a bomb-some at the bed’s very rootings. Why, it gets to the core of one. Cannot ne’er-do-well contemplate the sweet velvet pop and dissolution. To well envision the juddersome rubbings o’er smooth eiderdown and palatial mint carpet. So many heads, so little bed. A strain of diametric lessening, you know-somes, each boring and beating spirit blood and bone away, leaving only the most paper-thin cut-paper membrane. A little on the side of the transparents. Skin displaced from blackened caverns. Could turn a whole being inside out from these prising, flowsome chinks. Just clamp down and pull – come apart, O! come apart. Sublime devastation. The circle spun complete. Some show of blood, much more of oil.


‘Skelterton’s in My Clubbet’

Desperate Insecurity as a Basis for Cordial Theatre

And did. I flunkering hate that attitude. Flubbing well. That very platitude he digs away at, squirreling at the wainscoting, skit-knittering and tickering and flittstittering like a mad old old mad sparrowlark. Plaster-creakle-tits twirl jizzensquirk uppentimes. Agitardo movementation. Allegri, allegro, flitter-gib bibbington! Tee-tum, tee-tum, tee-tum, tee-tum – tee-tum tee-tum tee-tummy of Skelterton bouncey-pounce, don’t mucha like it now, a-neurgh-neurgh-neurgh (PRIG! of extreme validatory youthiclucks): gimmee at the pail and the golden curl; gimmee at the discardy Judy Garland dress what don’t not never not cinematograph in the on-model colourings except on posting-away Great Depressio Natalie-Kalmus-an-interfering-bitch film stock; gimmee at the village hall panto, stripped-down sex appeal fearatricks, primary-colour Eyes of Glob whiffling unpenetrened pungencies down upon my frilla-laced, polka-dotted, but very much unpoked and unlaced and unpanted skinitude. Gimmee yer grouncerings and trounce-plunkerings, yer blink-maddington-madammers. Harrumph-harrumph, goes the curla-haired, pinnied-up garrump. Truth be told (will be), all the humpity, tuffet-bred outcasts are welcome to my Fearatear: that arena pledged existence-contingent on the stretchaplush canvas of the steadermore grey matter pressed in-between my earatrics. We Twair! We Grubby Twair Within! The Fantasmalongerers! The Barnum-Bunterers! The Man-With-The-Bear-At-The-End-Of-His-Rope! We fess-longer in-upon your floss-candied cheeping-seats: fronter, lower, aisle and back, back, back. Your structuring attraction. Pigeon-chested, bird-brained, wing-backed, pea-cocked, chicken-breasted, chicken-hearted, mag-pied. Back and back again! Birdygirl Koo-Koo’s travellincompanions. Blast from out back birdalogue. Cat-a-pounce. Wow-wow-wow.


‘Skelterton’s in My Clubbet’

Helter-Skelterton to the Cock-Tailed Bar

And on and on and on we go, going on it like the clappers. Clap-clap, clap-clap, clip-clap, clap-clip, our down-spun trainsportalisation ever-reaching just-a-jut. Nib-nib, nib-nib, nab-nib, nib-nab, we sli-hi-hide from croopy up-oblysessed nibblings to the absolute incontrovert binnlings – consigning the old way to the bin, with downward swoop-exchelsior, just as we go a binly, binly, binnington-bins, just as we go binwise, just as we go bin the right direction to get to the binnermost core bin the earth, e’er since it is birth, all its berth, uh-huh-huh-hucksterrblery flinng. With a plin-plin, plin-plin, plan-plin, plin-plan, I am but a wispling crushed ticker-tape encasement screwed every-way-which-away balled. Bald as the eagle; smooth t’touch. Screwball knock-about nonsense, Groucho an’ Harpo an’ Dow-bow-wowager. Screwed now. Balls to’t. Clap-clap, clap-clap, squeezing-pleasing, clap-clap, clap-clap, tracing-bracing, clap-clap-clap-clap, bite-tight, sight-tight, might-bite, bite-bite, clapper-clapper-clapper-clap, turns out we all got bladdered with the clap! Here’s our stop – ooh! – shaddup. False drama para-break. Here’s the stop, if you can cork your flabby hole about it for all on five second.

Seven second later, because adding on a one seemed too risible toe-the-line punch-o’-the-line, and adding on a three made for vulgar vowel wot I ’ate so mech th’t I cannae regre’ tit’s disinclusion: then! we skeltered down bar-wise. A generic cubicle of neo-depressive kitchken-surfacings and aluminium braced-tracerings and cut-glass bottled-window accoutrements, with dispensable blonde barman accessory. The light, though, the light! Light, even – is what convalesced it, swoopingly, crimpingly, unto our gentle sensors. A light well-lent to lightning nose-dusts. Brush down. Goggles. Art-room shades. Gangrenous powder paint. Bilious oils. And waters colouring musty. In at the green-room, art-room, green-bar-var-var-voom-room. Roused by waters, I proffer taily tonic for mine self, for Skelterton: the cocky cordial, for (which) Skelterton leans crematoriously in on in on barman. Hoping at manbar. Making him as devil-may-care dispensable as ever even devil would not dare. He forth-billows – henchly – gropes unto his quarry – havahushly – then, bollockses up, and collapses onto – me! hunchingly me! – bollocks up (displorable behaviour), and we make for cutaway sofa fragment.

The third entry in the series – ‘We’re Sorry He’ – has been on my must-write list for almost a year. It shall be written. And I might very well post an extract.

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Night Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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