Category Archives: Essays

Preparing for Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Acting Theory, Essays, Personal Excavation

James Swanton vs. Musical Theatre

This has been a challenging entry.

Overwhelmingly, because I have little natural talent for music. However, I’d maintain that music is instrumental in my technique for building a character. An intuitive grasp of rhythm is vital to even the most tuneless character voices, but it also goes deeper than that. I learn lines to a self-dictated musical pulse: I have to be able to hum a character before I can speak them. Whenever I forget a line, I can very often make out its echo, somewhere at the back of my head.

It’s the emotional impulse gone walkabout. Brian Masters discusses the persistence of this ‘innate sense of music’ in his tremendous book Thunder in the Air:

When Garrick and others are lauded for being ‘natural’, it is not meant that they are vulgar, common or ordinary in their speech. What is meant is that they contrive to convey natural emotion through the internal music of the lines, and not let the lines artificially imprison the emotion in a straitjacket of form. All the best actors are singers in speech. Gielgud said, ‘It’s like swimming, you know. If you surrender to the water you keep up, but if you fight it you drown.’

If the best actors are singers in speech, then I’m probably correct in labelling myself a hummer. All the same, I’ll warrant I’m free enough to discuss music in terms of the dramatic thrill I find in it.

Nevertheless, reducing ‘music’ to ‘musical theatre’ brings back all the old embarrassment. As a child – supposedly more liberated, more free – I recall genuine humiliation whenever a character started to sing: restlessness, burning cheeks, a fair measure of sweat. Repulsion always draws me back, though; I no longer feel embarrassed when stories are told through song. But I still have reservations about admitting to that. I rarely share music, instead preferring to prize it up in secrecy. It’s the emotional straitjacket again. Something I find intolerable in musical theatre is the bizarre connoisseurship of emotion. It’s typically the most emotionally wrecky renditions of songs that command the greatest praise. As though having your bladder next to your eyes is of any intrinsic value. Fine performance that it is, Anne Hathaway’s ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ in the film of Les Miserables has become this obsession’s most recent focus. I still find myself preferring Patti LuPone’s near-monotone rendition in the Original London Cast. It’s not a copy or a reproduction; still less is it Patti LuPone (no mean achievement). It’s a character, a creation – it rings with emotional truth, and you go with it.

Furthermore, I find the culture surrounding musical theatre to be deeply unappealing. I dislike the prescriptive way that so many people discuss musical actors, as though [insert Wicked alumnus here] has coined a perfect characterisation, which no one else can get at. Again, it’s usually to do with ’emotion’. Those who fall short are damned – and it’s especially unsettling that it’s most often aspiring musical performers who mete out these death blows: ‘Person X is DREADFUL!’ – ‘Person Y can’t sing to save their LIFE!’ – ‘Person Z sounds like a cat being STRANGLED!’ Ultimately, it’s no more than a matter of taste. Preferable by far are feckless good manners.

But the fact that such sniping behaviour sits alongside an extrovert desire to join in – to sing the songs, to dance the dances, to dream that Boylie dreams of dreams… I find that utterly bewildering. It seems enviable at first: the necessary actor’s state of creating, freely and willingly, without the least self-consciousness. Yet it’s a false energy. It springs from such burdensome insecurity that it’s nothing other than self-conscious: a kind of ‘Look at me! Look at me! Acknowledge me as good!’ Degeneration of talent is the only result.

Joining in is surely the point of most worthwhile music. I’ve often found myself infected by a musical, much as I would by a play, book or film. The desire to share it can be overwhelming. On this occasion, I plan to share. Here are five of my favourite songs from the theatre of the musical. Let’s hope they excavate something half-interesting in me.

1.
BEGGARS AT THE FEAST
Les Miserables

Ah. Another opportunity to trot out my deathless thoughts on the Thenardiers. It’s still my number one misguided ambition to play Monsieur at some future point. I listened fanatically to Alun Armstrong’s rendition while rehearsing Return to the Forbidden Planet, my only really serious assault on musical theatre (way back in 2007). Armstrong has remained one of my absolute favourite actors.

‘Beggars at the Feast’ is indispensable on several counts. It’s the moment at which Les Miserables best supports the parodies of themselves that the Thenardiers have (inevitably) become. Far too often, an actor will perform their response to something, rather than the thing itself. Because the Thenardiers are incidentally funny (quite different to comic relief), many actors transform them into clowns. As much as I love Gary Beach and Matt Lucas as Thenardier, neither of them creates a rounded character. Instead, they offer up lightning-quick assembly-lines, festooned with different scraps of comic business. It’s all very entertaining, but a few steps down from the filth-encrusted, Hogarthian devil tailored by Armstrong.

However, ‘Beggars at the Feast’ capitalises on and even celebrates this one-dimensionality. It permits the Thenardiers to step outside the drama and celebrate themselves as the ridiculous, over-the-top monsters the world would have them be. The song encapsulates a moment that defies rational dramatic constraints, as characters and audience unite in delirious conspiracy. The outrageously tasteless costumes – two putrid flourescent wedding cakes – only heighten the fun. And it’s the fun of the subject that really powers ‘Beggars at the Feast’. No song has expressed the joys of flamboyant villainy better. Yet it’s also shabby villainy, fleapit melodrama – akin to Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop or the works of Tod Slaughter. It’s simply fantastic; exactly what I look for in theatre.

Another virtue of ‘Beggars at the Feast’ is the clash of form and content: here is squirming evil, but enchantingly delivered. The message is atrocious, endorsing anti-Semitism and homophobia, wanton thievery and grave-robbing. Yet it’s made beguiling by that quirky, pock-pock-pock! Oktoberfest music. This tension is why ‘One Day More!’ works as well as it does: the wicked and the saints are mixed together as one – but the orchestra renders all majestic. It’s the story of humanity, moving for its variety rather than any extremes of morality. That ‘Beggars’ is preceded by some of the musical’s wetter songs – mostly involving Cosette and Marius, straightforwardly ‘good’ people I can’t get a handle on – enhances the ecstatic release.

‘Beggars at the Feast’ is much more than a glorified reprise of ‘Master of the House’ – which, for all its brilliance, stops the plot dead in its tracks. ‘Beggars’ is a pointed dramatic finale. That it allows the Thenardiers to depart in a blaze of diabolical glory is perversely edifying. ‘Go away, Thenardier!’ cries Marius at the wedding feast. Luckily for audiences, he never, never will.

2.
FACADE
Jekyll & Hyde

Jekyll & Hyde is far from perfect. The plot may be lifted from the superlative 1931 film, but it’s strangely unbalanced in its stage presentation. Too many of the songs are redundant, or have little feel for the atmosphere of the subject (‘This is the Moment’ and ‘A Dangerous Game’ are particularly off-centre). The majority of numbers are also bizarrely staged – sabotaged, I assume, by the Broadway obsession with choreography (I always get a laugh from the crazed, overzealous hand motion of the man singing ‘though we love the facade!’ towards the end of this song). Nevertheless, I find ‘Facade’ to be curiously powerful – even if it is a thinly disguised version of ‘At the End of the Day’ from Les Miserables, with those very words cropping up at one point.

The premise of ‘Facade’ is sublimely daft: the citizens of London enter onto a bare stage and sing, with unbridled self-righteousness, about how nobody is what they seem. I suppose you could argue it’s Brechtian (sorry, all), what with such lines as ‘the ladies and gents ‘ere before you’ being addressed to the audience. But that’s probably assuming too much. Despite its direct address, the song feels massively impersonal (Brecht again? oh, do shut up). I find impersonality rather effective when a legend’s being extolled – as when Sondheim’s characters drop their personalities to unfold ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’. Wildhorn earlier tinkered with a ‘Ballad of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (which must be heard to be believed), intended to take the place of ‘Facade’. It was scrapped, but its quality of detachment remained. ‘Facade’ exists as a massy artefact: monumentally impersonal, as cleanly divided from the audience as the carpet that borders the stage.

The message of the song is probably what saves it. Because it is such a confused message: is a facade a good thing or a bad thing? Well… it’s both. And it’s neither. No, wait, it depends on the situation. But should it? I mean, really? Oh, crumbs. ‘Facade’ equivocates beautifully unclearly through its five-minute length. It’s as evenly split as Jekyll and Hyde themselves. And, in many ways, the clumsy execution is to the betterment of the number. Leslie Bricusse’s lyrics get very silly at times: rhyming ‘coat of paint’ with ‘be what they ain’t’ is unacceptably bad. And yet I like how Bricusse sometimes trips up through overreaching; it keeps me on the edge of my seat. Many lines come off superbly: I’m particularly fond of ‘Nearly everyone you see – / Like him, an’ her, / An’ you, an’ me – / Pretends to be / A pillar of society’. I’m also willing to let slide ‘There are preachers who kill! / There are killers who preach! / There are teachers who lie! / There are liars who teach!’. The words trip by so quickly that the simple patterning is quite necessary.

I also get a kick out of the bellowy solos from various bewigged and behatted Victorian gentlemen; the early explosion of ‘And I’m certain… LIFE IS TERRIBLY HAAA-AAA-AAARD!’ deserves special kudos. Who these people are is besides the point – it’s what they represent that matters. Their bombastic power displays, emerging as they do from retentiveness, mirror the (ultimately liberating) challenges of this song. Composer Frank Wildhorn excels with this sort of bloodthirsty, straightforwardly rousing piece. His ‘Madame Guillotine’ in The Scarlet Pimpernel is similar overlooked – and good.

3.
ESMERALDA
Der Glöckner von Notre Dame

It’s well-known that Disney makes a killing from flashy stage versions of their most popular films. It’s less well-known that The Hunchback of Notre Dame received this treatment – in a German stage musical, performed on the former site of the Berlin Wall. Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz saw fit to crowbar in a Hunchback-specific ‘One Day More!’ for the occasion. I am thankful that they did: it’s just terrific. I firmly believe that the Hunchback contains the most underrated music in any Disney animation. In ‘Esmeralda’, quite a lot of it gets a look-in: we have a bit of ‘Out There’ from Quasimodo, some hellfire-tinged words from Frollo (rough translation: ‘the flames grow tall and sharp as fleur-de-lys!’) and a final lapse into the almighty ‘Bells of Notre Dame’. There are also flashes of ‘Trommeln in der Stadt’, which is relegated to the choir in the film. One of the virtues of Glöckner is that it expands on these more overlooked moments in the score.

On its own terms, ‘Esmeralda’ is a rollicking good march. In some respects, it’s similar to Menken’s Frankenstein-inspired ‘Mob Song’ in Beauty and the Beast, or Menken and Schwartz’s evergreen ‘Savages’ in Pocahontas. Both are dark Disney. But the abiding lesson of my childhood was that dark Disney was good Disney. And yet the Hunchback also moved me profoundly – I was simply overwhelmed by the soaring Gothic beauty of the film. This song brings that back to me afresh. The staging alone is remarkable, with gigantic Expressionist flats rolling in and out. Retaining Clopin as a grizzled, peddlar-like storyteller ensures that the individual characters stay rooted within this epic context. It’s also a nod to Victor Hugo’s use of single characters to stand for huge ideas – the profound sense, for example, in which Quasimodo is the cathedral.

The Hunchback has had a few other musical treatments, most notably France’s Notre Dame de Paris. Within, Esmeralda is eulogised in the song ‘Belle’. ‘Belle’ became an international pop hit, but it’s altogether more fragmented than the florid, swirling number found in Glöckner. ‘Belle’ also has a disconcertingly pervy quality to it: one person’s European passion is another’s trouserless man in a too-long raincoat. Thanks largely to her ghostly voice, the gypsy girl never becomes a prop in ‘Esmeralda’. Quite the reverse: she contributes to the piece’s romantic atmosphere.

4.
IN THE LIGHT OF THE VIRGIN MORNING
Jane Eyre

My musical tastes run towards the funereal. ‘In the Light of the Virgin Morning’ appeals to the depressive in me. The musical Jane Eyre bears comparison with Jekyll & Hyde: both based on great works of English literature; both compromised by structural flaws. In fact, both stories are dark and sheltered enough that they’d probably be best served as chamber pieces. Some of Paul Gordon’s lyrics are very tangled, and don’t quite squeeze by on the basis of the musical’s period setting. I’m thinking here of the laboured exclamation ‘The estate has an ancient beauty / Mother must appraise’, as well as the corkscrew twist in ‘If only I could love the man, / But I’m not quite sure I can’ (too many one-syllable words acting as filler).

Despite these reservations, this song comes off miraculously. The counterpoint is simply gorgeous, exuding atmosphere rather than blatant showiness. The lines bestowed on Jane are uniformly heartbreaking. ‘He doesn’t need me’ (as well as its gender-specific variants) constitutes the saddest declaration of unrequited love I can imagine. It’s so simple a construction, yet so eloquent: a disordered love laid bare. Powerful emotions are always best expressed in plain words, but it’s such a fine line between banality and bathos. Set to music, I find Jane’s words almost unbearable. The same melody returns in ‘The Voice Across the Moors’, where it proves equally affecting for St John’s dismal proposal of marriage: ‘Jane, you were formed / For labour, not love’. Another fine song is ‘The Graveyard’, which calls on God in a manner that tugs at the heartstrings. The softness of the piano in all of these numbers creates an undulating, lyrical beauty. I haven’t words for it, but it’s good.

5.
THE MEEK SHALL INHERIT
Little Shop of Horrors

I principally adore this song for its ending. It’s similar to the finale of ‘Thank Goodness’ in Wicked: it climbs to an insane fever-pitch of white-hot excitement, with orchestra and singers going at a maddeningly fast speed. It’s cranked up to its loopiest extreme on the soundtrack for the 1986 film, from which it was regrettably cut. So this entry is more on the basis of contagious excitement than anything else. I don’t know how to describe it in musical terms, but it really gets the blood pumping.

As time has gone by, I’ve also come to love Howard Ashman’s lyrics. They really are glowingly cynical. There’s a pleasingly rough-around-the-edges quality to them, which exudes a polish entirely absent from the overworked preciousness of Jekyll & Hyde and Jane Eyre. That’s not to say extensive work didn’t go into them. But the invisibility of the work is what gives the words such boundless confidence; exuberance, even. I’m also fond of the parade of grotesques who step in to deliver the verses. They open up a very flat world in a very pleasing way. They also inhabit the American Gothic territory familiar from the desolate opening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, casting a light on the abundant gloom of the twentieth century.

Every song in Little Shop of Horrors is pretty damn good. With the glowering exception of Sweeney Todd, it’s the most technically perfect entry in the thriving subgenre of the flesh-eating horror musical. At any rate, it’s much more fun than Sweeney Todd. ‘Dentist!’ is another favourite song – and another of those characters I’d misguidedly love a crack at.

(If I ever get round to a sequel, I’ll offer up my thoughts on a further five songs. I also swear to do so less long-windedly!)

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The Other Half

As the year draws to a close, it occurs to me that I’ve been tinkering on this blog for six months. That’s half a year documented – in some sense at least. My writings have seldom recorded real-life events. Instead, they’ve recorded the thoughts and feelings to which those events gave rise. Which I would hope is rather more accurate. The first half of my year has been untainted by my writing. Now, though, I feel it is worth documenting those first six months – before they fade from my memory for good. I’d like to see what little wisdom I can derive from them.

My January was distressingly bipolar. The first half was at least tolerable: forcing down medieval literature and piecing together multiple dissertations. Few images come back to me from that text-intensive time. It was all drudge and toil – a drudge and a toil that I’m now reliving as I revise my script for Dracula, guttering within the precincts of that endlessly depressing character. But the second half of my January – almost to the day – became, without doubt, the worst period of my life. I have no interest whatever in explaining why this was the case. Those who need to find out have already found out; those who didn’t can rest assured that it’s not at all deep or impressive. Unsurprisingly, it’s this horrific time that positively explodes with images. Stumbling through the streets in the early hours, for hours and hours on end, and tormenting myself with soul-lacerating music. Having sudden attacks of panic – ghastly new experience – in all-too public places. Feeling, in direct consequence, ugly even to look upon, let alone be with. Coming back to my room from the library one night and collapsing in the darkness, clinging to the floor and crying very hard, quite determined never to leave the spot. These are the darkest moments; those when I feel terrifyingly alone.

Then there are more constructive moments. Those spent in the company of others. There is the photo-shoot for the poster of The Hunchback of Notre Dame; then there is the first read-through, contorting my face in a pool of lamplight in the confines of Trinity College. Now, at no point did I feel that I was Quasimodo. It’s a tempting assumption, but too simplistic. I did feel worthless and hideous and cheated of my hope and bereft of any kind of personal happiness. But in spite of these emotions – or perhaps because of them – I felt a traitor to the agony of the character. Time and again, I found myself haunted by Quasimodo’s dream, in which Esmeralda finally turns round and loves him:

You touch me and stroke my face, you kiss my eyes and mouth and you caress my body with your hands, wanting me, needing me. And I kiss you, all of you. I kiss your lips and I kiss your naked breasts. And you give yourself to me and I take you. And as I take you I wake trembling, sweating, my sheets wet and soiled, and I feel filthy and ashamed, for I know that even in my dreams: it is wrong.

It’s the last three words that devastate: It. Is. Wrong. Unequivocal. No indulgent whine at being different, but confirmation of exile from the human race. I was convinced that to merely sympathise with Quasimodo’s plight, to pretend that I somehow understood it, would be vain, presumptuous, wholly unacceptable. Experience was teaching me that even a short span of pain is bitterly isolating; one who suffered as Quasimodo did – and there are precedents – is made unearthly. By virtue of their pain (dubious virtue). Ugliness breeds ugliness; very sad, very hopeless. But there you go.

I wrote the following after messing up my time commitments – so hard was I finding it to function – and, in the process, letting other people down very badly. It unleashed another bout of panic. I knew this would never do, and that it was in my best interests to improve myself:

I intend to beat this and emerge stronger the other side. It’s going to be fucking difficult. It is. So easy would it be to withdraw from my tasks, my commitments, my responsibilities, and descend into a structureless, debilitated stupor. Easy for others, maybe – but not for me. The Work must come first – no matter how petty or trivial or meaningless. It may restore my soul – it will then acquire a meaning, absolutely. There may be a design emergent: boring myself into contentment. For these reasons, structuring and ordering – a keeping of appointments, no matter how dead you feel on the inside – is ESSENTIAL. It is your lifeline – irreplaceable in value. Friends are the other lifeline. Not quite as reliable as The Work; there will doubtless come times of aloneness, and that is when there is the danger of grief – paralysing grief. Stop that. I will resent hearing it from others, but I am satisfied to – Yes! BE MEAN TO MYSELF. In this one vital respect. If you must indulge, do it to a set structure. Less of these sloppy meanderings. But do fall in on people, when the moment arises. When the opportunity is there…

Taken in context, I consider this one of the most admirable things I’ve ever written. Proof that I can function, if only a bit, in an absolute crisis. Many advised me to be kind to myself. I’m still convinced that would have done me in. (I even wrote two not-bad essays within a few days of my devastation, a drudge and a toil that became a satisfying ‘fuck off!’ to sentiment.) Clinging doggedly on to life yielded surprises, the most wonderful surprises: principally, the soul-restoring goodness of a number of close friends. The wisest person I’ve ever met offered a shoulder to cry on. But that seems too flippant a description: here was a warmth of complete understanding and acceptance, which makes me cry even in recollection. She gave to me Damien Rice, who became a constant companion through the year to come. I will never forget the first time I heard ‘Rootless Tree’ – the sound of the soul being ripped from the body. I still considered people lucky not to know how black and how terrible I was on the inside. But I was so glad they were there to put up with me.

As if all that hadn’t been enough (it had), the month wound up with an exquisite weirdness. There was my appointment with Max Stafford-Clark, who was directing myself and eleven other prodigals for the undergraduate showcase. I had dreaded meeting him, convinced that the man bound up with Joint Stock and the Royal Court would despise my rank ridiculousness as actor-human. I’d also failed to read the play from which I’d taken my monologue. A snotty afternoon in Waterstones ensued, frantically scribbling down notes from The Holy Terror. On the day itself, at the Out of Joint rehearsal rooms, I went in fearlessly enough. What point in fear, after all, having found out about the dark? I then enjoyed the most effective half hour’s direction I believe I’ve ever had. It may be that I’d found a speech that spoke to Max: certainly, he had much to say about relationships built on fantasy, as well as Simon Gray’s sense of being cast out of the theatrical establishment. But when Max allowed me to give some of my Quasimodo, it felt like a most genial acceptance. Exactly what I needed – and what I’ve so rarely felt from directors.

Stranger by far was the morning I was told I would be interviewing Simon Callow that night. I assembled my questions in another panicky delirium; I recall breaking down completely when collecting a dictaphone from a friend. Simply ridiculous. Callow was everything I’d hoped he’d be in person. When I threw myself in front of him, gangly tangle of flailing limbs, announcing I was there for an interview, his response was a dream: ‘Really! … Well! … How FANTASTIC!’ We moved for a dimly lit side-room, Simon eschewing the leather armchairs by the fireplace for some nearby computer chairs. Thus passed our meeting with many a squeak and swivel. The interview mainly consisted of Simon speaking (and quite rightly), so I had chance to reflect on how lucky I was to be in the presence of this man I had admired for nearly six years; this man who I knew, from reading Love is Where it Falls, to have suffered far in excess of anything I’ve been through. And yet here he was: affable, at peace with life and intermittently quaffing red wine. I pushed my luck at the meeting’s close, and asked Simon if he had any ‘life philosophies’ to impart. He laughed at this, only half-mortified. But he then produced a pearl of insight:

There a phrase that I read recently, in a painting by Dürer: ‘We must live for the spirit; everything else belongs to death.’ One must always go towards the inner richness of experience, and therefore the positive, and convert the negative, which is death, into life…

I am certain now that these words marked the beginning of my return to the human race. It was only about a week after I entered the dark. I think of the 1948 film Arch of Triumph, when Ingrid Bergman defends her recovery from an unrequited love in the same span:

It’s an eternity if you’re really unhappy. I was so filled with unhappiness that nothing else existed… When nothing else exists, there is nothing left with which to compare it. All one can do is to start to live again.

You can’t help but feel that something’s been lost, though.

The rest of the term never really recovered. It was still a kind of hell. My role in Die Fledermaus was a debasing experience – humiliating, in truth – in which I magnificently filled out the stereotype of the demoniacally sad clown; in which I wound up shouting at people who only partly deserved it. I never had a chance (or craved one, to be honest) to explain my bad behaviour. However, the term was relieved by light spots. These light spots appeared always from the dark, before disappearing back into it. But light spots they remained. Performing the Hunchback was the big one. My favourite moment was the preparation that came before each performance. I would spend two hours staring at myself in the mirrors beneath the Corpus Playroom. Trying to work out who I was. As I applied, meticulously, a false face on top of my own. Which I would in turn present to an audience, who I’d be unable to see without my glasses. Theatre is human contact made safe.

Then there are warmer, funnier, more human scraps of recollection; a softening from images into anecdotes and sketches. Being told by Guy Ritchie’s mother, just after the showcase, that I would work more than Mick Campbell – although I would never star with Mick in a Guy Ritchie film (Mick was decreed ‘Guy material’). Standing by Boris Karloff’s plaque in the Actors’ Church, and feeling a great wave of emotion as I read its wonderful legend: ‘He nothing common did, or mean, / Upon that memorable scene.’ Listening to Damien Rice’s ‘Dogs’ on a compulsive loop as I thunder through Cambridge, lingering on after that horror-term; perhaps off to Sainsbury’s or for a walk on Parker’s Piece; shaking off the bloody dissertations whilst preparing myself for the next attack. Again and again, I take in the devastating sweetness of ‘Dogs’, thinking on all we give up in exchange for stability:

Oh, and she’s always dressed in white
She’s like an angel and she burns my eyes
Oh, and she turns, she pulls a smile
We drive her round and she drives us wild
Oh, and she moves like a little girl
I become a child and she moves my world
And she gets splashed in paint and turns away and leaves me standing…

In time, the memories soften further, becoming all the sweeter. When summer rolls on, the old Cambridge magic is restored. I remember being on Parker’s Piece again, the sky glorious in pink and blue, with George Potts maniacally pushing a bicycle about. I remember the Midsummer Common Fair, and laughing like a fiend at George Potts being maniacally pushed about by various outsize fairground attractions. I remember romping through the Botanic Gardens and reflecting on my visit there with my sister, when I’d still been caught in the middle of the drudge and the toil. I remember Grantchester Orchard at the time of the Plough Plays, slumbering in the long grasses on an evening, with parti-coloured Morris dancers jumping at my feet – I remember long rehearsals for Ecumenical in Churchill College Chapel, and feeling glad that I was finally involved in a play being performed for all the right reasons. I remember sitting on a bench with the wisest person I’ve ever met, cast in the light of the full moon, and the both of us deciding to fail to say goodbye. And then I graduate. And it’s all gone from me. And it so often feels as though it might never have happened. I still haven’t returned to Cambridge. A part of me doesn’t want to. It might feel like a proper goodbye.

The first half of my year was truly anomalous. It was a point at which I resolutely failed to cope, only to discover reserves of strength that I hadn’t known existed. It was a point at which I crystallised what I wanted to do with acting: to illuminate certain types of human experience on which I felt qualified to comment, rather than swipe the flashiest entrances and the choicest lines. It was a point at which my passion for Simon Callow, previously a kind of running joke, matured into something more serious. Even life-shaping. But on review, I’m not sure I’ve gleaned much wisdom from all that went forth. There was barely time to think. Perhaps the mere endurance amounts to a kind of wisdom. I still don’t feel I have a lot of my old hope back, and hope is what I value beyond anything. Allied as it is with simplicity, with innocence – with love. But what can you do? I no longer hope for unconditional love – that is, if we take love to mean acceptance. I feel I’ve too much in me that’s messy and chaotic to make that a fulfilling pursuit. Unconditional life, though… that seems to me something to aim for. And yet that seems a very meagre wisdom.

Perhaps, in the words of The Simpsons, ‘it’s just a bunch of stuff that happened’.

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Filed under Essays, Personal Excavation

Grotesque Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sikes & Nancy: An Exercise in Quotation

In the last entry, I mentioned that I was starting to view Sikes & Nancy as a drama in its own right, with a disarmingly clever structure that had previously escaped me. Yet in its Public Readings form, it remains a kind of fragment – an extended quotation from Oliver Twist. Dickens relied heavily on his audience’s prior familiarity with the novel. For example, Dickens expects us to remember that Morris Bolter and Noah Claypole are one and the same; that the unseen Monks is trying to extort Oliver Twist of his inheritance. Incidentally, Oliver Twist isn’t even mentioned in the Reading. I thought this was a bit much, so I’ve added a few references into my adaptation.

I suppose that my performance also relies on quotation. I trust that my spectators are familiar with the basic plot and principal characters, even if it’s from the Lionel Bart musical instead of the novel. I also get a thrill from shattering the Disneyesque template of that particular musical. The impact of quotation runs down to individual words. Certainly, there are snippets of dialogue – most particularly Fagin’s cloying ‘my dear!’ – that get an instantaneous response from an audience. It can be argued (rightly, in my view) that Dickens pioneered the comedy catchphrase. A hearty ‘prunes and prism!’ to those who say otherwise.

Bearing all this in mind, I thought it would be helpful to return to the novel and see what Dickens missed out in his judicious quotation. I discovered a few interesting fragments, which I’ll share with you now. If you missed the first run of Sikes & Nancy, they might well whet your appetite for that rip-roaring prose style.

Here’s the first bit, rounding out Nancy’s encounter with Rose Maylie and Mr Brownlow under London Bridge:

‘What,’ cried the young lady, ‘can be the end of this poor creature’s life!’

‘What!’ repeated the girl. ‘Look before you, lady. Look at that dark water. How many times do you read of such as I who spring into the tide, and leave no living thing, to care for, or bewail them. It may be years hence, or it may be only months, but I shall come to that at last.’

Shuddery stuff. It extends marvellously on Dickens’s evocations of water as a dank and uninviting pit. One of my favourite descriptions in ‘Sikes and Nancy’ is when Brownlow encapsulates the London docks as ‘this dark and dismal hole’. But decay, as in Poe, is all-encompassing. In her later pleadings for mercy, Nancy speaks of the criminal life as ‘this dreadful place’. Water expresses Dickens’s view of criminality as contagion – and Fagin is always lurking at its centre. So why did Dickens delete this section? Very often, Dickens would prune from his Readings anything that was likely to cause his middle-class audiences offence. The provocative spectres of Ignorance and Want in A Christmas Carol were two other casualties. As far as I remember, Dickens also toned down the implication of suicide – another death by drowning – in his Public Reading of The Chimes. But in ‘Sikes and Nancy’, I believe there’s another reason: quotation. No audience approaches the Reading without an awareness that Nancy will come to a horrible end. I’ve certainly made no effort to disguise it in publicising my show. Dickens made no effort to disguise it in his text either. In the Reading, Nancy is granted the near-comic fatalism of ‘I am drawn back to him through everything, and I should be, I believe, if I knew that I was to die by his hand!’ The fleeting comedy is a more than fair trade-off for what’s gained in singularity. Nancy’s life is being drawn, inexorably, to a fixed point. Nothing funny in that.

Next fragment, a sentence this time:

As they disappeared, the girl sunk down nearly at her full length upon one of the stone stairs, and vented the anguish of her heart in bitter tears.

I find this very affecting. I can certainly picture it. Why the cut? Well, perhaps it doesn’t sit well with the notion of a ‘Public’ Reading. Nancy’s breakdown is a remarkably private thing, a glimpse into a human soul. But when you’re trying to get inside a character, glimpses into the soul are entirely welcome. Eliminating this sentence also helps to create singularity. Rather than diffusing Nancy’s cataclysms across the narrative, Dickens saves everything for a more explosive dramatic climax. The fixed point again; the right decision.

A glimpse into Fagin’s soul next – if the old devil possesses such a thing:

Mortification at the overthrow of his notable scheme; hatred of the girl who had dared to palter with strangers; and utter distrust of the sincerity of her refusal to yield him up; bitter disappointment at the loss of his revenge on Sikes; the fear of detection, and ruin, and death; and a fierce and deadly rage kindled by all; these were the passionate considerations which, following close upon each other with rapid and ceaseless whirl, shot through the brain of Fagin, as every evil thought and blackest purpose lay working at his heart.

Here, the narrator hazards an explanation of why Fagin informs Sikes about Nancy’s ‘betrayal’. Interestingly, it’s a rationalisation that the narrator pulls against. Everything dwindles down to ‘evil thought and blackest purpose’, which implies a quite baseless maliciousness. Fagin as Satan once again. But I also think that terror is key. No character in ‘Sikes and Nancy’ – other than Nancy herself – dares an action stirred by anything other than self-preservation. And terror is the most basic fuel of self-preservation – whether we dub it ‘mortification’, ‘hatred’, ‘distrust’, ‘disappointment’, ‘fear’ or ‘rage’, it amounts to much the same thing. At the bottom of all of us is a tiny, shrivelled, unloved and (most probably) unlovable creature, railing, inconsolable, against a pitiless existence. The greatest dramatic surprise of ‘Sikes and Nancy’ is the care with which Dickens explores Sikes’s downfall. It’s no Rake’s Progress or Newgate novel, though: we have very direct access to Sikes’s terrified, sobbing child. This extends to some sizzling description, again deleted from the Reading, during Sikes’s guilt-stricken romp through the country:

For now, a vision came before him, as constant and more terrible as that from which he had escaped. Those widely staring eyes, so lustreless and so glassy, that he had better borne to see them than think upon them, appeared in the midst of the darkness: light in themselves, but giving light to nothing. There were but two, but they were everywhere. If he shut out the sight, there came the room with every well-known object – some, indeed, that he would have forgotten, if he had gone over its contents from memory – each in its accustomed place. The body was in its place, and its eyes were as he saw them when he stole away. He got up and rushed into the field without. The figure was behind him. He re-entered the shed, and shrunk down once more. The eyes were there, before he had laid himself along.

Let no man talk of murderers escaping justice, and hint that Providence must sleep. There were twenty score of violent deaths in one long minute of that agony of fear.

This passage fills me with memories of my very worst nightmares – dark figures in hallways, shadows in rocking chairs, screaming corpses reflected in mirrors.  Any Daily Mail-pushers still haggling for the death penalty should spend a night with this book. I imagine that both Sikes and Fagin’s mental workings were deleted from the Readings text in deference to its dramatic form. Drama is action, seldom reflection. But the act of reflection – that plunge into dark waters – is an absolute necessity if you’re hoping to do justice to that action. Make no mistake: I’ll be returning to Sikes & Nancy, fresh-stoked with reasons to perform it.

A coda. I’ve been looking at a number of Dickens’s non-Christmas Carol ghost stories recently. They’re yielding up some colourful material; I’m discovering The Haunted Man, Dickens’s final Christmas Book, to be weird beyond my best expectations. Now and again, the best of these texts have shed new light on ‘Sikes and Nancy’.

Here’s some of ‘A Madman’s Manuscript’. It’s the first Dickens piece I have any memory of reading, as part of Wordsworth’s Gothic Short Stories collection (still in print, still available from Amazon). It was long before I got to The Pickwick Papers (serialised 1836-37), where it crops up as an inset narrative. ‘Manuscript’ is a demented dramatic monologue, in the best tradition of Edgar Allan Poe:

Straight and swift I ran, and no one dared to stop me. I heard the noise of feet behind, and redoubled my speed. It grew fainter and fainter in the distance, and at length died away altogether: but on I bounded, through marsh and rivulet, over fence and wall, with a wild shout that was taken up by the strange beings that flocked around me on every side, and swelled the sound, till it pierced the air. I was borne upon the arms of demons who swept along upon the wind, and bore down bank and hedge upon them, and spun me round and round with a rustle and a speed that made my head swim, until at last they threw me from them with a violent shock, and I fell heavily to the earth.

To me, this reads like an alternate universe version of Sikes’s flight through the countryside just outside London. The main difference is that Sikes is chased by his demons (he cannot turn around without the spectre of Nancy turning with him), whilst the Madman romps with his demons in jubilant conspiracy.

Here’s some of ‘A Confession Found in a Prison in the Time of Charles the Second’ from Dickens’s editorial Master Humphrey’s Clock (which ran 1840-41). It’s a macabre, claustrophobic story of a man who becomes obsessed with his stepson. The man bumps him off because of his neurosis that the boy despises him (which puts me in mind of the ‘vulture eye’ of the old man in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’). Dickens shows the sensitivity to the twin complexities of blood and light that lifts much of ‘Sikes and Nancy’:

His mother’s ghost was looking from his eyes. The sun burst forth from behind a cloud; it shone in the bright sky, the glistening earth, the clear water, the sparkling drops of rain upon the leaves. There were eyes in everything. The whole great universe of light was there to see the murder done. I know not what he said; he came of bold and manly blood, and, child as he was, he did not crouch or fawn upon me. I heard him cry that he would try to love me, – not that he did, – and then I saw him running back towards the house. The next I saw was my own sword naked in my hand, and he lying at my feet stark dead, – dabbled here and there with blood, but otherwise no different from what I had seen him in his sleep – in the same attitude too, with his cheek resting upon his little hand.

The story improves yet further in the next section. I keep talking dimly about the ‘eye of God’ hanging over ‘Sikes and Nancy’ – and crikey. With a passage like this, I’m starting to think I’m on to something. Until next time, then…

I buried him that night. When I parted the boughs and looked into the dark thicket, there was a glow-worm shining like the visible spirit of God upon the murdered child. I glanced down into his grave when I had placed him there, and still it gleamed upon his breast; an eye of fire looking up to Heaven in supplication to the stars that watched me at my work.

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Sikes & Nancy: First Re-Readthrough

With two weeks until the first Sikes & Nancy performance, I yesterday took a thorough look at the script. Whilst reading, I cobbled together my thoughts on the material. Personally, I find it absolutely vital to remind myself what the play’s all about; moreover, to see whether I’ve anything fresh to bring to the table. If you’ve ever needed proof that I do more than read the lines and gibber a bit – I like to have such proof to hand – then have a read of the below. At the very least, you’ll make this lonely rehearsal process a little less so!

Archetypes. Fagin instantly identified as ‘the receiver of stolen goods’, Morris Bolter ‘his new associate’. The vocations of characters are morally black; ambiguities work beneath these banners.

Dickens’s very long sentences. The establishing line is forty-two words – an entire paragraph, essentially. This requires a leisurely reading. An attempt to ‘breathe’ the text and explore its nuances without grabbing for them. Later on, Brownlow speaks in paragraphs exclusively.

Fagin and Bolter in conversation. Will require sensitive restaging to make it work end-on. Some fluid pivotings on a fixed point, as with Gollum and Smeagol – or a less frantic ‘Confrontation’ in the musical Jekyll and Hyde. The same goes for the very long scene (roughly three pages) in which Nancy, Brownlow and (occasionally) Rose Maylie converse.

Anti-semitism? This reading’s doing nothing to shake my idea of Fagin as the piece’s most malevolent character. A joyful revelling in villainy, as with Barabas in The Jew of Malta. The very devil (from Nancy: ‘devil that he is, and worse than devil as my teacher in all devilry’). I’m striving to find a more complex Fagin, but I’m not sure it exists. I want to avoid the ‘he’s Jewish, and therefore more sinned against than sinning’ approach. It’s by now more radical to have a wicked character who also, funnily enough, happens to be Jewish. The two aren’t necessarily connected. I suspect Dickens wrote Oliver Twist in such a mania that the implications didn’t cross his mind. It’s stylistic villainy, not cloying social commentary.

Bolter. Was never very happy with my Morris Bolter characterisation. Seems mentally deficient; the prototype for Jack Wild’s Artful Dodger less glamorous when revealed as a petty and bullying adolescent. Must refine rather than complicate. Simplification best. And present the character’s pathetic deficiencies in a way that’s less self-aware.

A cinematic shift of locations. The transition from Fagin’s den to the public-house, accomplished in a sentence. The freedom of pure storytelling. Fluid yet evocative arrangements of chairs to suggest these landscapes – especially in the Golden Fleece, where space will be limited.

A voyeuristic thrill to the public-house scene. Same sensation as when watching a film with someone sneaking where they shouldn’t. Hitchcock’s Marnie great for this. Would like to convey some of this – must never forget that Bolter is watching all of Nancy and Brownlow’s transaction. And the audience is always watching a chain of shadowy underworld events. Making the actor/audience positions interchangeable is a gift of the one-man form.

Sublime passage. Dickens counterpoints two cityscapes for Nancy’s flight: the first minutely observed, offering geographical and physical detail; the second transcendent, charting the city as echo-chamber of life and death, light and dark both (two very important relations). Magnificent writing here. The chill of standing alone at midnight… I think of Dickens’s essay ‘Night Walks’. And the boat ride in The Night of the Hunter.

Water. Emerges with the River Thames. A key image. I devised a soundscape for the piece inspired by the Thames, as a place in which even the most heinous crimes are hidden forever. Figures in certain versions of The String of Pearls, the inaugural Sweeney Todd myth. Dickens aware of this too; the start of Our Mutual Friend. In devising how this show should sound, I’ve been inspired by the song ‘Dog Eats Dog’ from Les Miserables. Especially in the 1985 recording, with the neve-shredding iron clatter of electric synth and Alun Amstrong caterwauling as only he can. To perform ‘Sikes and Nancy’ in an open sewer would probably be its best release.

Nancy as ‘the girl’ versus Rose Maylie as ‘the young lady’. Calculating Mr Dickens. An astoundingly compassionate account of Nancy – needs to be played absolutely straight, as open and as vulnerable as can be managed. No reference to her as streetwalker, aside from the most glancing (‘I am chained to my old life’). Yet she remains ‘the girl’, cast out and utterly helpless. As Smike says, ‘no hope’; Nancy herself says ‘I am past all hope’. I’d quite like to see the 1941 Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde again; Ingrid Bergman’s performance provoked similar feelings in me. Nancy bears her bleeding heart for all to see. It’s compelling.

Reassessing Brownlow. Too easy to think of Mr Brownlow as a Samuel Pickwick or a Cheeryble Brother. Perhaps he is – in Oliver Twist. But not ‘Sikes and Nancy’. The text yields up an untrusting and judgmental tyrant. Verges on the mad priest type at times (preaching ‘flames and vengeance’): Angelo in Measure for Measure, Frollo in the Hunchback, Mrs White in Carrie. Patronising (‘you see I am willing to humour you’); probing (so many questions); failing to love (his mission in the original is not to save Oliver, but punish Monks). Shouldn’t go to far – a man in a desperate and unusual situation, and a man who does offer Nancy redemption – but shouldn’t cut him any slack either.

SIKES. The dread aura of Bill Sikes has remarkable textual support. First mention of the name italicised and accentuated by dashes. Spoken by Nancy… Tender and terrifying.

Doomed love. Nancy’s devotion to Bill Sikes – through everything, everything – is so immediate, so easy to relate to, for anyone who’s ever been trapped in a narcissistic romance. Narcissistic in the psychological sense: the ‘I need you’ coupled with the ‘but only at a distance’. It’s almost psychosis in Nancy’s case. Is her relationship with this monster based on any discernible action? And how can she stand by him as she predicts her own death? It’s something out of Greek Tragedy. It’s Zabina braining herself against the cage in Tamburlaine. It’s a martyr’s death – must take in Dreyer’s film of The Passion of Joan of Arc – but Nancy is martyr only to a twisted love. For my money, the greatest crime of Oliver! is turning this desperation into the dreamy ballad ‘As Long As He Needs Me’. It’s a diminishment of something much more frightening – the very darkest places to which love can carry us. As Nancy says to Rose Maylie, ‘when ladies as young and good, as happy and beautiful as you, miss, give away your hearts, love will carry even you all lengths’. Chilling.

The white handkerchief. One of the few props that warrants inclusion on stage. I’ll have to buy one of these; the Cambridge run used an artfully trimmed pillowcase (my eternal thanks to Ailis Creavin). Must also remember to find a new coat for these performances (last one was hired).

Filmic passage. Another transcendent cityscape, as Bolter bolts home. Cinematic again – dwindles down, suddenly and without warning, to ‘Fagin sat in his old lair’.

Cue the entrance of Bill Sikes. How to describe this unholy presence? He’s a fairytale ogre, in many ways – proclamations such as ‘I’d grind his skull under the hell of my boot’ smack of Jack and the Beanstalk (‘I’ll grind his bones to make my bread’). Our modern fairytale ogres are the bogeymen of the slasher film (Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddie) and, much worse, real-life monsters such as Josef Fritzl. There is humour to Sikes (‘Hallo! He’s gone mad…’), but none of it redeems him. He would be one-dimensional – were it not for my belief that fear is one of the most uniting cultural experiences. (If in doubt, read David Skal’s The Monster Show. Excellent book.) My Thomas Hadfield (Dick Turpin’s hangman) at The York Dungeon embodies a lot of Sikes-like aspects: brutish masculinity, a careless attitude to human life, an addiction to terrifying for the sheer hell of it. After the murder of Nancy, Sikes is more Macbeth after slaying Duncan. The links between Macbeth and ‘Sikes and Nancy’ is something I’ll explore further on…

Fagin worst of all. Yet isn’t it interesting how Fagin rises to the gauntlet that Sikes flings down? He’s just as evil, but in a different way: the wheedling provoker rather than the combine of wicked energy. In this scene, Fagin becomes rather like other Dickens villains: Uriah Heep in David Copperfield (the physical sliminess), Skimpole in Bleak House (the inner sliminess; one of the most overlooked fiends in literature). The relentlessness with which Fagin pushes Nancy’s guilt – a linguistic temple of ‘which she did’ repetitions – is supremely frightening. As is his parting sentiment: ‘You won’t be – tooviolent, Bill?’ The character sweats perverted evil, much like Boris Karloff in The Body Snatcher (whose ‘never get rid of me’ repetitions are spritual ancestor to ‘which she did’).

Bolter at his most clown-like. A clowning that comes from a real place – terror at Sikes and Fagin both – but clowning nonetheless. The laughs will only come if Bolter is genuinely pathetic. Bolter’s comical perception of his empowerment skewed, deflated, frayed and fractured. Must never forget the danger, though, the fact that Bolter seals Nancy’s damnation – if there’s laughter, it’s horrid, horrid laughter.

One of my favourite lines. ‘The day was breaking, and there was light enough for the men to see each other’s faces. There was the same fire in the eyes of both.’ A moment of calm after the frantic bombast of the argument before. The coming of the light a vital motif in ‘Sikes and Nancy’… Here, you can’t help but link it with Dickens’s god-like narrator – that overwhelming force that sees across cities, through walls and into the soul of man.

Excruciating build-up to the murder… ‘The girl was lying, half-dressed, upon the bed.’ This is where murder is most shocking – not in the power of the perpetrator, but the fragility of the victim. In the murder itself, Nancy is tossed and ripped asunder like a rag-doll. Her submission to destruction is this relationship perfected. She knew she was doomed in conversation with Brownlow, and she knows she’s doomed here as well. ‘Bill, why do you look like that at me?’ is an empty question. Her ‘it is never too late to repent’ is also hollow – a paraphrase of It’s Never Too Late to Mend, a then-popular melodrama. (The 1937 film version steals more than a few elements from Oliver Twist.) There’s submission, submission, submission. And an almost-willingness that violence be done.

Horrific. Few cries in drama ring out more appallingly than that of Nancy: ‘Bill, Bill! For dear God’s sake, for your own, for mine, stop before you spill my blood!!! I have been true to you, upon my guilty soul I have!!!’ (Dickens’s italics/exclamation points). It requires a near-operatic style of acting. There is nothing subtle about falling to your knees and pleading for life. It would be a hoary cliché had Dickens not perfected it.

Two more vital images. The blood pouring out and the light bursting in. A hearty splash of stage blood is needed here; against the white of Rose Maylie’s handkerchief, it looks quite striking. Evocative, too: the story’s essential filth and contamination – of innocence; of salvation; of goodness, love and purity. The light entering into the room is practically the eye of God… This section of the show is a theatrical endurance test if ever there was one. It demands a heap of energy and prodigious reserves of breath (two things of which I’ve no shortage). The scene’s sheer bloody relentlessness also requires a degree of vocal colour and variation. It can’t just be shouted (always the temptation). But provided the emotion’s there, I think the scene resolves itself. Never, never, NEVER forget: I AM PLEADING FOR MY LIFE. I AM DESTROYING A HUMAN BEING. I AM BEING MOVED BY A FORCE BEYOND MY COMPREHENSION; BEYOND MY CONTROL.

The uncanny. Sikes’s post-murder romp through the fields outside London is the most sinister bit of text I’ve ever performed. It moves like a nightmare. It’s the inexplicability that does it – most particularly the apparition of the gravestone. It reminds me of the dark phantom of the Groke that haunts the Moomins. Yet it also has a contained logic – the scene makes absolute sense as the mental workings of a man out of his mind. The passage is evocative of other Dickens works – ‘A Madman’s Manuscript’ from The Pickwick Papers is essentially Dickens’s version of Edgar Allan Poe, so I’ll return to it for help in this scene. It’s also ideal that this passage follows directly on from the murder. I don’t subscribe to ‘The Method’ in any serious way (you can tell by the really sketchy way I just referred to it), but feeling positively knackered forces me, by necessity, to rein in the melodramatics. The scene’s more effective for it.

Sikes doth murder sleep. Earlier, I said that I see ‘Sikes and Nancy’ as Dickens’s version of Macbeth. Why? Light. Dark. Revenge. Guilt. Ghosts. Madness. Violence. Murder. And blood. So. Much. Blood. Dickens was greatly impressed by a performance of Macbeth he saw as a child; the moment he realised that Duncan turned up in a variety of other guises post-murder was revelatory in his understanding of theatre. This also strikes me as an antecedent of the polymonologue form that Dickens adapted for the Public Readings. And, lest we forget, Macready described Dickens’s performance of ‘Sikes and Nancy’ as ‘two Macbeths!’ Excellent! I must return to the Orson Welles film of Macbeth (it’s uneven, but captures Shakespeare’s Hollywood Gothic spookiness better than anything), as well as return to the blinkin’ text (something I haven’t done since pre-GCSEs).

Mob justice. The end of the Reading, in which an angry mob surrounds Sikes’s hiding-place, puts me in mind of the 1931 Frankenstein, with Karloff’s poor monster trapped in the burning mill. Dickens seemed to have James Whale’s sense that people, working as one, could never come to any good. Sikes’s demise is no catharsis. Nobody gets out of this story cleanly.

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War of the Dungeon: Part 2

The complete Dungeon strategy guide – continued! (For interested parties, here’s Part the First.)

5. Torture: The Dungeon’s E-Ticket attraction – now more than ever in the wake of Fifty Shades of Grey (as this article in the endlessly trustworthy Mail Online suggests). The kindest treatment for those unsightly bawds who mouth off about ‘Mr Grey’ is to clap them in the cage behind the torture chair. This cage, more than anything, is emblematic of the Torture show’s primary challenge: digression. The temptation to swell the show with all manner of grisly additions is immense. Why insert the hook up the backside, when you can spear the eyeball too? Why tear out the tongue, when you can mentally slap ’em round the face with it? And why let people stand about like leg-dependent idiots, when they can elsewise sit majestic in your palatial wrought iron cage? Yet nowhere in the Dungeon are the demands of time more pressing. You’re sandwiched between Judge and Turpin. If you go too slow, the audience will flood in from Judge and create an incredibly awkward clash. If you go too fast, the automated section of the Turpin show will still be going – meaning that you’re left gaping like a fish, waiting for an actor otherwise engaged. And that actor will despise you for making their life more difficult. Torture is a juicy show, a sirloin steak of a show – a king-size ham of a show, if you like – so the delight in giving as much as possible is virtually irresistible. As ever, though, these things tend to work better under constraints. It puts a cap on your generosity and prevents it spilling over into egomania. Like Judge, the Torture show has a three-part structure; the three sentences become three tortures. When the Dungeon was still a glorified wax museum, the torture theme spread throughout the entire building: a fragmented parade of gore-splashed vignettes. I particularly remember the impalement of Saint George, whose forlorn corpse now looms above the Torture chair. (Very different to the cuddly psychopath I played in John Kinsella’s Plough Plays a few months back.) In its current state, then, Torture is a microcosm of the attraction’s original design: compressed, and yet still fragmented. It’s the actor’s job to create cohesion. So whilst I find myself shaking my fist at Erik Bloodaxe’s muffled cries of ‘GET IN HERE YOU DOGS!’ (a sure harbinger of yet another group’s approach) and doing myself reprehensible vocal and physical damage (the thumbscrews have several times screwed up my thumbs), it’s mostly from the desire to extend my delight to others. It’s vital to hold on to that and not let exhaustion prevail. When I started at the Dungeon in 2008, my Torturer character was largely a reprise of my Doctor Prospero in Return to the Forbidden Planet. I still have the performance notes I drafted during that rehearsal process:

Prospero is the master actor, ever playing the part of the great villain. The zeal and zest of his evil is implicit in his every elegant gesture, twitching fingertip and raised eyebrow. He goes bow-legged in his villainy, almost stumbling as he contorts into ever more insane poses. He is like the real-life Tod Slaughter by way of Vincent Price and Lon Chaney…

Bloody hell. If I started with that proviso, I’ve no idea what my Torturer’s matured into. My Doctor Prospero was by no means restrained. On balance, the Torturer is probably my favourite of the Dungeon ghoulies. I hate the Torturer at times – he’s by far the most tiring character to play, particularly when the crowds are relentless – but he’s the blackened, beastly heart of the Dungeon. I think he’ll stay that way for some time.

6. Dick Turpin: Highwayman from Hell: I vividly remember the old Turpin show, from visiting the Dungeon as a child. Back then, it must have been quite an ambitious undertaking: not only a projection-effect Dick Turpin who spoke to guests from his cell, but, as I recall, a very impressive town square in which the hanging took place. The climax of the show was the terrifying, lightning-infused apparition of Turpin astride Black Bess – two figures that stood at the entrance to the Dungeon for a while. In my first two seasons, it was also quite different, extending over two large rooms which have since becomes the Witches playing space. Turpin’s now a more economic black box of a show. The original intention for the loading area in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion was that of a boundless limbo of mist and decay, in which the ride vehicles would briefly materialise before fading away. I get a similar vibe from the Turpin room, which represents York Debtors’ Prison (the real cells are located just across the road, in York Castle Museum). The effect isn’t immaculate, but the space does give the impression of unending darkness, which I at least find unsettling. This atmosphere has its pay-off when the lights fade out and Dick Turpin puts in an appearance – via the miracle of carefully placed surround sound speakers and a strobe-lit, twitching body. The nightmare of Turpin on a timescale is getting the damned public into the room, onto the benches, then back on their feet and out of the room. Possibly in response to the room’s forbidding appearance, everyone’s motor skills become savagely impaired, which means they fritter away endless minutes shuffling their feet, avoiding the front benches, sticking far too close together (‘four bodies to a bench!’ you cry – no one really listens), sitting on each other’s laps (a health and safety horror – the very same benches tip forward!) and generally making nuisances of themselves. At moments like this, you think along the lines of Miss Trunchbull in Matilda: this would make for a perfect Dungeon, were it not for the damned visitors! The show’s saving grace is that you’re playing Thomas Hadfield. A real historical figure – the only one you impersonate in the Dungeon – about which nothing pleasant can be said. As a confederate of Turpin, he’s basically a nasty shit, so you can be far ruder to the audience than usual. You can be loud – provided it’s damagingly unpredictable rather than histrionic (as in Judge and Torture). Physically threatening, too – I usually forget what a very tall chap I am (comes from being hunched), but I delight in looming over an audience on Turpin and treating them just as I bloody well please. And that’s the key to the show. The letting go; the not caring. When I first started Turpin, I couldn’t get a handle on the character. I was trying too hard, which meant the effort was making itself shown in all the wrong places. It became one of my patented ‘I’m not quite sure what I’m doing, but I’m also bonkers, so I’ll scream and flail hysterically, and isn’t it all just a little impressive?’ performances. Ugly self-consciousness. Which didn’t make sense. To live a life of real crime, heinous crime, you can’t give a flying toss what anyone thinks of you. The question is irrelevant; baser instincts dominate. It’s definitely a quality I’ve tried to bring to Bill Sikes in Sikes & Nancy, who I consider Hadfield’s spiritual cousin. Too little care is a dangerous thing in theatre (I dislike performers who feel entitled to an audience’s interest), but if adjusted to an end, it can most certainly deliver. The unabashedly nasty characterisation is also wonderful for setting up the last jump scare. Whilst the lights are still out, you sprint like mad to the front of the room and position yourself so you’re right in someone’s face (I tend to go for those who whisper or giggle in the wrong places). It’s the best jump scare in the Dungeon. And more than a bit nasty.

7. Execution: Traitors of York: The Dungeon’s new show for 2012; a vast improvement on 2011’s abysmal (and actorless) Gladiators of York. Execution has lent a pleasing symmetry to the second half of the Dungeon: following their sentencing and torture, the audience moves through three orchestrated deaths. With hanging and burning already taken, Execution turns to beheading. Chopping blocks and giant axes! The iconic Halifax gibbet! Severed heads on spikes! Truth be told, the hoary medievalisms that crop up in such Universal horror films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Raven and Tower of London. Sometimes the secret to producing something really good is to do something thoroughly clichéd. Somehow it’s that bit more surprising – and welcome. Unlike Gladiators, which rooted itself in the most tenuous of historical conjectures, Execution is quintessentially York, taking place as it does at Micklegate Bar – still in existence, and still where the monarch begs admission to the city. (Very amusing watching the Queen do so earlier this year.) What makes Execution stand out is the character. It’s like nothing else the Dungeon’s ever seen: a shambling dervish of performance anarchy; a properly mud-spattered classical Fool; a free-wheeling, head-lopping motor-mouth. The Executioner’s Assistant is insane, no doubt… but not particularly terrifying. Rather, he’s buoyant, he’s Falstaffian, he’s – in the best tradition of Will Seaward – so loud that you can barely think. I would stop short of saying he’s loveable. During rehearsals for Die Fledermaus, I was endlessly requested to ‘be more loveable’. In return, I endlessly argued how senseless that is as a detached abstraction. Execution has allowed me to deliver the kind of Frosch that Die Fledermaus wouldn’t. I’ve taken great delight in realizing this specialised black comedy: bellowing ‘HELLO!’ in distorted cadences as the audience enters the room; using the broomstick as crowd control; letting rip in a cornucopia of whooping, flailing, gibbering and pivoting. The best fun in the world. The Executioner’s Assistant is the flip-side of Thomas Hadfield: once again, inhibition is key, but here in pursuit of festive merriment. This character has proven key to mastering audiences on Execution. If people are onboard with the character’s sort-of charisma and willing to laugh along, then the show is a quick and easy one. If not, it’s a soul-crushing, energy-sapping slog – in which seemingly nothing can lift the resentment. One of the best lessons of the Dungeon is never to try to make an audience like you. As in life, so in theatre: the harder you try to be liked, the more unlikable you become. Patsy Rodenburg’s teachings lean in the same direction, suggesting the actor must strive always to tell the truth. I don’t know where the elevated ideal of ‘truth’ slots into the Dungeon equation (or indeed most forms of theatre that I vibrate to), but where being true to yourself is concerned, Execution insists on it.

8. Witches: Burned Alive: Witches is by far the most tech-dependent of the actor-led shows. So much so that I half-anticipate the day when the actor is usurped by a sophisticated robot. Witches was the new show for 2010, which made it very exciting at the time. The special effects are uneven, but on the whole impressive; most particularly the show’s crowning illusion, in which a hapless audience member – via the miracle of red lighting, steam and a well-concealed turntable – is reduced to a smouldering corpse. The actor doesn’t have a character to play, so much as a series of vivid ‘moments’ – a sneer here, a spit-take there, some jabbings of the needle to even out the action. Whether you’re interesting in fishing for anything deeper is entirely up to you. Personally, I think you’d be mad not to – repeating a show across so many weeks requires some further well of interest. (Those in doubt should witness the legendary Bryan Heeley’s conversion of the show into a Queen rock concert; not for nothing is this man the walking personification of the Dungeonesque.) For me, the show’s most beguiling oddity is the absence of any witches. In every other show, the bogeyman puts in an appearance – whether through the actor or some technical paraphernalia (as with Guy Fawkes, Erik Bloodaxe and Dick Turpin). Here you have only your victim from the audience, a poor (and often unwilling) bogeywoman. Yet your character, the grotesquely named Witch-Pricker, is but a whisker away from a fairytale witch. It’s all there: the black hat with the wide brim; the swirling black cape; the hideous, throat-rending cackling; even the needle with which you test for witches, bizarrely reminiscent of a magic wand (not helped by the fact that the pricker really was a stripped-down, repainted Harry Potter wand for the longest time). I always got the same feeling from Vincent Price’s performance as Matthew Hopkins in Witchfinder General: those who persecute witches come to resemble their prey. It’s a bit of a cheat, of course, owing considerably more to Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz than the Malleus Maleficarum. Speaking for myself, I’d love to play the Wicked Witch of the West on stage someday. For my money, Hamilton’s Witch is one of the all-time great cinematic performances, one that thrilled me to no end as a child and still fascinates me in early onset adulthood. Nature has anyway cursed me with Hamilton’s hatchet-face profile. If Witches can serve as my unofficial Oz audition, then that’s enough to put me in a good mind-frame. Where controlling the public’s concerned, the machines have that one over on me. I simply try not to get caught in the curtains.

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The Edinburgh Report

That’s right! I managed to escape the dark and the dank for a two-day trip to Edinburgh! Admittedly, part of that trip involved my first ever visit to The Edinburgh Dungeon (easily the most terrifying of the Dungeons – that bloody cannibal boat ride – but let down by some negligent acting). However, Edinburgh’s greater joy was in seeing lots of different shows! Special thanks must go to Jeff Carpenter for braving Eddie Dungers with me (poor Jeff); Andy Brock for lighting the way to the world’s greatest ice cream parlour (reckless indulgence); and, most particularly, Giulia Galastro for letting me spend the night at her palatial Edinburgh mansion (as well as the coffee and toast that she so kindly prepared in the morning).

I saw six shows in all, which isn’t bad going for thirty-two hours of compulsive hill-walking, haggis-dodging and bagpipes. I won’t attempt to weave them into a cohesive narrative. Instead, I’ll distill my thoughts on each in turn. I don’t have enough opinions to review in the traditional sense (or even a basic comprehension of star systems), so I’ll be waffling about that which interested me.

Adolf: My primary reason for going to Edinburgh. At last year’s Fringe, I saw Pip Utton play The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I was fascinated by the production, asked Pip if I could have a go, and wound up as Quasimodo in March. Which was just wonderful. Adolf was Pip’s breakthrough monodrama, and nobody’s ever really questioned that it’s his best work; even a review of the Cambridge Hunchback wasn’t slow to point this out. I would fight off the accusation that the Hunchback script is unduly repetitious and rambling. If these element exist, it’s because they’re entirely appropriate to Quasimodo’s warped mental state. Utton wisely suggests that an ugly exterior will almost always determine the interior. Ugliness is jagged, irregular, distressing to behold. The relentless quality of Utton’s Hunchback builds into a near-transcendent vision of suffering with Quasimodo’s climactic suicide; the piece’s key deviation from the novel. Having absorbed ninety minute’s worth of Utton’s fascinating words, I wanted to hear more of them. Adolf was an excellent experience, even though the cleverness of its central twist has been spoiled by fifteen years of reviewers. Simply coming face-to-face with the swastika is utterly terrifying. Once Hitler himself arrives, you realise that you’re dealing in such high-intensity images that your heart is in your throat before the drama’s begun. Because the piece is a live performance, it rediscovers the terror in that which is so easily taken for granted, a caricature made ridiculous by Brecht and Chaplin and Donald Duck. Utton’s Hitler is a brilliant creation, quite surprising on a few fronts. No German accent, for one. I’m glad of this; it doesn’t make sense when the character addresses the audience in English throughout. Utton does the sensible thing by finding an accommodating vocal equivalent: a high-pitched, metallic bleat. His repeated rants against ‘the Jew, and the gypsy, and the Slav, and the negro, and the communist, and the homosexual’ were both distressing and thrilling: as with the real Hitler, you must condemn his evil, absolutely – but, in the midst of the tempest, you can’t look anywhere else. Damn it all, the man had style. Most frightening was a moment late in the production when Utton abandoned the script to challenge those self-righteous audience members leaving the auditorium. Although Utton used the ‘this is a theatre!’ line common to Patti Lupone’s celebrated diva fit, this was no blaze of thespian ego. This fury came from the best possible place: that everyone understand that the bigotry within the show IS. NOT. REAL. It’s illustrative; it’s educational. My most disturbing memory of Adolf is that some really did believe it was an undercover EDL rally. Discord always arises from bigotry – but it can also comes from that parading, knee-jerk piety that caused those audience walk-outs. Because they’re polarised examples of the same thing: shallow thinking that quickly turns destructive. For me, that really does underline the point of Utton’s theatre: not so much to preach good or bad, but to challenge his audiences to think. In my experience, the absolute hardest thing.

Love and Understanding: Regrettably, the only new work by Cambridge students that I could squeeze into my timetable. Happily, a good time investment. The play was directed by Max Upton, who I know better as a very, very fine actor in a triad of Corpus Playroom shows centered on child abuse: FrozenBash and Doubt. I admire his achievement here, because I haven’t the faintest idea how you direct a piece like this. Before visiting Edinburgh last year, I had never thought about how the impossible limitations of get-in and get-out timings made minimalism an absolute necessity. (I recall watching the Troupe lot pick apart Babushka‘s arcane heapings of set-dressing and feeling desperately sorry for them.) Love and Understanding, like Bereavement, belongs to the black-box-furniture-shortage subgenre. Each scene becomes a new round of theatrical Tetris, with chairs and table endlessly arranged to suggest bedroom, restaurant and hospital. More than that, though, I don’t know how you act in such a piece. Ingenuous naturalism is still a quality that eludes me, so I can’t help but admire it in others. Personally, I’d feel deeply uncomfortable acting in a piece that deals with marital strife. It’s something I know nothing about. I think I’m happy to play things beyond my experience – but only so long as they’re so far beyond it that nobody can pop up and challenge me. Naturalism doesn’t carry the get-out clause of the blatantly fantastic. It’s probably a hangover from GCSE Drama; the dread of that happy-g0-lucky ‘issue’ theatre, in which the participants gleefully discourse on a cocktail of terrorism, rape, alcoholism and spousal abuse without a shred of first-hand understanding. (I hated it then because I found it incredibly boring, which says a lot for my engagement.) As I said earlier, this isn’t a review, and I’m aware this digression sounds like negative criticism. Far from it; the play was much funnier than I expected, and definitely worth an hour of your time. It may be the text, or it may simply be personal preference, but for me the stand-out performance was that of Ben Kavanagh – positively channelling the manic spirit of Rik Mayall, the drama’s anarchic, naturalism-stretching demon.

The Table: I originally planned to see Dracula late on Monday. However, I instead decided to watch Pierre Novellie in the Chortle Student Comedy final, on the basis that I’d much rather see Pierre doing comedy well than some students doing Dracula badly. In any case, Chortle was sold out by the time I got to the box office. (Lucky for me it’s since appeared online: hurrah for organ trouble!) Andy Brock nudged me in the direction of The Table as an alternative, and I’m very pleased that I went. A few months ago, I took part in a mask workshop with Roddy Maude-Roxby – the voice of Edgar in The Aristocats! – and soon realised what a damnsomely tricky undertaking it is to create an artificial life. As intellectual considerations, many of the issues occur to you: adjusting your sight-line for a new pair of eyes, adjusting your arms to the position of the head, fashioning a consistent body language, coining a style that is at once presentational and believable. To pull them all off, though – simultaneously – is the stuff of magic. All of these issues are addressed in The Table, which I suppose aspires to the realm of meta-puppetry. It’s at once a contained drama and an informative discourse on creating life; if I missed a Dracula, I at least gained a Frankenstein. That said, I didn’t find it as riotously funny as most of the people surrounding me. There’s only so many times that the declaration ‘just a puppet… a puppet on a table’ will make me laugh before sinking to the debilitating nihilism of Family Guy at its worst. Although I think that was the point. As with Frankenstein, there’s a primal sadness in creating a life, only to . In this case, that bloody table. Thankfully, the virtuoso fireworks of the puppetry never allow the show to sag. Another one worth seeing.

Churchill: Pip Utton’s second offering of the Fringe; the UK premiere of Adolf‘s biographical alter ego. In many ways, I enjoyed this even more than Adolf (‘enjoyed’ isn’t the right word for Adolf). There’s a contagious warmth and charisma about its subject matter. The somewhat apologetic blurb on Utton’s website provides several clues to his approach to his ‘meet a dead celebrity’ format (which has also taken in Charles Dickens, Charlie Chaplin, Francis Bacon and Roy Orbison). Yes, in one sense, Churchill does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a best-of compilation from a dream/nightmare dinner party guest. But that underestimates the immersive thrill of a live encounter. I felt much the same about performing the Hunchback. You’ll find much better Quasimodos on film; Laughton’s Hunchback is one of the divinely inspired miracles of cinema performance. And nothing can compare with the imagined grotesque of the novel. But that’s not the same as sitting in the shadow of the character’s hump; as feasting on the smells and bells subsidiary to his person; as seeing the white of his gleaming, three-dimensional eye. Churchill capitalises on its live dimension in a relaxed and breezy fashion. There was a healthy degree of audience interaction, energising rather than embarrassing: an audience member called to help the Prime Minister off his plinth; an inflatable globe presented for the audience to blow up; a gentle wheedling of latecomers as they took their seats. I wasn’t prepared for quite how funny Pip would be, based on my experiences with the Hunchback; it’s a rough-around-the-edges performance style that’s remarkably charismatic. But Churchill is deeply emotional too – I found myself welling up at a few moments, although that piece by Elgar might have had something to do with it. Combined with the close of the Olympics only two days before (featuring Timothy Spall… as Churchill), it’s not surprising the play carried that quivery, last-night-of-the-proms atmosphere, evoking a great country that great men may occasionally steward. In the words of Churchill himself, ‘makes you proud to be British!’ (And I don’t often feel the thrill of inherited pride.) I had the pleasure of meeting Pip after both Adolf and Churchill. A very affable gent. I was really impressed that he remembered my name, unprompted, after nearly a year. Hell, I struggle to remember the names of people I see on a daily basis. It’s nice to be able to shake a performer’s hand after a show. With the one-man form as Pip Utton practices it, you find yourself wanting to shake his hand. Better than a bow.

Miss Havisham’s Expectations: I was looking forward to this a great deal: a single-focused study of one of Dickens’s most enigmatic people. I’ve performed two one-man shows drawn from Dickens, but both were multi-character romps, taking their cue from Dickens’s own Public Readings. The other one-person Dickens shows I’ve encountered – Callow’s The Mystery of Charles Dickens and Margolyes’s Dickens’ Women – were likewise multi-charactered, with Dickens’s narrator replaced by a plummy enthusiast. So I was excited to see a Dickensian monodrama of a different streak. Like a great deal of one-person shows, what held Miss Havisham’s Expectations together was its central performer. In Linda Marlowe, the audience was blessed. A very beautiful woman, with her high cheekbones and cracked-mirror eyes. Better still, a woman who uses this beauty to fashion a chain of fantastically memorable theatrical images. I won’t soon forget her stooping over her stick; nor her strides through a supernatural blast; nor her maniacal dancings and dressings-up, gloriously reminiscent of Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Comparing this show to Pip Utton’s efforts was very interesting. Utton has an earthy presence, with little sense of the controlling actor; he leaps on an inaugural image of enormous power and allows the drama to unspool from there. Marlowe, on the other hand, is unashamedly theatrical; her images come in inspired, bewitching crackles, like the frazzled synapses of her subject. A generalisation, I know, but I wonder if it’s the distinction between masculine and feminine approaches to the one-person form. Recently, I read an article on how children create haunted house experiences for their friends. Boys tend to produce a series of sketches, bound by the simplest means; this put me in mind of Utton’s unchanging characters sanctioning a free-wheeling ride through their lives and thoughts. Girls will usher you into a darkened room and tell you a story. This sums up Marlowe’s mad and merry cauldron as well as anything for me.

Bereavement the Musical: As with the Cambridge production, a soul-quenching delight. In my case, that means mild degrees of heartbreak throughout. Joey Akubeze was especially good in ‘Have You Noticed Yet?’, a number that only seems to have deepened and improved in the revival. James I impersonator Jess Peet is also electrifying in her number, which has a new arrangement. I marginally prefer the old tune – something about the slightly uncomfortable speed and pitch put me in mind of ‘Hellfire’ in the Disney Hunchback, heightening the emotion in stretching the performer’s voice. I once heard it said that Peet’s voice is the sound of pain, which I think is a quite wonderful tribute to its effectiveness. Her ‘Not a Day Goes By’ in Merrily We Roll Along was a notch above pretty much every musical performance I’ve seen on the benighted ADC stage. Even her rendition of ‘Why Does Nobody Like Me?’ in Guido! discovered a surprising pathos to the hokum. My favourite song of the lot is still ‘I Believe’, led from the top by Martha Bennett with a stirring openness and compassion. This write-up isn’t about singling people out, not intentionally at least – Bereavement works precisely because it’s an ensemble piece. There’s no sense of a dominating, starry presence – it doesn’t come across as a ‘Jeff Carpenter production’ or an ‘Andy Brock production’. It’s a collective vision of a universal experience; the right attitude to the right material. And it works, dammit. I read over that Cambridge review of Bereavement again just recently. Appalling tripe, it must be said. It seems that virtually no reviewers can write. A problem that spread throughout nearly all Cambridge theatre reviews, except for those that had ‘James Swanton’ and ‘Five Stars’ in the text… That Bereavement was a lightning-rod for audience outrage was much more than ‘the ADC mafia’ (who? what?) ganging up on one poor, unsuspecting student (or, to be accurate, their poorly considered sheaf of text). It was rather a quite timely, quite justifiable expression of rage at how disrespectful student reviews had become. People put a lot of time into doing drama when there are degrees to be getting on with. No matter what the results, they therefore deserve the proper consideration. That occasionally people will create something of real excellence only makes the injustice more apparent. Such was the case with Bereavement.

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Acting and Obsession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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War of the Dungeon: Part 1

My somewhat absence from all things blogacious is down to five straight days in the Dungeon! Now, going a-Dungeoning is exhausting at the best of times – but come the tempestuous summer season, the pressure cranks up a notch. In torture terms, the thumbscrews tighten; the tongue tearers twist; the chappy is chopped (the whole inch of it). Our opening times expand to 10am till 5:30pm; allowing for preparation time either side of those figures, that can mean upwards of eight hours clapped in the dark. Once amiable guests tumble into relentless and impersonal masses. Normally, the Dungeon works to a seven-minute ‘fill ‘n’ spill’ system: one minute to get the audience in, five minutes to perform your show, one minute to get ’em out – and repeat. The shock of summer is that, for once, the crowds really do come at this unreasonable pace. What’s more, they’ll sometimes come at an even faster clip, for whatever erratic reason: an error at cash desk, perhaps, or an unreceptive and rowdy lot, for whom surrounding actors have condensed their shows – most inexcusably, guests taking an age on an unnecessary toilet trip.

In light of the above, you inevitably view shows as fragments in a larger war between actors and audience. Generally, that’s not a mode of thought that I’m happy to endorse. When I picked Simon Callow’s brains on the theatrical gods of the past, he described Olivier in just such terms (roughly the 21:30 mark in that clip):

There was nothing quite like that experience. It was like total war on the audience. It was so brilliant, everything, every aspect of an actor’s armoury – you see, you use military metaphors with Olivier…

I dislike theatre that seeks to tame an audience. Perhaps because I’m aware I lack the raw masculine drive to manage such a thing, or to delude myself that I have sufficient resources at my disposal (ninety-nine percent of the battle). But even removed from this gladiatorial arena, I know that there’s always the potential for bad power in my more grotesque personal niche. That which is heightened can seem ostentatious. That which is ostentatious risks managing audience response: death! It’s that dagger-edge boundary between making a joke and recognising you’re making a joke. Imperceptible on the surface, maybe, but it’s the comedic equivalent of ice-cold water.  There are other dodgy manifestations of power. There’s the spontaneous round of applause and the standing ovation. Did your work bewitch an audience to movement? Or are people only reminding themselves that they’re witnessing a live event? (The uncanny inconsistency with which this moment in Guido! curried applause – 0:47:05 – is without doubt a case of the latter.) Most dangerous for me is the lure of the Victorian theatre of ‘effect’ without basis or point. (A quite different thing to effects which are justified  – indeed, demanded! – by the substance of the piece.)

How best to harness dramatic power is a problem with which I’ll continue to wrestle. If the actor-audience relationship is one of consent, of expectations delivered – people went to Olivier for precisely that militaristic thrill – then perhaps it needn’t matter. The Dungeon is a special case; a theatrical form with no immediate precedent. It’s the combined anarchy of high melodrama, Grand Guignol, children’s television, Mystery Plays, music hall, Commedia and pantomime. As such, concessions must be made; the notion of power slightly endorsed. To get the shows clear in my head – and allow you lot to peer into the manic schedule – I’ve prepared an overview of the battlefield. I’ve charted the ways in which I’ve been negotiating the anomalous summer audiences. Through it all, I’m hoping to clarify how best to juggle crowd control with a more nourishing audience contact.

1. Plague: In an earlier entry, I described the new shadows that had fallen on Plague: those of whispered subtleties and pervasive darkness. Well, come the very first day of summer, and we revert to old scare tactics. Now the show starts with a whooshing of smoke, a crashing through doors and a screaming of ‘BRING OUT YER DEAD!’ Cynically, you could dismiss this as the first in a line of very cheap jump scares. I’m inclined to be more charitable. From the actor’s perspective, it sets an instant good pace, making it a little easier to meet the seven-minute deadline. It also makes it that bit easier to engage with the audience. Overwrought barnstorming means they know where to have you straight off in a way that tantalising ambiguities simply don’t. Feeling before thought. So, the opening appoints the audience to their place at the get-go – but, more than that, it’s representative of the experience to come (what Merlin calls selling ‘The Brand’). It’s both startling and silly, it becomes more disturbing with scrutiny – the thought of a devil in delirious orbit – but it’s one hell of a fun ride. Nourishing ham if ever there was some.

2. Ghosts of York: The bugger with this one is the timing. Unlike Plague, it’s a show that requires a measure of grace, rooted as it is in traditional storytelling. A challenge: how to fast-track slow-burn creepiness? A few things have proven helpful so far. We’ve been issued with abridged scripts for one. There are some poorly placed toilets just before the Ghosts show, so it’s imperative that you rush out before people drift within. Waiting even a few minutes for these troublemakers to emerge can spoil your next few hours. Besides, I’m of the firm belief that most guests really don’t need the toilet, going instead for novelty value. And if they really do need it (slim chance), they’ll go (entitlement!) – regardless of their interactions with a pasty-faced mugger like myself. As well as time considerations, cramming the tiny pub with twenty-odd bodies has its disadvantages. On the plus side, the crowding is nicely claustrophobic for an audience; in the best cases, it can trigger a strain of mass hysteria. Personally, though, I think it reduces the potential for a direct attack on audience members: the ghost story is a porridge of revenge on various individuals, so it’s a shame to compensate this in the telling. And, disappointingly, it’s nigh-on impossible to rush in during the final blackout for a parting jump scare: a bravado shout from behind the audience, the actor having materialised unexpectedly. No matter how beguilingly you coax them forward, people insist on gluing themselves to the back wall once you’re out of the room. A few days back, this led to an awkward moment when I rushed back in and found myself, post-blackout, fondling one gentleman’s knee. Against all warnings, the group had sat down the instant I’d left the room. The perils of live theatre; the perks of the job.

3. Labyrinth of the Lost: Blimey, I’ve had adventures with this one lately! Principally, the horrible morning when the mirror maze door got jammed. On the very first show of the day, I ushered the group inside, bracing myself to close the door. This completes the illusion of confinement: the door is itself a mirror, which blends in perfectly with the others in the maze. Alas – the door was stuck. And the twitchy and agitated school group within would not be tamed. The situation was worsened by virtue of my hearty, Seaward-esque bellowings of ‘FIND THE EXIT, CITIZENS!’ only a few seconds earlier. The school’s penetration of the labyrinth – those capricious, winding tunnels in which a Roman Legion became irretrievably lost – proved the easiest imaginable. I learned to live with this damnsome limitation across the next few hours. The sight of a tall-ish actor looming after completing a circuit of the maze was intense for some, producing a good few shrieks. Called to emergency service, a carpenter worked behind the wall to get the door fixed. I had to speak (extra) loudly to distract from the noises; flail and gesticulate a little (more) to distract from the torchlight. By my afternoon shift on Labyrinth, all was resolved. I look forward to more relaxing stints in the near future! The main difficulty with the Labyrinth playing area is its incredible length. The space through which you marshal an audience is almost as long as the three prior shows put together. Exactly how this’ll work at the height of summer will be curious indeed.

4. Judgement of Sinners: If there’s an argument that, in The York Dungeon, the actors have become the whole show, then this is surely it. ‘Words, words, words!’ to quote Drac’s boy, Renfield (and Shakey’s boy, Hamlet): Judges demands vocal precision from its actor and pliability from its participants. If people get on board with the joke straight off, it’s a merry toboggan ride powered by a sure-thing script. But with an anarchist in the dock, you’ve got your work cut out. Two years ago, the Dungeon received a jolly nice email from a visitor, who commended me on dealing with one such guest:

He may recall the day. He offers three punishments to the ‘convicted’ in the dock – and one guy in our crowd (convicted of theft, I think) opted for his fingers to be chopped off – as opposed to the obvious most lenient punishment offered. We, the audience, thought – what a prat – but your Judge didn’t belittle him, but cleverly got him out of his embarrassment with his honour almost intact, whilst we all sniggered.

An interesting development in my hypothesis of the Dungeon as war! An audience member on the actor’s side! Given the time lapse, I don’t remember what I did exactly for that show. Recently, I’ve found it really pays to embarrass the offending party as much as ever you can, labelling them ‘the punchline ruiner’ and humiliating them at sporadic moments through the rest of the show. Never try to wallpaper over the creases; make a virtue of them – always, always! Abjecting polish is a sure way of escaping bad power. It’s a kind of vulnerability – an openness that promotes togetherness! It cashes in on that peculiarly British love of when things going wrong. We’re a nation fond of trouble. Anyhow. Judges has largely been great this summer. Some of the nicest groups I’ve had in four seasons. The foreign groups I’m sure have potential for niceness, but given that they understand one in ten words that dribble from my mouth, it’s understandable that they talk over me instead.

I’ll report on the other four actor-led shows – Torture, Turpin, Execution and Witches – in a future entry.

The only frustration of this intense regime is that it affords precious little time to work on my one-man Dracula – let alone Frankenstein, the source novel of which I’m yet to finish re-reading (I’m making decent progress). I have, however, finished Barbara Belford’s splendid biography Bram Stoker and the Man Who Was Dracula (that ‘Man’ being Henry Irving), which I can uncomplicatedly celebrate. Fine, fine book. In other news, I’m now heading to Edinburgh Festival on the thirteenth and the fourteenth of August! Pip Utton’s one-man productions of Adolf and Churchill are at the tippity-top of my list, as well as a long-stalled trip to The Edinburgh Dungeon. But aside from those golden tickets, my calendar’s very much open. Suggestions for further viewing would be welcome! Or, better yet, a place to stay…

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Filed under Essays, Experiences, The York Dungeon