Category Archives: Experiences

Scrooge & Marley: The Return

… Because some plays warrant more than a Facebook status.

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

Scrooge & Marley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cushing and Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Announcements, Experiences

Sikes & Nancy: The London Adventure

As though in imitation of Oliver Twist, I travelled to London on Sunday – to seek my dubious fortune! To shrug off the terror of my engagement at the Tristan Bates, I’d decided on a somewhat-frolic. This meant one thing: the matinee of Matilda the Musical at the Cambridge Theatre. I’m in no way alone in this (thank goodness), but I adore Roald Dahl – his short stories, his fictionalised autobiographies, and (most particularly) his children’s books. I number The Twits, The Witches and The BFG among my special favourites; Matilda is another. There are Swantonian reasons that I revere this quartet: the grotesquely etched characters; the joyful revelling in the frankly revolting; the sheer free-wheeling imagination that fired these stories. Who but Dahl would pit flesh-eating giants against the Queen of England?

Beyond that, though, there’s something much more inscrutable. Which is the point, I suppose: Dahl’s stories are charged with the essence of childhood. At once an absolute inability to accept injustices, cruelties, sadnesses (and thus a positive ecstasy once they’re overturned), and the stoical endurance of the quite unacceptable. The apotheosis of the Dahlian worldview may come in The Witches, in that breathtaking scene where the boy-cum-mouse says he is content to die, in only a few years, alongside his beloved grandmother. As Lillian Gish says of children in The Night of the Hunter: ‘they abide and they endure’. May we all be as strong.

I had two other reasons for seeing Matilda. Firstly, listening to the soundtrack was one of the activities that got me through my finals. (I also learned quotations, but I reckon the soundtrack was more important.) And secondly, David Leonard is playing Miss Trunchbull. I’m convinced that Leonard was one of the first people who inspired me to act. I say ‘people’ – the other guilty parties are the Old Witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Judge Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But Leonard was the first flesh-and-bone actor who got beneath my skin; his parade of fairytale villains in York Theatre Royal’s panto were the premier bogeymen of my childhood. Leonard’s magnetism is difficult to explain for the uninitiated. His voice is a beautiful instrument, crisp and crackling by turns – there’s something of the purr of George Zucco, the drawl of George Sanders, the resonant timbre of Richard Burton. Leonard’s physical grace never ceases to astound me either. Despite playing Miss Trunchbull, the most brutishly physical of grotesques, his every gesture was smooth and clean. A precision quite mesmerising to behold; the Serpent in the Garden of Eden. Leonard would have made a stunning actor in silent films. Yet Leonard’s face is a thing of insane (albeit localised) animation. His eyes can again be compared with those of George Zucco – glowing pinballs that swell in and out of sight. Suffice it to say that every rogue I’ve ever played has carried a little of Leonard’s source material.

I’m happy to report that Leonard’s panto stylings were much in evidence in the Trunchbull. He certainly rose above the musically talented but resoundingly wooden ensemble. To see someone so familiar flourishing in this epic context was quietly emotional. Back in 2008, Leonard was also the man who agreed to voice the Telescreen Announcer, unpaid, in 1984 – in which I voiced Emmanuel Goldstein (unpaid, obviously). A humble man – and a great one. An inspiration and an example.

Thoughts of the Tristan Bates made for an unquiet night’s sleep. This is largely because I hate telling people what to do. On the day itself, though, things instantly became manageable. It’s the experience of a one-person show extended to the production entire: because you’re self-reliant, you just get on with it. And despite Cambridge drama’s capacity for staggering ineptitude, blimey – you do at least learn how to equip a theatre. The get-in was simple enough: my Sikes & Nancy paraphernalia is modest enough to squeeze into a suitcase and a rucksack. I brought back my blackened skull centrepiece (familiar from the Cambridge run, absent in York), relocating it to downstage centre to disguise my tray of blood. I’d also brought some surplus cloth along, in order to disguise the modern chairs of the Tristan Bates. This worked much better than expected, although it did mean bidding goodbye to my faithful Dracula cloak – the same one I’d worn for the finale of Return to the Forbidden Planet in 2007. The tech was also pretty slick. Being bound by the lighting plot of the resident show was freeing: instead of fretting over innumerable configurations, there was a small but functional selection. After these cursory routines and a cue-to-cue tech (plus a revivifying trip to Cafe Nero), the dress rehearsal and performance followed.

The performance itself was an odd experience. At the Golden Fleece, matters had been similarly variable. On the Wednesday, I felt I’d given a solid performance. But it was tempered with an unease I’d never before felt in the one-man form. Nothing seemed quite right. The stage was too bright, the audience too close, my performance hysterical rather than impassioned. Uncharacteristically, I was also forgetting my lines. On the Friday, everything improved drastically. The vital point was remembering to keep the window open; the stifling heat common to all British pubs had moistened me sooner than usual. The result was a more controlled performance. (I think having my old English teacher in the audience – the great man who’d cast me as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, thereby getting me hooked on Dickens – gave my psyche an extra positive boost.)

The vital point I’d overlooked at the Tristan Bates was the need for a dress rehearsal. This meant performing the play twice in the space of two hours. I went through the dress rehearsal at roughly seventy-five percent; I wasn’t prepared to tear myself to pieces too soon. But this first run had an undoubted effect on the second. My voice was fully warmed-up and humming from the get-go, as only a full-fledged performance will accomplish. Diction, tone, projection – all came without unnecessary strain. I was also less weary by the climax. Another bonus; in being energised by that first run, I’d hit upon a way of pacing myself better. But I did find that the more high-intensity sections – especially Nancy pleading for her life and Dickens’s transcendent, light-struck cityscape (vomiting up air by that point) – became a much taller order, vocally. There was also an unpleasant hoarseness in some of Nancy’s dialogue, which thankfully went away. If ever Sikes & Nancy does a run of more than three performances (and there’s a chance of that, before year’s end…) I’ll have to marshal my resources with much greater care.

Overall, though, the performance went very well. There was much more laughter at Morris Bolter than previously. The revival has acquainted me with a weird phenomenon: scripted lines that generate unerring approval. Bolter’s ‘I can do that pretty well!’ in response to Fagin’s ‘It’s only to dodge a woman’ seems a particular winner. Exactly why I can’t say; perhaps it sounds unduly perverted. Fagin’s interrogation of Bolter – in the dread-company of Bill Sikes – also garnered a volume of laughter that took me by surprise. The James Swanton of three years ago might have been stung by this. Whilst appearing in Pericles in 2009, I developed a terrible case of stage fright, after one of my character’s lines (a petulant ‘Heavens forgive it!’) generated unexpected laughter. And a few months before, I’d been appalled when all of my lines in Scarlet Petals Underfoot generated wild and uninhibited laughter. Neither play was an out-and-out comedy. One was fantastical romance; the other was ironic Gothic. But Kenneth Williams had it right: comedy and tragedy really are two sides of the same coin. This is largely due to my experiences in Cambridge: people such as George Potts (his sublime Friar Laurence) and productions such as Babushka (in short, productions bearing the Andy Brock approach). Matilda did a good line in this as well; I was weeping pretty solidly throughout. And yes, I know: it’s a truth so banal that it hardly bears repeating. Yet I’ve found it such a hard-won realization in practice – believing that you’re being laughed with, as well as (inevitably!) at – that this was an especially good experience. The lunacy of Bolter accentuating the tragedy of Nancy. I’m glad that came out more, and without overbalancing the point.

Other aspects of the show felt newly revealed as well. Vocal issues aside, much of Nancy’s interview by the river flowed freely and easily. Without overthinking it either – perhaps a little of what David Mamet meant when he discussed the actor speaking out ‘even though afraid’. (Not that I have much time for Mamet’s conception of the actor – or rather, a very particular type of actor – as heroic.) There were a series of images that came more vividly than usual: I think particularly of Brownlow’s deluded, finger-wagging bombast and the pestilential slitherings of Fagin (a character much better suited to a theatre than a small-scale venue).

Best of all were those in attendance. I owe them my deepest thanks. Especially memorable was the sight of Will Seaward sneaking in thirty seconds late. Not the least conspicuous latecomer. But far from being distracted, I felt my heart lift; instantly, I knew that the hour to come would be so much easier. (Seaward is currently playing Ross in The Elephant Man, a play I’ve much affection for. In the David Lynch film, the equivalent role is played by Freddie Jones – whose mantle Seaward is so majestically inheriting.) The Senior Treasurer of the Marlowe Society, Tim Cribb, was also kind enough to come. He told a priceless anecdote about his undergraduate pursuit of F. R. Leavis, frantically cycling away from him, each of them shouting out competing academic theories on Dickens. (Leavis had read from the death of Paul Dombey in a lecture, and unexpectedly claimed it to be as great a passage as he knew in literature. This must have happened before Leavis publicly reversed his position on Dickens with Dickens the Novelist in 1970.)

It was as I peeled strips of Dracula cloak from various different chairs that I was asked the following:

‘Did you see Simon Callow sitting at the back?’

Ah.

No. No, I hadn’t.

Simon Callow really had been in the audience. I’d written to him some months ago, but hardly expected him to come. Well, now he had. A very, very great honour. Bear in mind that only two years ago, I was able to write a wildly enthusiastic blog about Callow, on the strength of having spoken to him for roughly thirty seconds. Two years on, I’ve not only interviewed my hero (for thirty minutes this time), but I’ve performed a one-man Dickens play for him. Utterly the wrong way round: him watching me. It’s fortunate that I only discovered Callow had been there afterwards. The knowledge of the same might have overbalanced me!

Before I sign off, I’ll offer up my programme notes for Sikes & Nancy. Some of it’s a repetition of material found elsewhere on this blog. But I prefer to think of it as a distillation:

‘WHAT BLOODY MAN IS THAT?’
(
Macbeth, I.II.i)

As a boy, Charles Dickens was greatly affected by a performance of Macbeth. Nowhere is this more apparent than in ‘Sikes and Nancy’. Drawn from his second novel, Oliver Twist (1838), this 1869 Public Reading was one of Dickens’s last theatrical endeavours: a macabre and pitiless maelstrom of light and dark, guilt and ghosts – and the all-encompassing bloodiness at its centre.

That Dickens saw ‘Sikes and Nancy’ as high tragedy is clear in the compassion with which he draws the character of Nancy. This depiction may also bear the mark of Dickens’s ground-breaking involvement in Urania Cottage, a reform home for prostitutes. In vivid contrast are the caricatured phantoms of Bill Sikes and Fagin: a fairytale ogre and a fawning Mystery Play devil. Yet Dickens never lets us forget the tears behind the wax. Part of the brilliance of ‘Sikes and Nancy’ is that it exposes how pathetic these monsters are when brought low. As in A Rake’s Progress by Hogarth, the thrill of peering into a criminal underworld never obscures the fall. Dickens suggests as much in the novel: ‘Let no man talk of murderers escaping justice, and hint that Providence must sleep…’

‘Sikes and Nancy’ is replete with surprises. There are unfamiliar characters, such as Morris Bolter – since replaced in the public consciousness by the rather more glamorous figure of the Artful Dodger. That the saintly Oliver Twist makes no appearance is a sweet relief, and perhaps confirms where Dickens’s narrative interests really lay. For audiences better acquainted with the Lionel Bart musical, ‘Sikes and Nancy’ is also, inevitably, an instruction in the darkness of the novel. Dickens’s own performances were infamous, giving vent to some vague demonic obsession. During the Reading, Dickens’s pulse typically rose from 72 to 124. Afterwards, he would lie on a sofa, unable to even speak. The strain was the likely cause of the strokes that finished him off in 1870. Two days before his death, Dickens was again found performing ‘Sikes and Nancy’ – in the gardens of his country house. It can be considered a haunted text.

In the past, I’ve performed Sikes & Nancy at Cambridge’s Corpus Playroom and the Golden Fleece Inn, York’s most haunted pub. It’s my third one-man play, after my recreation of Dickens’s more light-hearted Readings (Pickwick & Nickleby) and an outing as Quasimodo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Sikes & Nancy strikes a balance between the two. It is both high-colour grotesquerie and full Gothic horror. It is also, unashamedly, melodrama. This performance style, in which each emotional impulse is externalised and heightened, is one that deserves serious revival.

Leave a comment

Filed under Experiences, Sikes & Nancy

Sikes & Nancy: Re-Rehearsals Underway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Acting Theory, Experiences, Sikes & Nancy

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Essays, Experiences, The York Dungeon

Carry On Don’t (Not) Cho-ose Your Head(shots)

An unusual post, this; less description than illustration. As part of my ongoing battle to masquerade as a professional actor, I had sparkling new headshots taken last week! One of the best decisions I’ve made recently. When I took part in the Marlowe Showcase, I received two token headshots. These were less than stellar: overexposed, low resolution, and displaying rather more body than head. In one, I resembled Hurd Hatfield’s disturbingly waxen Dorian Gray; in the other, I appeared a smirking, heavy-lidded buffoon. Whilst I’m sure that the photographer had the best intentions, none of this came as a surprise: there’s only so much that two minutes of stripped-back, shutter-snapping contact can achieve. In a profession as characterful as acting – and none more than character acting – there’s no excuse for such an impersonal approach. I vowed that next time I would get it right.

Next time came: I took a train journey to Highgate for a session with the ridiculously talented Vanessa Valentine. After a few hours in the local park, great work had been done. I felt completely at ease throughout, which is a tribute to Vanessa’s professionalism and refreshingly no-nonsense approach to photography. Craft first, art second. I think that Vanessa’s approach also solved my concerns that I would gurn without realising and spoil a ton of the pictures. Of course, the easiest thing of all is to do absolutely nothing. When you resign yourself to the task and simply get on. However, conditions must be right. In the Marlowe Showcase, the guiding presence of Max Stafford-Clark left me more comfortable than I’ve ever been doing less and less and less. On the photographic front, Vanessa worked a similar magic. I was heartened, at the end of the shoot, when Vanessa told me that I hadn’t done any pouting. That strikes me as much more odious than the amiable gurn.

So here’s my primary headshot; my go-to choice after trawling through a selection of hundreds! A few qualities swayed this decision. It’s face-on, which is surprisingly uncommon even with so many shots to choose from. It’s clean and presentable, without becoming model-like – although my eyebrows appear to be at the same height for once, there’s still a pinched and pointed character about my head and hair. I like the way the light falls: it liberates my bone structure (pointedness again!), picks out my eyes, and paints some interesting shadows about my cheeks and temples. There are also some less rational factors, extending their semi-transparent tentacles across my reasoning faculties. For example, the slightly high angle reminds me of the way that John Mescall shoots Ernest Thesiger’s bulging cranium in Bride of Frankenstein. It’s subtle, but it’s there.

Here are some other shots that I particularly liked. I don’t think Vanessa Valentine’s capable of taking a bad photo, so you can imagine how difficult it was to extricate these from the general excellence. These will serve as my back-ups, to broaden out the ol’ portfolio!

The rest of my afternoon in London involved scouring the largest HMV branches in the country for Eureka’s newish DVD of Island of Lost Souls, complete with Simon Callow interview. Neither had the damn thing! I’m not opposed to Amazon, but I’ve been sitting on a HMV gift card for so long that I’m loath to waste it on anything that I don’t want. This was followed by a trip to Leicester Square, where I had the pleasure of meeting the always-delightful Quentin Beroud for dinner. I’m now kicking myself for not having booked a later train; a special kind of torture, strolling past the glittering West End pavilions and not quite having time to see anything. I’ll be back before the year’s end, though. I have an unbreakable obligation to see Matilda now that York panto hero David Leonard is playing Miss Trunchbull (Leonard’s Shakespearean villains were one of the first things that made me want to act; moreover, his Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons is the best performance I’ve seen in any theatre). I must also get to the revival of The Mystery of Charles Dickens, the fourth time I’ll have seen Callow in the one-man form.

One thing more. At the end of the shoot, Vanessa suggested she create a portrait of me as Fagin, which triggered full Swanton gurn mode. Sikes & Nancy will be returning in October, for a one-off performance in the West End. I’ll post more details in the near future. For now, enjoy the shot I should have settled on…

Leave a comment

Filed under Experiences, Sikes & Nancy

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Essays, Experiences

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…

1 Comment

Filed under Essays, Experiences, The York Dungeon

Return to the Dungeon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Comment

Filed under Announcements, Experiences, The York Dungeon