Category Archives: Henry Irving

Familiar Old Ghosts

I was intending to write this last week. As so often, I got derailed. Now a sudden change has deepened and darkened my theme. So bear with me while I marshal my words as best I can. They do not come easily.

I originally meant to record a minor holiday, just before I returned to my time-honoured imprisonment at The York Dungeon. It was the Dungeon’s biblical flood – another time-honoured tradition – that granted me time and space for my own projects at the start of the year. It’s just what I needed after the manifold frustrations of 2015 – something I chronicled, via Anthony Newley, over here and here.

To briefly convert this time-based holiday into a land-based holiday – with trains and sight-seeing and people and such – seemed an excellent way to round things off. The result was a few snatched days of geographical interest: in Cambridge, then Leeds, then Blackpool. After recent events, I now realise that I was facing down some familiar old ghosts. Most of which transported me right back to York and far into that empty Dungeon.

Two weeks ago, I returned to Cambridge. My first time back in nearly four years. My absence from my old university town had evolved, little by little, into a point of principle. I was determined not to go back without a really good reason. In the end, I just settled for a reason. I went there to collect my honorary (read: falsified, worthless) MA, an arcane rite that extends to all Cantabrigian degree-holders. Essentially, this boiled down to some fantastical fancy dress and choreographed movement, with an audience in spitting distance – and all in Senate House, where sly old Henry Irving claimed his Doctor of Letters. Oh, yes. It represented my university experience very well.

Whence this dread of facing Cambridge again? I believe it was really the dread of facing myself – my ghost-self, as unstable and overwrought as I’d felt through university. Three exhausting years of slow metamorphosis. Never was I happier: creatively engaged on play after play, exposed to untold riches, making many of my very best friends. Never was I unhappier: feeling ever the outsider in acting and academia, awaking to quite how mediocre an intellect I possessed, experiencing some appallingly black moods.

All this found its most painful distillation in my second year, when I was deeply in love, and he was beautiful, and it was terrible, and it was wonderful, and – of course – it all went wrong. Old ground for me now, ancient history. I’ve written about the experience here; the fall-out from it, anyhow.

At this distance, I wonder if love was the only response to being so maniacally, so intensely alive. It required an equally strong force to balance me. That force was the Dungeon. Just before my second year, when all that feeling had opened me up, the Dungeon made me feel worthy of love. Armed me to go off and fight for it! And after my second year, the Dungeon gave me space to recover. It restored love to its proper place: from doom-laden soul-searching to simplicity, acceptance, warmth.

So as I knelt this time in Senate House, I thought on Henry Irving’s acceptance speech. Especially those words he cribbed from Polonius: ‘To thine own self be true.’ I stumbled on many bits of that self in Cambridge. But they were always tested and confirmed in York.

On with the holiday. I was next in Leeds, for a leisurely tea with my friend Simon. A man who has been crucial in my self-development, ever since I read his Shooting the Actor at age fifteen. He helped me to stoke my passion for acting, to make sense of my gayness, and to extend my interests in Dickens and Laughton and so many others among the Great Dead. Having done all this for me, it was perhaps inevitable that I would end up getting to know him personally. The Dungeon provided one of my earliest chances to test Simon’s exhilarating horizons for acting. I then saw transformation as absolutely central. How I strained to make my every character physically and vocally unique. To make them very unlike me.

Acting’s become more complicated in the years since. Most any craft is easier when primal. The sheer novelty of doing it convinces you that you’re better than you are. These days, acting is much more about accessing the soul. Which is difficult indeed; a lifelong journey. Just before I departed Leeds, Simon inscribed for me his latest book: an injunction to go on pursuing ‘the great and greatly flawed’. Eloquently put. For acting is rough-hewn hurly-burly: all mud and blood and fire and thunder. This essential roughness has been another of the Dungeon’s lessons. It’s not just okay that it’s not perfect. No, it’s an essential part of the deal. We must be flattered to be so flawed. It’s that which connects us to the human race.

The next day was the most emotional. I visited Blackpool to see my beloved friend Bryan. A long-standing colleague from – where else? – that Dungeon of York. Bryan embodies the murky essence of the place. This is a gift that reaches beyond acting, verging instead on the mystical. Bryan carries that atmosphere about with him; a natural emanation. He could indeed be a medieval monk or a viking king or a pagan war-god. More surely than anyone, he has converted the ghosts into friends.

Blackpool was also where I used to visit my grandparents, my mum’s mum and dad. I found their ghosts on the sea-front, mixed up with the spit and the pother, but even more in the Tower Ballroom. They had often danced there: probably to the same old standards, certainly to the same old organ. I sat there with my cup of tea for nearly an hour. I found myself almost ridiculously moved at the variety in the dancers: old men with old women, grandads with grandchildren, women with women, a mum with her daughter, another mum with her mum, men with men, two old widows. All those complicated chunks of humanity briefly thrown together and giving it all to the dance. This lent a certain resonance to when I met up with Bryan after his own dance, his devil-dance within The Blackpool Tower Dungeon. How wonderful to see him again in his proper context: restored to his full powers and exercising all the tools of his trade. How wonderful simply to embrace this man.

How I’d like to do that with another man now.

A few days ago, Mark – my manager at the Dungeon since 2008 – quietly passed away.

I am intruding on hallowed ground here. So many people knew Mark better than me, and longer than me. I know my loss is nothing compared to theirs. I cannot imagine their pain. I can only try to express mine, in flawed and dithering words. In this, I may light on some of what my colleagues are feeling.

What Mark represented to me was a whole comforting home. That warm and welcoming Dungeon home, which lives with me still, no matter where I travel. Over the years, I’ve had my gripes with the Dungeon; those periods of wishing I was anywhere else. I certainly don’t plan to stay there forever. In these respects, it’s like any home. Now a home that can never be the same again.

This idea of the Dungeon sustained me through the end of 2009, during my rocky first term at university. I had found the transition tougher than anything I’d expected, and was beginning to think I’d made a very big mistake. Here’s a little of what I wrote in my ever-uplifting diary:

Everyone here is better than me. They can talk to each other, communicate their wild and brilliant ideas without effort. I struggle so hard to form a coherent sentence, never mind the insurmountable difficulties in pretending to be happy.

I shrink with shame at that now. Knowing Mark’s great talent for happiness, for provoking it in others.

And yet he had provoked something in me. I went on, in this diary, to devise myself a back-up plan, where I would flee university and settle for a quiet and comforting life. And at the centre of all that? The Dungeon. I reduced it to a phrase:

The people there are wonderful.

I know that Mark was hovering at the centre of that sentiment – and therefore at the centre of all those testing years of finding myself out. It was the warmth and decency of Mark and his fellow Dungeoners that gave me the grit to stick university out. They would top me up when I saw them in the summer. And the thought of them gave me the strength, always, to keep on going. It’s a process that continues.

The darkest moment of that first term was when I found out that my grandad – that tireless romantic, that ballroom dancer – had also quietly passed away. I was by then too exhausted to entertain death. I sat at the same laptop I sit at now. Listened again and again to ‘Old and Wise’. Squirming, panting, smarting at this cruel new world, which seemed to be disintegrating beneath me. And still thinking to myself:

Don’t worry, don’t worry, the world is cold and dark now, the light is all but out… But I can still go to the Dungeon. I can still go home.

Now I do all of that all over again. All that time has passed, yet things are as they were.

As surely as Bryan is the Dungeon’s murky essence, so was Mark its living, beating heart. I feel thankful to him now in so many ways. It was Mark, along with Stuart, who gave me this first acting job in 2008. Mark helped to promote me from the shadows, encouraging some of my most purely happy assaults on acting. He inaugurated me as the Judge and as the Torturer. He gave me more pride in those outlandish creatures than I rightly deserved. That golden self-confidence that can comes only from someone you respect absolutely. With the result that he could pull me up short when I deserved it, make me feel utterly ashamed of myself. Such was the force of the man’s goodness. Only last Halloween, he bundled me swiftly home when I fell ill, defying all my croaking protestations. Then he laughed with me as I proceeded, croakily, to ring in sick.

He didn’t need to do any of that. How I’ll miss the absurd jokes and the infectious enthusiasm; the painful (usually accidental) ease with which you could make him jump out of his skin; the fact that he still addressed me as ‘Mr Swanton’ after eight years of friendship. By God! I’ll miss the joyousness! The sheer, luminous joyousness of the man. He lived to the hilt that which Dickens once wrote: ‘Brighten it, brighten it, brighten it!’ So often would he make me laugh till I cried. Now he makes me cry till I laugh.

His courage in facing down the end was little short of miraculous. I have never known a bravery like it. Never. I wish now, selfishly, that I’d seized the chance to tell him just how much I loved him. But that would have been to have Mark’s funeral while he was still alive. I don’t believe Mark ever seriously intended to leave the party. I still don’t think he has.

Besides. With a man like Mark, could love ever really, seriously be questioned? To him, it was the only thing. I am sure he knew we all loved him. Love was all he knew.

So thank you, Mark. You’ve shaped the course of my life, in ways that will probably always reach beyond my comprehension. You will forever be inseparable from the Dungeon. And it’s that Dungeon, that home of homes, that I carry with me, always – whether I am shouting within a dark building by (occasionally in) the River Ouse or somewhere else entirely. A home crammed with all those daft and delightful and lovable, loving people, with you at the very centre. Then. Now. And always.

Mark Pollard

Here’s the family in 2011. Mark is the bearded fellow at centre. I’m the grinning demon behind Mark; the distinguished greybeard to my left is, of course, Bryan. Also at centre, just below Mark, is Kayleigh – the love of his life, who he married last year. The best thing he did in a life crammed with the best.

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Filed under Essays, Experiences, Henry Irving, Personal Excavation, The York Dungeon

Dreaming to Order

Welcome to the fourth of the Sikes & Nancy production diaries! Should it take your fancy, the previous entries are as follows: ‘Forcing the Soul’, ‘The Hertfordshire Horror’ and ‘Into the Black Lagoon’. Now: let’s press on with the scheduled burblings.

The Theatre, Chipping Norton

THE THEATRE, CHIPPING NORTON (3RD OCTOBER). The town of Chipping Norton is beautifully haunting. A village that seems cleaved from the cliff-face, everything in stone and at an extreme angle – leading down, down, down to the Gothic church. It’s here that the oldest stones of all are found, as well as the resting-places of the dead.

The theatre was likewise haunting, at least from my view on the stage. We’ve played a few extremely dark spaces on the tour – Radlett, Middlesbrough – but Chipping Norton’s theatre also feels ancient. It put me in mind of the Georgian Theatre, Richmond, where I long ago played in Macbeth: a tall and narrow platform, angled threateningly towards the audience. Perched high on my wooden chairs, I must resemble an enormous bird of prey. I’ve since discovered that the building’s only been a Theatre since 1975 (although the outer structure is nineteenth century), which suggests its atmosphere derives from these spatial peculiarities. For it’s unnerving that the stage, like the village, points straight to the churchyard.

Happily, this performance marked an advance on the breakthroughs of Southend. Everything from the beginnings of the Murder – roughly the last third of the play – has become an exhilarating terror to perform. It’s almost a state of possession, with unpremeditated business breaking forth. Vitally, it seems my brain is alive. And it’s carrying me down increasingly skin-crawling alleys whilst I’m acting:

Silence. It’s becoming a solid object now: heavy, expansive, impenetrably black. It begins when Bill Sikes sneaks through his house-door ahead of killing Nancy: ‘He opened it, softly, with a key: strode lightly up the stairs…’ I treat this as an integrated stage direction, one that calls for a near-balletic motion. Which leads to pauses. Thus the invasion of silence – enfolding the entrance so completely that it feels like the beginnings of a dream. In childhood, I went through a phase of nightmares where I would open my bedroom door and walk straight into dark figures. Never did I see them. I felt them only. As Sikes then, in these silences, I have become that dark figure, that sketchy embodiment of sleep paralysis. Yet I am also Nancy – my childhood self again, the defenceless victim.

The dog as supernatural. I find it very unsettling that Bull’s-Eye rises as though from nowhere. He first appears as a last gruesome touch in the Murder (and one of the scene’s best lines): ‘The very feet of his dog were bloody!!!’ What to make of this? Throughout ‘Sikes and Nancy’, the descriptive passages in Oliver Twist are often cut to allow for more dialogue. Bull’s-Eye – a character with no access to speech – is so diminished by these cuts that his very essence shifts. During his long absences, Bull’s-Eye seems to have been absorbed into Sikes’s being. He has become a witch’s familiar. Or the black dog of English folklore. But then, Bill Sikes is himself absorbed into the Narrator – and I’m still disturbed by the question of the Narrator’s identity…

Who else is present on Sikes’s countryside flight? Jonas Chuzzlewit has started to materialise – a murderer for whom the countryside (and, in particular, leaves) had a special significance. Also Jack Sheppard, from the novel by Ainsworth, who ran rampant through the wilderness after escaping Newgate Gaol. But Eugene Aram is still foremost in my mind, albeit in a state of flux. He started off as the blood-drenched wraith of Thomas Hood’s ballad – but he’s slowly transforming into the brooding, melancholy presence of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel. This version of Aram is close to who I imagine the Narrator would be, were he able to break free from his story: an ascetic scholar and hermit; a pale and sickly neurotic; distrusted by the locals as a sorcerer yet possessed of a mesmeric charisma. It’s fascinating how Dickens’s single mention of ‘the solitude and darkness of the country’ sets an immediate atmosphere of Rural Gothic. It’s a peculiarly English tradition, perhaps encapsulated by Bulwer-Lytton’s Eugene Aram, which overshadows the tranquillity of Grassdale – a fictionalised Knaresborough – with the wilder weather and storm of the Devil’s Crag.

And what to make of that apparition? Dickens describes it as follows: ‘At his head it stood, silent, erect, and still: a human gravestone with its epitaph in Blood!!’ It’s an apparition that resists all visual comprehension. Quite uncharacteristic for Dickens, that most riotously descriptive of writers. It seems more a creature of modern horror folklore, all of whom seem to be unseeable. The shadow demon of the ghost photograph. Sadako in The Ring, head almost entirely obscured by curtains of lank hair. The Slender Man, that man without a face. Even the unseen figures of my childhood nightmares – for no matter where Sikes turns, the figure remains behind him. The apparition is emblematic of what Dickens does throughout ‘Sikes and Nancy’ – eliding the horrifying centre, and suggesting all through the encircling grisly details. Nancy is there and not there. And yet – is it even Nancy at all?

I can quite understand why some actors see ghosts onstage. I, possessed of senses less acute, merely enjoyed a fish supper after Chipping Norton.

Barnfield Theatre, Exeter

CLIFFORD ROOM, BARNFIELD THEATRE, EXETER (4TH OCTOBER). I nearly wound up studying at the University of Exeter. Based on this late visitation, I’d have been content here. It seems I had a knack for picking out locations eerily reminiscent of York. Rambling, hurled-together architecture. Cloistered ruins. Cathedral towns in spirit if not in fact. Which reminds me: I was greatly impressed by Exeter Cathedral, a strikingly bare Norman edifice. Such buildings, even so uncluttered, take me right back to discovering The Hunchback of Notre Dame as a child, and confusing York Minster with Quasimodo’s lair. Combined with some invigorating blasts of wind – and Tony Jay’s Frollo caterwauling on my iPod – this put me in an excellent performance mood.

After the technological wizardry of Southend and Chipping Norton, the Clifford Room proved a simpler arena. It was exactly that: a room. Again were stirred long-forgotten memories of school plays: the stage constructed of interlocking wooden platforms, the auditorium ruled by plastic chairs, the whole lit by flood-lamps rather than modern gels. Yet the Clifford Room is also quietly ambient: a cavernous old hall, evocative of the parish buildings that blight Oliver Twist. This frame is also helpful for encouraging me to focus on my performance at its most basic.

Exeter became the most successful performance yet for discovering the best levels for delivery. Levels are to me about communicating as much as is needed and no more. Yet I find this very difficult to achieve. I’ve long had an onstage anxiety that I’m too quiet and failing to enunciate. (Which is maddening: whatever my faults, I’ve rarely lacked for volume or articulation.) I imagine this springs from a generalised hatred of my voice as I was growing up. Without realising it, I started clamping-down, clamming-up, refusing to speak in public unless absolutely necessary. So whenever I did have to speak in public – teachers love picking out the child who never raises his hand – the act was so unfamiliar (and frightening) that I doubtless over-compensated. I also find levels tricky due to my phenomenally bad eyesight. The audience members I’m trying to reach, even when very close to me, inevitably seem to reside in the far-off distance. Some educated guesswork, and self-forgiving faith, is what’s required. Exeter was an encouraging move from interrogating my voice to trusting it more. Though this may have as much to do with settling into more of a run, my voice more than usually warmed by the last three performances. I should be firing on all cylinders by the time I reach Trafalgar Studios.

Exeter was also excellent for forcing me into an absolute belief in the storytelling. Without the technical infrastructure, there was little other than belief to sustain the atmosphere. Belief is above all what releases melodrama. Yet ‘Sikes and Nancy’ – unlike the run-of-the-mill Victorian melodrama – is a text with genuine literary (and dramatic) merit. So whilst it requires characterisation that might be better described as encrustation – a Dionysian attack – it doesn’t require free-wheeling invention (the ‘devil-dancing’ of which Henry Irving was often accused). The material can be trusted absolutely, without recourse to the tricks that so often signal self-consciousness.

Ralph Richardson captured the nature of this belief – as dreaming to order:

Acting is, to some extent, a controlled dream. In one part of your consciousness, it really and truly is happening … The actor must at any rate some of the time believe himself that it is really true. But this – in my experience, at any rate – this absolute reality, this layer of absolute reality, is a comparatively small one. The rest of it is technique, as I say – of being very careful that the thing is completely accurate, completely clear, completely as laid down, completely as shaped beforehand…

Coquelin has defined this state as ‘dual consciousness’ – the beginnings of real feeling, but tethered by conscious manipulation. As Richardson stresses, you don’t feel ‘complete’ without both. You must be puppet and puppet-master both. I was gladdened to feel some of this control in Exeter. Again, I think, consolidated by the three shows that came before.

Now, however, commences a large gap in the tour. So, that evening, I coat my overtaxed larynx in the previously forbidden alcohol (cider) and chocolate (Bournville). A dubious reward for its labours, though perhaps equivalent to wrapping the larynx in a big warm blanket. Perhaps. A six-hour train journey to York tomorrow – via Wales, bizarrely enough, by no means en route – and then a good few weeks of Henry Irving.

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Filed under Acting Theory, Experiences, Henry Irving, Personal Excavation, Sikes & Nancy

Forcing the Soul

I’m more than usually engulfed in Henry Irving at the moment – the Irving play is very near finished – so there’s my excuse for this latest delay. I shall do better next time. And for those who are keeping track, do check on the previous Sikes & Nancy production diaries: ‘The Hertfordshire Horror’ and ‘Into the Black Lagoon’.

Middlesbrough Theatre

MIDDLESBROUGH THEATRE (25TH SEPTEMBER). Middlesbrough is only an hour from York, though this is my first visit to the cultural hotspot. A flavour of industrialised Victoriana; Coketown in Dickens’s Hard Times. A dense concentration of churches – I stumble on at least ten over a very small area – and the beautiful Albert Park, steeped in pockmarked statuary and autumn trees. This proves ideal for my now-traditional pre-show stompings. It’s a ritual that’s been in place since June 2012, when I was first absorbing the words for Sikes & Nancy – thundering about the Cambridge countryside for hours on end, rehearsing as one with the winds and the heath.

I’d been wandering a lot over the last few days, meditating on the words in a catechistic vein. I usually revel in long walks – the longer the better – but I’d found I was getting suspiciously out of breath. That night, in starting the show, I had my suspicions confirmed. Illness was upon me. I at once felt my throat to be hopelessly dry – and this despite having drunk a bowel-deadening volume of water. The breathlessness reinstated itself, along with the fear that the audience could hear naught but gasping. A cruel bind: worry is the most decisive element in producing more gasping. In general, the voice felt somewhat distant and unresponsive. Sikes & Nancy depends so much on pushing myself to the edges of my vocal range; to balancing on that edge, to daring the precipice. To find the outer edges of my range clipped off is thus disconcerting.

I’d had this mid-show fatigue once before, playing Sikes & Nancy at St William’s College in March 2013. All it really means is that a bad cold will be on me the next day. Which is actually very fortunate: how much nastier to be acting with the cold at full strength! The worst of it is that the show ceases to develop. For an evening, it’s pickled in aspic. Most everything goes over to muscle memory, every chamber of your brain straining to approximate the usual effects. There’s little space left in my head for enjoyment.

Whether illness gives the show a new edge, I don’t know. Ronald Harwood believed that the acting of Donald Wolfit (another interpreter of ‘Sikes and Nancy’) was released by unexpected trials:

The years of touring produced a staleness in his acting that required some unlooked-for stimulus to banish it. A London first night would suffice, but more usually an accident or mishap during a performance would extract a greater intensity to make the performance succeed as a whole, for he well knew that the assessment by an audience of a play was dependent on their surrender to his powers as an actor.

A similar release might come from illness in Sikes & Nancy. A dry throat can create a rawness, a grittiness. Breathlessness can be nerve-shredding. And having to force out an unwilling voice is an exorcism ritual. Rather like Jesus driving Legion into the herd of pigs. Within this show, my voice is Legion – it serves as the voice of many – and I must drive it into the audience.

After the show, I met up with Andy and James. Two fine actors who’d come straight from The York Dungeon. This was a fortifying reunion. Partly because it was so good to be back among friends. You miss your fellow actors in the one-man play. But it was also a reminder that the Dungeon has prepared me for acting being anything other than easy or convenient or graceful. James has performed the Dungeon’s Plague show in an unventilated room for well over three hours (the wicked legacy of late-running lunches). He came close to fainting and genuinely to vomiting. But he did it. Andy has nearly lost one of his fingers at the Dungeon – though that’s a slightly less typical story. Yet he was back the next day, suitably bandaged.

Battle-scarred veterans, the lot of us. It’s possible, I’m sure, to take things easier at the Dungeon – to go at it without any voice loss, any great fatigue, any fear you’re not giving the public what they need. But it’s out of keeping with the spirit of the task. The profound terror of Dickens’s renditions of ‘Sikes and Nancy’ was seeing a man perform so ferociously that he was disintegrating before you. Quite literally killing himself to create you a memorable drama. But this is an instinct that should be as much alive in a more relaxed context. I turn again to Henry Irving, as told by Gordon Craig, who compares the great actor to Saint Francis:

I would go so far as to say that so intense was the fire which burned within him, this belief of his that the ACTOR was all that really mattered, that he suffered keenly whenever he found actors taking things easily, and considering too lightly that thing which to him was really a sacred trust.

To actually suffer when things are taken too easily. Because, more practically, there’s a danger of making your audiences suffer. I maintain that an audience always knows – on some level – when you’re not giving it your all. What’s needed is a pantomimic impulse: to try and give better than you’re getting. I was pleased to discover that James and Andy are appearing in the same touring pantomime this year. If I’ve said it once: the Dungeon, at its best, is a glorified horror pantomime.

I’ve had days at the Dungeon so punishing that they’ve become an out-of-body experience. Hideous to experience, but, in retrospect, I’ve gained a fire of confidence. Simply from knowing I can do it. This training was also what convinced me I could sustain a one-man show. The idea for the first of them entered my head at the end of 2009. I could never have guessed it would take me to the West End in five years. I owe the Dungeon a great debt.

Palace Theatre Southend

DIXON STUDIO, PALACE THEATRE SOUTHEND (2ND OCTOBER). A wonderful gift from my landlady: a century-old edition of Oliver Twist. Although there’s no publication date – often a problem with older books – there’s a handwritten inscription at the front: 21st September 1901. This treasure was salvaged from an Oxfam bookshop. It seems that the charity bins all books that aren’t in perfect condition. Perhaps we need a new branch of Oxfam. To rescue the books chucked away by Oxfam.

In studying this book, on the morning of the show, I read Dickens’s 1850 Preface. He defends his representation of Nancy at some length:

It is useless to discuss whether the conduct and character of the girl seems natural or unnatural, probable or improbable, right or wrong. IT IS TRUE. Every man who has watched these melancholy shades of life, must know it to be so. From the introduction of that poor wretch, to her laying her blood-stained head upon the robber’s breast, there is not a word exaggerated or over-wrought. It is emphatically God’s truth, for it is the truth He leaves in such depraved and miserable breasts; the hope yet lingering there; the last fair drop of water at the bottom of the weed-choked well.

The above is also a good anecdote to accusations of untruthfulness in acting. A superficial untruth can sometimes point the way to something that naturalism can’t reach. As a lanky, corpse-like man passing myself off as a London streetwalker, I have little choice but to pursue this route.

‘Eeee! Is that the ghost of Jacob Marley?’ cried some amiable old relic as I sat in my pre-state, trying to look terribly serious. How correct she’d have been, had she seen me last Christmas. The matinee remained nerve-wracking from there. My voice and manner felt to me just slightly off-centre; the Narrator a little quavery, uncertain. This may have been because the show had been to bed for a week, but I suspected it was more a problem within my head.

Before the evening performance, I went down to the sea to ponder the difficulty. ‘Look at that dark water’ says Nancy, as she gestures to the Thames. In Dombey and Son – immortalised in Dickens’s Readings as ‘The Story of Little Dombey’ – the river is but the start. Here’s Paul Dombey in his sickroom:

When the sunbeams struck into his room through the rustling blinds, and quivered on the opposite wall, like golden water, he knew that evening was coming on, and that the sky was red and beautiful … His fancy had a strange tendency to wander to the River, which he knew was flowing through the great city; and now he thought how black it was, and how deep it would look, reflecting the hosts of stars – and more than all, how steadily it rolled away to meet the sea.

Dickens often uses watery reflections to suggest death: ‘Sikes and Nancy’ uses ‘the reflection of the pool of gore’ to indirectly convey Nancy’s obliteration. Light reflected – death seems to follow naturally from the absence of first sight. But how rarely we ever see clearly.

As I contemplated the sea, I brooded on emotional access. Nancy had felt rather locked to me. Thought and feeling should run on intertwining tracks, preferably fusing as one. Whereas I had felt derailed by unhelpful thoughts, unhelpful feelings: insecurities, technicalities, self-censorings, self-persecutings. Emotion must come to the stage. But it must be emotion of the correct order.

So, I begin listening to music and trying to think myself into Nancy’s sorrows. I’ve found Hadley Fraser’s ‘Again’ to be quite useful for this recently. A plea to stall a lost lover’s wedding; staking his soul at the fatal moment. Gorgeous song and voice and man – altogether heart-rending. In any case, it’s important that the song is simple and direct: it must communicate in an immediate manner, without venturing too far into abstract spheres. It’s as Noel Coward said: ‘Extraordinary how potent cheap music is’ (‘cheap’ strikes me as a compliment). Dickens saw emotional memories as profound in melting the human heart. His Christmas Books are all some variation on this theme, culminating in the final words of The Haunted Man: ‘Lord, keep my memory green’. I share Dickens’s belief. Anything other than mindless suppression. Embrace it all. The good and the bad alike will melt the heart – and then even the bad has come good.

Dickens’s declaration of ‘TRUTH’ also swam back into my head. I think back to moments in life where I’ve staked my soul on some emotion. None of them terribly recent. It’s partly been an effort to prove to myself that I’ve been in earnest – and how stupid that I ever have to prove that to myself. Amongst young actors, there can be a certain connoisseurship of dark and messy emotion. This was certainly what I found at university: everyone wanting to be seen to burn with the hard, gem-like flame; to be seen to surprise, to subvert, to dare; to be seen to live more intensely than the uninspired. One felt shallow by comparison. I’ve always regarded emotion as so central to everything I do that it’s never made sense to belabour it. Emotion is a fact, plain and simple, and to go on without is unbearable, madness. All the more reason to stake my soul as Nancy. Irving (via Craig again) had a phrase for this, very similar: ‘It is the soul, my boy; force the soul.’ Force it I would.

That night was the best the show had ever gone. A large and responsive audience helped, as did the confidence boost of having told the story earlier in the day. But it was the emotional thawing that really cleared the picture. It’s essential that Nancy give a glimpse of a world beyond the play. A Wildean garden, a place of loving feeling, as relief from stark Dickensian nightmare. The emotional flow also pays off in the show’s darkest excesses. From the Murder onwards, there are now the beginnings of a real take-off. I am creating vocal and physical shapes without pre-empting them. Some actors find improvisation easy. Not me. I have to trick myself into it – by tiring myself out, wearying my self-censoring little conscience. Another lesson of the Dungeon. How odd that ease should come from exertion.

The question-and-answer session yielded up a school group. A-Level, I think. Theatre Studies. Not so long since I was in such a class. They were utterly lovely, but I’m still searching for answers to their questions: from ‘How do you prepare for such a show?’ to ‘What advice would you give for getting into drama school?’ So much of my work has originated in blind intuitive stumblings that I’m at sea with dispensing practical knowledge. But ‘force the soul’ – that might be a good starting point.

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Filed under Acting Theory, Experiences, Henry Irving, Personal Excavation, Sikes & Nancy, The York Dungeon

The Hertfordshire Horror

This second diary entry kicks off with an apology. Well. Almost. Because I just haven’t had it in me to diarise the later rehearsals for Sikes & Nancy – those six days in York, followed by four more in London. I’m aware that this catapults me into the Dickensian school of ‘grow sad’ and ‘can’t do it’, which I vowed last time to avoid. In truth, I was staggered that I was so drained by my one-man rehearsals. Such depressive thinking isn’t worth airing. But it might be usefully explained.

I maintain that the main preparation for the solo show takes place within the head. The point of rehearsals is to release that mental energy through the body and the voice; to translate that energy, so furiously pent-up, into the kinetic, the sonic. It’s like a medium disgorging ectoplasm at a Victorian séance. Out comes the cheesecloth, knotted and knobbled, dragging a few people along as it leaves your system. An unnatural birth. And then we have our play.

The grey wall I bumped up against in rehearsals usually revealed itself as my own sabotaging brain. First there was the onset of a mysterious swollen throat, just before leaving for London – a swelling which I now suspect was (partly) psychosomatic. No fun to vocalise through. There was the terrible self-consciousness when people – God forbid! – actually started to watch the play. Then there was that unsettling late run-through in which the play lost some twelve minutes in length. A fine illustration of how faulty an actor’s perception can be: I’d felt I was going so terribly slowly. Beyond these considerations, there were the high-octane splittings of the self required to make the piece work at all. For roughly half its runtime, Sikes & Nancy features scenes of three characters (four, should we include the Narrator) engaged in intense conversation. I am everywhere yet nowhere: forever gazing, abstracted, at the place where I stood a moment before.

And, beyond anything, there’s the unfettered self-focus. Bolstered, in this case, by the absence of a director. Other than me, that is. Me, me, me, me, me, me, me. I’ve felt much burdened by me of late. You stumble about, rehearsing away, vaguely humiliated that you’ve no one more interesting to focus on. I would look wistfully to the plaque outside our Percy Street rehearsal rooms, commemorating the residence of the great Charles Laughton next door. Laughton, who played to acclaim in seven West End plays in the year he left RADA – and just as I’m preparing for my first West End stint. Laughton, whose remarkable Quasimodo – the subject of my second one-man play – remains the supreme grotesque. Laughton, who, not content with being the supreme grotesque, lived in Percy Street with Elsa Lanchester, herself the indelible Bride of Frankenstein. Why could Laughton – almost impossibly interesting – not resurrect and give Sikes & Nancy instead? You start wondering at the point of the torturous enterprise, but this is mostly healthy: a reminder that the one-person show, like pantomime, is completed by its audience. Until the audience arrives, self-focus is inevitable.

The absence of a director is a little unorthodox. But I feel it’s an unorthodoxy into which Sikes & Nancy has grown. I have no excuse for stalling the self-reliance required to embody the show – to beat it into the blood and the bones, so I can incarnate that other world. (And is this really so unorthodox? Dickens self-directed in the Public Readings.) However, a director no doubt eases the burden of the solo show. And fends off the pettifogging suspicion that it’s utterly terrible.

So a proper diary, a further reordering of grey space, proved to be one complication too many. Leisure hours were better spent in escaping. However, this has helped me towards a structuring principle for future diaries. From now on, I won’t chronicle anything other than the performances (and the days that swirled about them). This will save on much boredom.

Radlett Centre

RADLETT CENTRE (17TH SEPTEMBER). A night of terror. Our opening night – in a distinctly professional three-hundred seater theatre. In handling first nights, I often think of my great hero Boris Karloff. After ten years of Hollywood bogeymen, Karloff made his Broadway debut in Arsenic and Old Lace in 1941. He was petrified. What’s more, he excellently preserved his self-persecuting ramblings:

I thought, ‘There are only two things I can do. I know that I’ve always had this little, if I… go way below par. It has never troubled me, but now, in the tight spot, it has caught up. And only one or two things I can do. One is to go to them in the morning and say, “Well, I’m terribly sorry but we’ve all made a mistake. You’ve seen what’s been going on. You’ve been very kind and haven’t said anything, but it’s just no good. I can’t make it. How much do I owe you?”’

And then I thought, ‘Well, if that happens and I go back to Hollywood, I’m just about done there – because there’s been a flourish of trumpets and all that, and a week later, I come back with my tail between my legs and that’s it.’ So I thought, ‘Well, I’ve just got to make myself do it. I’ve just got to force myself to do it.’

The genial Frankenstein Monster had diarrhoea for a good few weeks after opening night: ‘I got on the scales and I had lost twenty-six pounds – in sheer fright.’

Fight or flight, fight or flight. Sikes & Nancy has always daunted me, but airing it in this newly professional context has added an extra spice of terror. Higher stakes; greater expectations; more and more people not to let down. I doggedly told myself that I’d much rather be acting than sitting an exam (thanks for that, Cambridge), and hurried upstairs for the fifteen-minute pre-state.

The performance was acutely discomfiting. Not that I hadn’t been prepared for that. From the get-go, I was sweating buckets. In seeming compensation, I was spitting buckets, seemingly every time I opened my mouth. (A post-show tweet was poetic in its evocation of ‘spittle overload’. Mea maxima culpa.) But then, this was in an effort to articulate and therefore be heard in a theatre so vast. Dark too – impossibly vast and dark; I could sympathise with Stanislavsky’s terror of the black hole of the auditorium. Felt I should be running to the foot of the stage to embrace whoever was out there. Felt I was tearing myself to pieces too, but for who exactly? And to what end, to what purpose? A nightmare thought, half-way through, while strangling myself as Fagin: ‘I bet they all hate this.’ Soon forgot this when I got some fake blood (primarily washing-up liquid) in my eyes. It mixed quite wonderfully with the sweat descending from my forehead, which had anyway been leaking into my eyes from the start. My eyelids flickered like moths throughout. The fatigue was quite powerful.

It’s a challenge I meet with some relish, powering through the haemorrhage of horrors that arise on first nights. The performance was no disaster. It’s just that I’m so aware of my mistakes. (That which goes to plan is unworthy of comment; the least of your professional obligations.) I must take care not to labour the pains of Sikes & Nancy. There’s the old story about Richard Mansfield, collapsed at the Garrick Club, and bemoaning the strain of playing Jekyll and Hyde to Henry Irving. Irving’s mumbled response: ‘Mm. If it’s unwholesome – why do it?’

Why do it then? Because it’s not unwholesome. Not really. It’s a joy. Even when it’s anything other than joyful. All was worthwhile. I managed to get the play’s running time to over an hour: adjusting to the vastness of the space had its compensations. And wandering through the new lighting designs (courtesy of Matt Leventhall) was an atmospheric treat. Matt’s brilliance has been to cross-light from the wings, with minimal spots and light haze, making it appear that actor and chairs are floating in an inky black void. The question-and-answer session was also strangely liberating. So exhausting is the play that I was free from self-consciousness: the ideal state for banging on about Dickens without fear of boring people.

Terrors aside, how good to get the play before an audience again. Having lain dormant since St William’s College – back in March of 2013 – Sikes & Nancy has returned.

Letchworth Arts Centre

LETCHWORTH ARTS CENTRE (19TH SEPTEMBER). The eighteenth was an odd day. I transferred from my Travelodge to a hotel where seemingly nothing worked: the tap, the shaving light, the shower, the pillows (so like four white boulders), the television, even the toilet paper (how can it work when there isn’t any?). A monotony broken only by choice attacks from crane flies. What little of Hertfordshire I could see was bizarre: everything seemed to be built next to a motorway. Quite different from the rural idyll I knew from watching Hammer House of Horror (barring the hitchhiker-happy ‘Two Faces of Evil’). Still, I had to restore myself for the next performance. Trusting to Dickens’s old mantra that energy begets energy, I went off on a five-hour walk. This did much good. A lonely day in all, tramping through Henlow churchyard, brooding on matters of love and death. All helpful, of course, for the next evening’s Sikes & Nancy.

The Letchworth performance struck me as a throwback to performing Sikes & Nancy at the Golden Fleece Inn (accomplished back in October 2012, thanks to the entirely brilliant Mark Watson). Here we had a venue, which, as arts centre, was not quite a theatre. (Indeed, we were informed that the room was being given over to Christian worship and recreational pole-dancing over the weekend. Not at the same time, I assume.) Here we had the audience on fold-up chairs and one lighting state throughout, as well as tabs that left one garden centre-style wall resolutely uncovered. And, just as at the Golden Fleece, there was great deliberation about whether we could open the windows (an exact parallel: both venues hovered above a pub on a Friday night). We were blessed to find a window, sequestered high above the performance space. I’d have been lost without it: I was more sweat than man before we even started.

It’s cruel that the seeming informality of Letchworth did nothing to reduce my nerves. Simon Callow put it best: ‘for actors as for farmers, nothing’s ever right’. I must have it out with my brain, and the only way to do that is to get a few more murders under my belt. Nonetheless, this Sikes & Nancy was an improvement on Radlett. I’m coming together a little bit more, reducing the extraneous twitchiness (some is desirable), happily adjusting to a space that’s intimate rather than epic. I find some more nuanced tenderness in Nancy (such a challenge: really thinking those high-emotion lines in speaking them) and forget some inhibition for Bolter (the key to that character, I believe). But there’s still a way to go yet. The audience seemed at ease with the play also: the question-and-answer session went on nearly as long as the show. It’s great for a solo performer to come together with an audience in this way. When I last saw Pip Utton in Edinburgh, he shook hands with the audience as they left. Ideal.

Ashwell School Hall

ASHWELL SCHOOL HALL (20TH SEPTEMBER). A day of impeccable framing. Ashwell is the Hertfordshire of my imagination, redolent with the autumnal Gothicism of The Blood on Satan’s Claw (hideous title, beautiful film). A smattering of mist and rain helped, as did the ominously chiming village church. I was fortunate enough to be staying in the medieval house of Colin Blumenau, our tour manager: a beacon of hospitality, particularly after the hotel where nothing worked. Colin had what can only be described as a theatrical library on the floor where I was staying. Utter heaven. I found a copy of Antony Sher’s Year of the King, which I hadn’t lain hands on since I was in Sixth Form. Really good to return to it; a formative tome for this slightly hunchbacked actor.

To our venue in the evening. Some interesting new challenges. The high-echo acoustics familiar to many school halls – always a danger with a piece as vocally detailed (and, let’s face it, loud) as Sikes & Nancy. Also a new thrust staging arrangement, the audience facing me on three sides. This is just what we’ll have in Trafalgar Studios, so I best get used to the nodding dog sensation. I find myself wondering why all school halls have parquet flooring. It was on just such a parquet tract that I gave my Ebenezer Scrooge in 2005. And everything encircling it, from Nativities (early to mid-1990s) to Return to the Forbidden Planet (2007). How many others discovered their love of acting on a parquet floor? Possibly the comforting old memory helped. Ashwell proved to be the least tiring show yet; certainly the least sweat-drenched. I’m starting to rediscover a certain ease in the performance. Vital, should I ever fling myself safely over the piece’s relentless emotional peaks (more an emotional mountain range). There are, unbelievably, moments for recovery – even mid-murder – so I’m pleased to be gaining access to them. Dickens wrote a monster, but it may yet be tamed.

A special joy in the question-and-answer session: practically the entire audience of sixty-five came round afterwards, mostly armed with glasses of wine. A lovely bit of chit-chat ensued. Not for the first time, I was addressed as ‘rubber face’ (Rowan Atkinson has played Fagin, of course), and I had chance to eulogise the just-deceased Donald Sinden as King of the Irvingites. And one delightful lady came out with the best of all after-show comments: ‘I’m really glad I came to this tonight, instead of staying in to watch The X Factor.’

I think I have arrived.

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Filed under Acting Theory, Experiences, Henry Irving, Personal Excavation, Sikes & Nancy

Into the Black Lagoon

Here begins an attempt to chronicle my preparations for Sikes & Nancy – shortly to be rehearsed, teched, dressed, prodded about the country and then (lovingly) hurled into the West End. Consider it a diary of sorts. Charles Dickens began a diary – his very first – in January, 1838. It terminated on the fifteenth:

Here ends this brief attempt at a Diary. I grow sad over this checking off of days, and can’t do it. CD.

Solitude, sometimes swelling into loneliness, is inescapable in the one-man play. This may also be true of diaries. It falls to the actor to alleviate this solitude by any means possible: above all, by direct contact with their audiences. But there are other ways too. It’s my hope that, in converting my daily meanderings into text – meanderings which often drive me to aggravation, so great is my blindness to their wider point – I can better discover their meaning, possibly even a light wisdom. Accordingly, I will steer well clear of the Dickensian school of life-writing (sample entry: ‘City people and rather dull’) and record only that which has helped my journey to the heart of Sikes & Nancy.

1ST SEPTEMBER. A dream in the early hours: an imagined performance review at the Dungeon, in which I’m winningly told how ‘undisciplined’ and ‘uncontrollable’ an actor I am. Funny, really, the cast-iron continuity of an insecurity. Ever and always do I worry that my acting is somehow inappropriate, embarrassing, uninhibited through personal wreckiness rather than ease (or – God help me – bare-faced ‘ham’). Perhaps it’s as well that this is my last day at the Dungeon. Happily, it’s a day that looks forward. I start with a long stint on Ghosts: grim period storytelling with a flavour of Poe’s first-person murder narratives, precisely what I get up to in Sikes & Nancy. There are also shorter bursts on Turpin (playing a character not unlike Bill Sikes), Entrance (what more forward-looking than being out of the building?), and, unexpectedly, Torture (coincidentally, the last show I gave at the Dungeon in 2013). On finishing my shift, I annotate my script over a pot of tea, then proceed to my class in the Alexander Technique: tonight, a pleasing mish-mash of tightrope-walking, saddle-sitting and back-lying. Of all my efforts to exalt my spine from the dimensions of a slightly crushed paper cup, the Alexander Technique has been the most effective. On getting home in the evening, I set up a Facebook Page for the show (which looked very much like this) and select a film to put me in the Sikes & Nancy mood. Having read so many of the Newgate novels that swirled about Oliver Twist on its first serialisation – Jack Sheppard, Eugene Aram, Paul Clifford – I’m trying to connect to films with a like sensibility. I settle on Hammer’s Edwardian murder-fest Hands of the Ripper. I last about half an hour, dropping off some time after Dora Bryan is impaled on a door.

2ND SEPTEMBER. Another anxiety dream: this time, I sit reading the newspaper reviews for Sikes & Nancy. They fill me with bowel-clenching dread, brimming as they do with negatives phrased as positives: ‘this was one of the least disastrous moments in Swanton’s performance’ and the like. I’ve already vowed to abstain from all reviews of the show – but, as in the dream, I’ll be dying to know what’s been said. Today proves little more productive than brooding on one’s own reviews: every time I get working on the script, the phone seems to ring with a new production issue. One such call reminds me to start booking digs for the tour. I get five or six places sorted – hotels, houses, hovels, all – and read Peter Ackroyd’s mighty tome Dickens come afternoon. Dickens’s mixed response to being pushed about America steel me somewhat for my shufflings across England. Dickens’s thoughts on the Separate System in American prisons are also helpful: ‘I looked at them with the same awe as I should have looked at men who had been buried alive, and dug up again’ and (Dickens’s italics) ‘What if ghosts be one of the terrors of these jails?’ Sikes & Nancy unfolds in precisely that uncanny valley: the Narrator looks on scurrilous criminality from afar, yet succumbs to all its blackest terrors. My Alexander class passes in a haze of foot-rubbing, chest-compressing and cushion-strapping. A slightly harassed and lonely day. That night, I watch more of Hands of the Ripper. As I do so, I make out my Sikes coat, burning through the darkness against the white wardrobe door. Perhaps it’s Krook, dispatched from Bleak House to torment me. Or one of those ghosts that haunt the American prisons.

3RD SEPTEMBER. Certain I had another dream. Can’t for the life of me remember it. Perhaps the coat beat it back. In any case, finishing Hands of the Ripper is a fine substitute. It’s sorely overlooked, even by Hammer standards: beautiful music, the most atmospheric use of St Paul’s since Mary Poppins and a fog-bound cityscape that could comfortably house Fagin and Sikes. I’m always deeply touched by the idea of the April-December romance, here between the middle-aged doctor and the Ripper’s virginal daughter. What makes that so? The idea of love beating back death? A permutation of Beauty and the Beast? It may be even simpler: so much of Sikes & Nancy is primed on inappropriate loving feeling. Endlessly relatable, these loves we are told should simply not be – and central, I think, to my dabblings in the grotesque. As I annotate the script, I’m struck by the need to more carefully pattern Nancy’s speech; to lessen that generalised gloss where my brain clicks into the ‘EMOTE!’ setting. Perhaps mining the Narrator will be key. He’s my enigmatic quarry. To say that the Narrator is really Dickens, or me, or a complete non-entity (ah: already said ‘me’) is a cheat. And a simplification. For the Narrator is everyone: an embodiment of multiple characters, a fulcrum of unspooling grotesques. He’s somewhat like Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Past: ‘being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body…’ The Narrator becomes a crucible for the textured nastiness disclosed within Sikes & Nancy; the figure that makes it possible for the actor to step forth and embody an entire world. More practical, today was my first attempt to limit my dairy intake to keep down my catarrh. Whoever the Narrator is, he should not be mucusy. Nor should he be self-conscious: today’s dose of Alexander Technique is beset by this. My teacher notes that my eyes turn inwards and I cease to breathe when running lines in my head. This cannot be! Some business with finding the feet and pointing, and, better yet, bean bags, goes some way towards remedying this. The self-consciousness is senseless, all told. The main point of Sikes & Nancy is to look the audience square in the eye and tell the story. An evening of reading (Oliver Twist and The Invention of Murder), admin and admin-lite (for ‘admin-lite’ read ‘pratting about on Facebook’), before starting The Spiral Staircase, another film with the phunk of the Newgate gallows.

4TH SEPTEMBER. A pleasing morning. The script grows ever deeper, a headlong plunge into a black lagoon. It’s a register that reminds me of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: I sense a near-impenetrable blackness, from which objects briefly emerge before descending from view. Perhaps I’m lured into this trance by the bean bag technique. This requires throwing a bean bag in the air and catching it to correspond with phrases in the script, all the while directing your eyes to specific focuses through a window. A difficult adjustment, but thereafter helpful: no longer is my focus turned inward. The Alexander Technique is more encouraging today, trying to get my thighs to ease up and do less work (I have a peculiar gait where my knees seem to propel my legs about). Then to the Dungeon’s end-of-season party. I enjoy parties, really I do, but I’m never sure how to behave at them. I’ve lately settled on a garrulous buffoonery – a success, in that it brings me more joy than awkwardness. Yet I can never shake the feeling that, were I only to crack how to act at parties, I would stumble, quite naturally, on the much better party going on in the next room. Acting and personal dislocation go hand in hand. We’re a race terrified of being left out, overlooked, forgotten, transferring our professional anxieties to day-to-day life. Or is it the other way round? The best diagnosis I’ve found is in Gordon Craig’s visionary biography of Henry Irving, which I read in February. Craig is romantic yet profound in asserting that Irving was all actor:

It was not only in his face – it was all over him. It was not put-on – not acting in that sense – but it was such a concentrated essence of love for that to which he had devoted his soul that it became positively terrifying, unless by chance you knew what it was that he was thinking of, seeing, hearing, and noting … For it meant the whole of this world and the next, with Irving, to be an ACTOR, and in his innocence, his proud innocence, he supposed it meant as much to every other performer.

As with Irving, I feel that virtually everything in my life is either founded on or pointing towards acting. A blessing and a curse. Irving’s personal life was by no means good. It may also be true that the finest actors have something in their lives which has nothing to do with acting. Yet as I type, I can discern Irving’s lanky spectre at my shoulder: ‘So, er – why, um, have a party, m’boy? Why, the acting was the party!’ Fortunately, the one-man form transforms this monomania into a positive virtue. Besides, I’ve never been so good at anything that I can afford to go at it on a part-time or non-obsessive basis. If you’re after a real go at acting, what other way to do it?

5TH SEPTEMBER. The sort of day where exceptionally little gets done. I manage a few line-runs: first at home with the bean bags, then in walking through the countryside (or what passes for countryside in the sterilised wilds of Acomb and Poppleton). I also attend my last Alexander Technique class, which contains some practical, play-focused advice. I am now forbidden to think about the Technique whilst acting. You learn it in order to forget it. You trust that it’s there on some level and then you get on with your craft. Reassuring, as I believe that a conservative degree of ‘over-doing’ is indispensable to Sikes & Nancy. I belong to the Henry Irving school of murder: you can’t orchestrate killings in the theatre without some stormier madness at work. An audience will sense you faking. In playing Mathias in The Bells, Irving would, by sheer imaginative force, cause the blood to drain from his face and his pulse to soar. He employed the same in reciting ‘The Dream of Eugene Aram’ (an item that Dickens’s ‘Sikes and Nancy’ may have been designed to top):

Oh, God! that horrid, horrid dream
Besets me now awake!
Again – again, with dizzy brain,
The human life I take;
And my right red hand grows raging hot,
Like Cranmer’s at the stake.

The above perfectly encapsulates Sikes’s flight through the countryside. I’m perplexed that the poem is all but forgotten. A good deal juicier than Poe’s ‘The Raven’. On walking home, I listen to Damien Rice’s ‘Rootless Tree’ and ‘Loving You’ from Sondheim’s Passion. Both strike me as a distillation of Nancy’s predicament, the latter especially: ‘I will live and I would die for you.’ My acting must aspire to the condition of music – something quite possible within the one-man form, where it’s down to set the rhythms. Had a nice conversation with Jack Gamble, which returned me to madness, this time in the form of Ruskin’s haunting self-portraiture. More of The Spiral Staircase, then sleep. A week tomorrow till rehearsals start in London. And so tomorrow I must speak the text.

6TH SEPTEMBER. Great productivity. Great happiness. With the house empty and the windows closed – to be overheard is unendurable – I wander about and speak the words. I do this for just under three hours, ruminating on the first two-thirds of the script: shaping and reshaping the sounds (it’s not sufficient to parrot the old rhythms), listening all the while to the vibrations. The sensation is enjoyable. And, as though conducting a séance, I’m luring back the old character voices (this after luring back my higher register – always a fatality at the Dungeon). Fagin and Sikes will take a few weeks to materialise, but the others come on splendidly. Some new discoveries: Nancy requires a certain breathiness to take hold, Bolter an oily gusto; the Narrator, meanwhile, can borrow much more from my own voice. I also feel I’m seeing the piece more clearly: seeing the people I’m addressing, seeing a London drenched in perpetual night, seeing as far as I can into the black lagoon. After this exhilaration, it’s back to assembling quotations for the Sikes & Nancy post-show discussions. In doing so, I’m reading (usually re-reading) the words of Dickens and his contemporaries, as well as passages from The Jew of Malta and Macbeth. In Barabas I find the monstrous essence of Fagin: ‘For so I live, perish may all the world.’ In Macbeth I access the visual qualities of the piece: ‘light thickens’ – and in his Lady those bloodstains that never go away: ‘all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand’. That night, I dream I’m backstage on Broadway for The Phantom of the Opera. Cavernous wing space – quite unlike any real theatre – into which dry ice and organ music flood. A sign, I hope, that the melodrama’s entering the blood and the bones.

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Filed under Acting Theory, Experiences, Film, Henry Irving, Personal Excavation, Sikes & Nancy, The York Dungeon

Fires of Industry

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

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

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

Strangling Fagin

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

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

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

Or this:

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

And not forgetting:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Penal Colony

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

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

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

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

Henry VIII in Glass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devil Music

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

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

Trouble with the Fireplace

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

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

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

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

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

She Will Burn

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

God Have Mercy

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

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

Really, it needs the Devil.

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

Mephistopheles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Trouble with the Fireplace

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

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

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Filed under Essays, Film, Henry Irving

Neo-Gothic Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES ON MELODRAMA

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

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

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

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

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

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

Furniss - Louis XI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irving - Cardinal Wolsey

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

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

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

The Knight from Nowhere

Sir Henry Irving has fast become my latest obsession. Which is strange, given that I can’t see any of his performances. Irving last performed in the theatre in 1905. All that remains of his art are a few scratchy wax cylinder recordings.

Master and Pupil

Last year, I developed a similar passion for Sir Donald Wolfit, after reading Ronald Harwood’s excellent biography. I’ve still seen only a clutch of Wolfit performances, film rather than theatre, and none of them hugely impressive: Callistratus in Blood of the Vampire (1958) leaps to mind, as does the title menace in Svengali (1954). To a lesser extent, I’ve had it with Charles Laughton and Antony Sher. I sought out more Laughton films after reading Simon Callow’s biography. It was enervating to have such unpromising vehicles as They Knew What They Wanted (1940) and especially This Land Is Mine (1943) deliver far in excess of my hopes. As for Sher (who I know from his biographies), I’ve still never seen him in the theatre – though given he’s alive and working, there’s every chance that’ll change.

Having a primarily textual connection to an actor is nonetheless edifying. It’s that point at which drama intersects with faith. You start looking beyond the performance for the idea, the ethos, the belief system that underlies it. Much more drama should work like this: as with any faith, it gives its acolytes a reason to continue. Acting is a discouraging enough pursuit – when it doesn’t go right – that such figures are vital. I am anyway a prodigious hero worshipper, and probably for reasons of this nature. My heroes give me the courage to keep on trying.

Irving has been with me far longer than the actors mentioned above. I’m sure I’ve known about Irving nearly as long as I’ve known about Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula (and, as anyone who knows me will testify, that is a very long time). Stoker was Irving’s business manager at the Lyceum Theatre, forever cast in the shadow of his domineering ‘Guv’nor’ and receiving little thanks for his administrative pains. It’s the supreme irony of Irving’s life that now Dracula is more famous than him. Irving even passed up the opportunity to be the first actor to play Dracula (repeatedly, by Stoker’s account). Hindsight has not been kind. Not only are Irving’s performances lost to the dust, but he jeopardised his one real shot at cultural immortality. If the great dead could only speak! The Knight and the Count are no doubt locked in bitter combat, a Salieri and Mozart of the nineteenth-century theatre. Stoker is their jealous (and unlikely) God.

I’ve been getting to know Irving through many great books. I’ve recently concluded Laurence Irving’s monumental Henry Irving: The Actor and His World, which might well be the longest book I’ve read since finishing Cambridge: an all-encompassing almanac of Irving. Simply living with a subject for as long as such a biography takes creates a special bond, regardless of what you think of the man. It’s certainly that way with Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens – you feel as though you’ve lived his life for him, suffered his exhaustion and earned his death (for Dickens and Irving both, a reverential interring in Poets’ Corner). I’m now all over the place in my Irving researches: steeped in Jeffrey Richards’ Sir Henry Irving: A Victorian Actor and His World and Bram Stoker’s Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving; culling sections from The Tragic Actor (Bertram Joseph), That Despicable Race (Bryan Forbes) and Thunder in the Air (Brian Masters); looking forward to volumes by Ellen Terry and Michael Holroyd and (again!) Jeffrey Richards. Then there are the plays that Irving made famous: I’ve just worked through a heavily annotated script for The Bells, and have a ton of Shakespeare, Tennyson and melodrama to go. Simply put, I’m in love.

It’s probably worth adding that I read Barbara Belford’s Bram Stoker and the Man who was Dracula (meaning Irving) last year – as part of my interminable researches for my one-man play of Dracula. A play which I’ve finished, by the way, but will be consigning to the back-burner for the foreseeable future. I’ve decided to press on with Frankenstein first, and make sure it’s as good as it can possibly be. I’m confident that Dracula will eventually be staged, but I don’t think its time has come. It must be more than perfect, and it’s not yet there.

Okay, I’ve so far addressed the hovering ‘hows’ of my Irving obsession. But what about the ‘whys’ behind it?

With all of my heroes, I like to feel assured that they were actually really bad at some things. Their humanity makes their achievements the more admirable (and palatable – it doesn’t pay to envy a hero). Irving truly overcame himself, transforming his weaknesses as an actor into that which made him individual, irreplaceable. His legs were bad, particularly in an age which prized elegance of gait; one foot would sometimes drag slightly. He was terribly short-sighted (thus the ever-present pince-nez spectacles). He suffered from catarrh all his life, which meant that he was constantly vocalising through a dry throat. Irving also stammered. Laurence Irving provides a painful account of this impediment’s resurgence, shortly after his grandfather’s professional debut:

… When he came upon the stage as Cleomenes in The Winter’s Tale to describe Leontes’ discovery of his daughter, no words came from his lips. His fellow-actors waited in awkward dismay. The prompter groaned his cue in tones that were heard all over the house. Irving was paralysed with horror. Then, with a tremendous effort of will, he managed to blurt out:

‘Come to the market-place, and I will tell you further!’ and, leaving the astonished actors, who knew of no such market-place, to pick up the threads of the play as best they could, he rushed to his dressing-room, angry and ashamed, with the hisses of the audience buzzing in his burning ears … It is doubtful if the disaster was an attack of stage fright; it was certainly not due to careless preparation; it was more likely that the half-conquered impediment had, in a moment of stress, broken from its secret prison.

I can empathise with all that, as a short-sighted, funny-voiced, wonky-backed man with one leg rippling with sciatica (I also suffer from catarrh, and don’t anticipate a future when I won’t). Irving was also largely self-educated. Despite his image as an intellectual actor, he would apparently make a fool of himself when engaging with men of art. I’m particularly fond of the account of Irving meeting Walt Whitman. Irving, eager to break the silence, blurted out: ‘You know you are like Tennyson in several ways. You quite remind me of him!’ A few seconds later, Irving worried that he’d offended Whitman. ‘You don’t mind that, do you?’ he said feebly, before retreating back into silence. (Whitman claimed to be pleased: ‘I like to be tickled!’)

Also endearing is Irving’s loneliness, even after he achieved greatness. He would return every night (or morning) to his darkened rooms, far from the glamour of the Beefsteak Room and the Lyceum gala nights, and lock himself away from the world. Irving sporadically kept dogs – and those dogs had a habit of dying – but he seemingly had no people for companionship. His pious mother cast him out when he declared his acting ambitions. He became estranged from his wife when she questioned his acting: ‘Are you going on making a fool of yourself like this all your life?’ He walked away and never spoke to her again. She was allowed to watch him from a box by the stage – Irving always reserved her first-night seats in his tenure at the Lyceum, and she often accepted. How unsettling an image: You may watch me, but only in silence, and a long way away. And only in the dark. By extension, Irving also became estranged from his sons. Did he have the brief satisfaction of affairs? We can’t be sure. They were secretive affairs, for he never divorced. Did he enjoy a close platonic friendship? It’s hard to say. Narcissistic, and therefore self-protecting, friendships – yes, probably. Bram Stoker got no recognition for essentially giving his life to Irving; eventually, Irving committed the supreme betrayal of ignoring Stoker’s advice, and handing the Lyceum to a financially crippling syndicate.

This loneliness was the point of Irving’s life, though. I’m not sure it made him unhappy. The work was all. Bette Davis had this in common with Irving. She believed loneliness was central to the actor’s creative state: ‘It has been my experience that one cannot depend on human relations for any lasting reward. It is only work that truly satisfies.’ She had this to say on happiness: ‘I don’t think as a group actors are what I call “happy people”; I think we’re very moody people … And rather lonely people actually.’ I increasingly believe that if you want to do something really astounding in the theatre, this loneliness is non-negotiable. It’s part of the deal.

Irving also overcame himself by growing, inexorably, in scope as an actor: graduating from grotesque comedy (his Dickensian rogues; in a more realistic vein, his Digby Grant in Two Roses) to melodramatic villainy (The Bells) and finally to classical tragedy (the Great Four: Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear). I think I’m still hovering between the grotesque and the melodramatic, and certainly not at the level that Irving was. But one of the reassurances of Irving’s career is that he kept melodrama and tragedy running in parallel: for every Lyceum Shakespeare, there was likely to be a production of Louis XI, The Corsican Brothers or a distinctly non-Goethe Faust. Nor did Irving betray his roots in the ostentatious ugliness of the grotesque. His idiosyncracies of manner made it so; for all his work on his person, he could never be other than himself. Irving was usually applauded for his facial expression and command of movement (mannerisms maketh man), seldom for the beauty of his voice. Irving was never one of the beautiful people. Well, so what? his characters seemed to say. See how high I’m soaring without your beauty! The paradox of such an attitude is that Irving was all magnetism; I imagine his charisma – sex appeal, even – was comparable to that of Alan Rickman. Although his Romeo was bad (how could it be otherwise?), he made a fine Benedick (much the better part). He even managed to make Iago loveable. As Ellen Terry wrote:

One adored him, devil though he was. He was so full of charm, so sincerely the ‘honest’ Iago, peculiarly sympathetic with Othello, Desdemona, Roderigo, all of them – except his wife … His Iago and his Romeo in different ways proved his power to portray Italian passions – the passions of lovely, treacherous people, who will either sing you a love sonnet or stab you in the back – you are not sure which.

Love goes not simply to the beautiful; not in Irving’s Lyceum.

Irving also embraced the image in his acting. I wrote about this last year in a spoofing vein, but I truly believe the theatrical image to reach much further than the grotesque. Looking back to Wolfit, Laughton and Sher, I realise now that it was a sense of the images they’d left (or are leaving) behind that excites me so. James Agate appointed Wolfit as Irving’s successor, describing Wolfit’s Lear as ‘a ruined piece of nature’. An elemental description of Irving that I find enchanting was supplied by Ellen Terry. Near the end of his life, she said that he became ‘like some beautiful grey tree that I have seen in Savannah’. Irving’s was an inspiriting glide towards death, founded on the mantra of Boris Karloff: ‘I intend to die with my boots and my greasepaint on.’ (The performances of the great horror stars – who Irving so splendidly anticipated – are nothing if not an elucidation of death.) Laughton was that paradoxical combination of the physically unmistakable and the chimeric, transforming his ungainly frame by sheer force of will. Irving’s performance in The Bells might be the consummate example of affecting a change in one’s body and brain through will-power. There are too many enraptured accounts of Irving’s Mathias, and over too long a span, for it to be a shrewd concoction of effects. There’s black magic at work – particularly when it’s considered that The Bells, like many of Laughton’s screen vehicles, is so thinly written. Sher’s painterly approach to his characters is well-known. It can seem a self-absorbed approach to theatre – dictatorial, perhaps, so far as it forces others to conform to a pattern. But Irving harnessed images in like fashion: he revolutionised scene-painting with his ‘spectacular’ Shakespeares at the Lyceum. Of course, every carefully wrought frame had to lead the eye towards the central, completing element: Irving himself. Some would say egotism. I would say art.

I find Irving a great model for what my own path in theatre might be. Not in terms of the success Irving achieved – that was beyond what even Olivier accomplished, and very much bound by his time. But in terms of his artistic attack… It might be worth trying to run the same race. So who knows? Irving may even become my next one-man play.

I’ll end with the Sonnet that Oscar Wilde addressed to Irving. It’s a thrilling call to arms for any actor trapped on the treadmill of the macabre:

FABIEN DEI FRANCHI

The silent room, the heavy creeping shade,
The dead that travel fast, the opening door,
The murdered brother rising through the floor,
The ghost’s white fingers on thy shoulders laid,
And then the lonely duel in the glade,
The broken swords, the stifled scream, the gore,
Thy grand revengeful eyes when all is o’er, –
These things are well enough, – but thou wert made
For more august creation! frenzied Lear
Should at thy bidding wander on the heath
With the shrill fool to mock him, Romeo
For thee should lure his love, and desperate fear
Mock Richard’s recreant dagger from its sheath –
Thou trumpet set for Shakespeare’s lips to blow!

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Filed under Acting Theory, Dracula, Essays, Henry Irving