Category Archives: Personal Excavation

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

Living in Film (2011-13)

A continuation from last time. For 2008-10, as well as the rationale behind these film lists, kindly click this link.

2011

The Elephant Man (1980)

1. The Elephant Man (dir. David Lynch, 1980)
2. The Blood on Satan’s Claw (dir. Piers Haggard, 1971)
3. Suddenly, Last Summer (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1959)
4. Scarface (dir. Howard Hawks, Richard Rosson, 1932)
5. The King’s Speech (dir. Tom Hooper, 2010)
6. The Leopard Man (dir. Jacques Tourneur, 1943)
7. Shakespeare in Love (dir. John Madden, 1998)
8. Now, Voyager (dir. Irving Rapper, 1942)
9. Stranger on the Third Floor (dir. Boris Ingster, 1942)
10. The Dresser (dir. Peter Yates, 1983)

Four entries on this list exemplify a running theme: legitimate cinema fighting horror. Stranger on the Third Floor is a realistic (if noirish) drama, yet with a courtroom dream sequence worthy of The Bells; similarly, Scarface places Boris Karloff, fantastical horror personified, in the middle of Chicago mob-land. Suddenly, Last Summer boasts the legitimising presence of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, thus glossing over its Bacchic stew of depraved sexualities and orgiastic cannibalism. (It’s worth noting that playwright Tennessee Williams has since acquired a patina of respectability – one that certainly didn’t exist in censor-happy 1959.) The Elephant Man consolidates these clashes of style, veering between weepy sentimentality and dark carnival histrionics that outdo Tod Browning. This schizophrenia resounds in the gulf between John Gielgud’s saintly Carr Gomm and Freddie Jones’ dyspeptic Bytes. It’s a character coupling worthy of Dickens: they seem not to belong in the same universe. I find it satisfying to see these semi-horrors alongside unabashed (and relatively obscure) horrors. I will stand up any day and defend The Blood on Satan’s Claw, in all its supernatural, folky absurdity, over the better known Witchfinder General (1968; rarely has Vincent Price appeared more ill at ease). Likewise, The Leopard Man is a good deal better than some of the more critically lauded Lewton pictures, particularly The Seventh Victim (1943; so obtuse it ceases to engage).

There’s a high concentration of British films on this list, including two Geoffrey Rush starrers: Shakespeare in Love and The King’s Speech (a dull choice, I know; I’ll chalk it up to the delight of the cinema experience). Rush is Australian (nothing wrong with that), but the other Brit flicks are made for me by their homegrown theatrical talents: The Dresser has Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney, both playing wonderfully dangerously; Shakespeare in Love is worthwhile for the chance to see theatrical Geminis Simon Callow and Antony Sher in the same film. My old favourite Bette Davis has sunk below the water-line on other lists, so it’s particularly satisfying to see Now, Voyager here. These previous films were also fighting in more competitive years: for example, Davis’s Dark Victory (1939), Old Acquaintance (1943) and Mr. Skeffington (1944) all made it into the top twenty – but not the top ten – for 2009. (The pattern struck with a vengeance in 2013, with The Old Maid (1939), The Letter (1940), In This Our Life (1942) and Deception (1946) all making the top twenty.) Historically, America’s greatest actors have been women rather than men; another of these sacred monsters, Gladys Cooper, makes a fine villainess in Now, Voyager.

2012

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

1. The Lady Vanishes (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1938)
2. Les Triplettes de Belleville (dir. Sylvain Chomet, 2003)
3. Three Cases of Murder (dir. David Eady, George More O’Ferrall, Wendy Toye, Orson Welles, 1955)
4. House of Whipcord (dir. Pete Waler, 1974)
5. The Uninvited (dir. Lewis Allen, 1944)
6. Hamlet (dir. Laurence Olivier, 1948)
7. Fanatic (dir. Silvio Narizzano, 1965)
8. The Clairvoyant (dir. Maurice Elvey, 1935)
9. Death Line (dir. Gary Sherman, 1973)
10. They Knew What They Wanted (dir. Garson Kanin, 1940)

2012 seems to be a year that gestures to other films I like – and sometimes much better than the ones on the list! The Lady Vanishes ensures that a Hitchcock has at last come out top, though I’m not sure I admire it as much as some that featured lower down in previous years (The 39 Steps and Vertigo in particular). Three Cases of Murder stands for the portmanteau film, a British horror institution that runs from 1945’s Dead of Night (featuring Charters and Caldicott of The Lady Vanishes!) to Amicus, whose best efforts are probably Tales from the Crypt (1972) and From Beyond the Grave (1974). Fanatic represents the psycho woman subgenre: triumphantly started by Bette Davis’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and thereafter propped up by a series of fading dames (in this case, Tallulah Bankhead, pleasingly unsettling). And The Uninvited and Hamlet stand for the ghost film. The Uninvited is compelling and at times poetic but lacks the cast-iron conviction of The Innocents (1961; a film I seem to be watching almost every month lately); even its (very good) apparitions can’t compete with the unexpected scariness of the Ghost in Olivier’s Hamlet (a film worthy but somewhat dull in other respects – Peter Cushing’s peacock Osric excepted). The titles above are a superb illustration of how diversely cinema attacks the Gothic. Horizons stretch further than monochrome monster movies.

2012 also contains a number of films that are made gripping by their actors. Claude Rains raises The Clairvoyant to the status of forgotten classic, whilst Charles Laughton makes his improbable casting (a rotund, almost offensively Italian grape farmer) in They Knew What They Wanted almost cosmically heart-breaking. I’m still at a loss to explain how Laughton does it. Lesser lights also shine brightly: Sheila Keith (chillingly androgynous) startlingly prefigures Roald Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull in House of Whipcord; Donald Pleasence brightens the sewer-rat aesthetics of Death Line with an off-kilter slew of very British tea-rejections. It’s appropriate that these acting highlights are rounded off by Les Triplettes de Belleville – an animation inventive, attenuated and bottomlessly grotesque. The grotesque is that primordial ooze from which my own acting gremlins hobble (go on, have a click), and animation one of the arts that started me on the journey (that one too).

2013

It's a Wonderful Life (1947)

1. It’s a Wonderful Life (dir. Frank Capra, 1946)
2. This Land Is Mine (dir. Jean Renoir, 1943)
3. Portrait of Jennie (dir. William Dieterle, 1947)
4. Up (dir. Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, 2009)
5. Cash on Demand (dir. Quentin Lawrence, 1962)
6. Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (dir. Cyril Frankel, 1960)
7. Gladiator (dir. Ridley Scott, 2000)
8. All This, and Heaven Too (dir. Anatole Litvak, 1940)
9. Witness for the Prosecution (dir. Billy Wilder, 1957)
10. The Penalty (dir. Wallace Worsley, 1920)

This list reminds me how much the forties appeal to me for film. What was it about the ambience of that decade? Scrutinising the four entries here, it strikes me as a time when Hollywood turned to making hopeful stories, human interest stories; love stories, I suppose – and yet always interestingly overshadowed. By World War most obviously, the First of which figures in It’s a Wonderful Life, the Second in the almost unbearably moving This Land Is Mine. Although the spirit of War creeps into subjects where it’s not explicitly mentioned: I’ve heard The Wolf Man (1941) discussed in this light (come to think of it, I argued the case in my Tragedy paper at Cambridge); it certainly holds for the more fragile and melancholy Portrait of Jennie. There’s a more sensual punch too: the studio system in full, seductive swing. The glossiness of this era’s black and white film stock is something I increasingly relish. It’s also to do with the orchestral music, the impossibly deep sets and the star power: three elements which make All This, and Heaven Too so beguiling (partly because so little known), a near-perfect melding of Gone with the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940). I wrote on Portrait of Jennie in this earlier blog post. It might be my favourite of director William Dieterle’s unofficial Gothic trinity, the previous entries in which are also exquisite: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and All That Money Can Buy (1940). I also wrote on The Penalty in that entry, so I won’t bother harping on about it here. But it is fantastically good.

Also on the list are two low-key thrillers from Hammer Films, whose outer limits I’m delving into more and more. Cash on Demand is a remarkably tense update of A Christmas Carol (and a cynical British antidote to the forgivable schmaltz of It’s a Wonderful Life), with Peter Cushing and Andre Morrell delivering razor-sharp, Pinter-style performances (I want to see them in No Man’s Land now). Never Take Sweets from a Stranger is a horrifying drama (but not really a horror) centred on paedophilia; Hammer’s version of M, perhaps. It boasts a transformed Felix Aylmer, worlds away from the doddering old man schtick that enlivened Olivier’s Hamlet and Kenneth Williams’ repertoire of talk-show impressions. Witness for the Prosecution adds a third black and white British-made thriller to the list: like This Land Is Mine, it’s made by Charles Laughton. There are also two relatively modern films on the list. Up was another blessed reminder that I really love animation. All the same, I think Pixar’s grown into itself: I remember finding Toy Story (1995) visually ugly and astoundingly charmless as a child. Gladiator was just plain good. If modern film serves a purpose for me, it’s fitting that it’s in giving utter believability to the past.

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Living in Film (2008-10)

Last week, I saw Citizen Kane for the first time. Predictably, I loved it. But this milestone did get me to thinking: Why did I love it? And why was that predictable?

Film-watching, like book-reading, is one of the supreme joys of my life. Like any great love affair, it works the miracle of taking me out of myself. And yet it makes me more fully myself than I’m likely to understand. Over my (not quite) twenty-three years, I’ve spent countless hours taking in many hundreds of films. ‘Taking in’ is one of those pleasingly old-timey picture-going expressions. But in this context, it makes a lot of sense. Film after film has slipped its spool and entered my brain via four discreet head-holes: two at the sides, two out front. What all that light and sound and noise and bustle has been doing in there since is a bit of a mystery. Certainly, I have an eerily good memory for the minutiae of film. There are particular films that I can hum, almost from start to finish. Memory, lightly exercised, brings up title cards, stock footage, musical cues, and (most sinister to me) the vocal inflections of actors – many of them long since dead, yet alive in my brain as ghosts. Perhaps these ghosts have shaped me somewhat.

Then again, the process might be less romantic: that I’ve just shaped which films have gotten to me. This year, the BAFTAs have rolled by and, as usual, I’ve seen only one or two of the nominated films. Simply put, they didn’t interest me that much. This isn’t some pose designed to impress – because, Lord knows, I’m a merciless populist in my film-watching habits. It’s more than I’m an antiquarian by nature. There are only two films in the ether that I’m hoping to see: Saving Mr Banks and The Invisible Woman. Despite being newly made, both are history in motion, a kind of living cultural criticism: biopics covering Disney and Dickens both. Even when I engage with the present, it seems to take me further into the past.

I do at times feel like an archivist of my own life: a shuffling, bespectacled librarian, armed with filing cabinets stuffed with useless papers. I’m a compulsive list-maker. I’ve kept lists of every film I’ve watched since the mid-2000s, chronologically ordered by month. This is a very particular obsession. It’s not as though I’ve ever attempted this with books or plays. I suppose it’s the collector’s instinct: the idea of films as tangible commodities; artefacts to be studied and analysed. This can surface reductively: star ratings seem to have begun with film criticism, and they’re a canker that keeps on spreading. And yet, despite Dogberry’s advice to the contrary (‘comparisons are odious’), there’s much to be learned from asking yourself why you value one film over another. To that end, I marshalled these films into the orders in which I enjoyed them.

Looking over the three lists below (spanning 2008 to 2010), I discern a series of patterns that confirm where my interests lie. A few of them take me back to Citizen Kane. It’s often to do with the words: A Man for All Seasons, adapted from Robert Bolt’s most literate of stage plays, tops one list; All About Eve – written, like Kane, by screenwriting genius Herman J. Mankiewicz – tops another. In contrast, many of my favourites are determined by a stunning visual aesthetic, thus the high-ranking presence of silent films (and the all but silent M, which tops the third list). I like films that make me feel some strong emotion – many, I suppose, are modern melodramas (women’s pictures, as they were once derisively termed). Whether they make me want to weep or cheer is besides the point: some confirmation that I’m not utterly hardened is always welcome. I also like a film that shocks me – although that hardening means it takes a lot to really shock me.

Then there are the dark and sheltered and moody films. I refer, of course, to the Gothics (a tradition I’ve elsewhere toyed with calling ‘Fantasy Noir’). Citizen Kane is a Gothic in certain lights. Xanadu dissolves neatly into Dracula’s castle; the presence of Gregg Toland, master cinematographer on Peter Lorre’s Mad Love, completes the transformation. (It’s worth pointing out that Welles’ Macbeth was purposefully shot in the style of Bride of Frankenstein.) Almost inevitably, Gothic cinema trickles into the more formulaic niche of genre cinema. This came back to me early on in Kane, in the scene with his mother. Instead of thinking ‘Why, what a fine performance from Agnes Moorehead’ (and it is) my first instinct was to think ‘Why, it’s the campy mystery writer from The Bat with Vincent Price! Perhaps she’ll harp on about the cat dropping its dentures!’

Above all (and believe me, this is as close to a summation as we will ever likely get), I go for cinema that fuses art and populism. After all, there should be no distinction. Yes, Citizen Kane can be seen as art – but it’s so often quoted in The Simpsons that there’s another side to the coin. High Art and Cornball Americana go hand in hand: the Charlie Kane song (‘There is a man, / A certain man…’) was introduced to me as a song about Mr Burns (‘To friends he’s known as Monty, / But to you it’s Mr Burns!’). Along the same lines, I was impressed to hear Christopher Frayling say the following (in a jolly good edition of Desert Island Discs). It’s tricky to transcribe the bubblings of free-form conversation, but these thoughts largely correspond with my views on film:

I think there’s a cultural snobbery. Everyone erects hierarchies, particularly in this country – that we’re interested in literary rather than visual things … My view is there’s good movies and there’s bad movies, just like there’s good poetry and bad poetry … Culture is a very, very broad church, and nothing’s to be gained from erecting artificial hierarchies … I think you can do a PhD about anything: it’s a matter of approach, seriousness, vocabulary, concept … There’s nothing intrinsically trivial about any subject matter.

My hierarchies only have meaning where I’m concerned – beyond me, they’re curios only. I’m reminded also of a saying from film historian Bill Warren: ‘You can only see a film for the first time once.’ I look back on these lists and envy myself for getting to see these wonderful films for the first time. But the journey continues, and I keep being surprised at what gold turns up.

Let’s dig into the lists then! I’ll provide a bit of commentary, but also try to quell my logorrhea to let them speak for themselves.

2008

M (1931)

1. M (dir. Fritz Lang, 1931)
2. Metropolis (dir. Fritz Lang, 1927)
3. The Grapes of Wrath (dir. John Ford, 1940)
4. Haxan (dir. Benjamin Christensen, 1922)
5. Sunset Blvd. (dir. Billy Wilder, 1955)
6. The Birds (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)
7. Rear Window (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
8. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (dir. Tim Burton, 2008)
9. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (dir. Don Siegel, 1956)
10. Bonnie and Clyde (dir. Arthur Penn, 1967)

M kicks off a distinctive trend of ‘on the run’ movies: narratives that follow social outcasts in their struggle to escape some life-suppressing, anti-human force. Cue sweeping landscape shots, suspenseful chase scenes and plucky heroism against the odds (and often against pre-existing moral imperatives). Although Peter Lorre is the nominal villain of M (paedophile serial killers generally are), the film’s final sequence displaces all terror onto the mob. Following suit, Bonnie and Clyde pits charismatic criminals against largely faceless lawmen; Invasion of the Body Snatchers takes facelessness to the next level. Of the two Hitchcocks, The Birds also fits the pattern, but Rear Window cleverly inverts it: the criminal is divorced from the viewer’s vantage point, which remains anchored throughout.

The Grapes of Wrath is another ‘on the run’ tale. I was then in the midst of my Steinbeck phase, going through the major novels as well as the minor fiction. I’m guessing this was tangential preparation for the interview at Cambridge – nonsensical, really, given that American literature wasn’t much on the agenda. More purely, I’ll have watched it for John Carradine, who I knew and liked from Bluebeard (less so from his under-cooked Dracula). I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed Sweeney Todd. When I was writing my dissertation on the Demon Barber, I couldn’t stand more than half an hour of the desaturated, cheerless film. I suppose it came down to the simple pleasure of seeing and liking something at the cinema with everybody else; being able to enter the happy throng for a change and say ‘me too!’ (I’ve since seen Metropolis in the cinema, and that was an outstanding event.) The two other Gothics on the list – Haxan and Sunset Blvd. – are more unexpected, durable, exciting.

2009

All About Eve (1950)

1. All About Eve (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)
2. North by Northwest (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)
3. Vertigo (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
4. The 39 Steps (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1935)
5. Les Yeux Sans Visage (dir. Georges Franju, 1960)
6. Scum (dir. Alan Clarke, 1979)
7. The Wicker Man (dir. Robin Hardy, 1973)
8. Amadeus (dir. Milos Forman, 1984)
9. Les Miserables (dir. Richard Boleslawski, 1935)
10. All That Money Can Buy (dir. William Dieterle, 1940)

The films of 2009 are often tied to academic milestones. I was watching Les Yeux Sans Visage when I received the phone call telling me I’d got into Cambridge; equally, I remember watching Amadeus when I was smarting at home after my first term there. And The Wicker Man was seen on one of those joyous, sun-spoiled May afternoons when you knew you’d done all your work (less of that nowadays). Scum is a harrowing refugee from the classroom of A-level Film Studies – allegedly the kind of course that should have disqualified me from a decent university. How appropriate then that the film is an indictment of the British education system. I later discovered I was the highest achieving Film Studies pupil in the country, which should have been a vindication, but I think only confirmed the limitations of the exam system (words like ‘non-diegetic’ still bring the bile to the back of my throat).

Looking back, I’d probably raise All That Money Can Buy a little higher (its Dickensian tale of soul-selling rewards repeat viewings; was instrumental, indeed, in redeveloping Scrooge & Marley) – and certainly drop North by Northwest beneath Vertigo and The 39 Steps. I probably rated North by Northwest so highly as another of these ‘on the run’ adventures I go so dotty about – but I think now that The 39 Steps does this much better. (Les Miserables is another such tale – and one I need to rewatch, now I’m obsessed with Charles Laughton.) All About Eve is untouchable; the perfect film – and as happy a combination of art and populism as I can well imagine.

2010

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

1. A Man for All Seasons (dir. Fred Zinnemann, 1966)
2. Laura (dir. Otto Preminger, 1944)
3. Saboteur (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1942)
4. Touch of Evil (dir. Orson Welles, 1958)
5. The Queen of Spades (dir. Thorold Dickinson, 1949)
6. The Trials of Oscar Wilde (dir. Ken Hughes, 1960)
7. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1947)
8. The Woman in the Window (dir. Fritz Lang, 1944)
9. The Fly (dir. David Cronenberg, 1986)
10. Rope (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1948)

A Man for All Seasons is a film that I was genetically hard-wired to adore – my grandma’s all-time favourite. Seeing the stage play at York Theatre Royal in 2008 (starring my all-time hero of everything ever, the great David Leonard) was a formative experience. It’s just as well I got round to the film. It represents almost everything I can’t do in theatre (as exemplified by the godly Paul Scofield), but, perhaps for that reason, I love it very dearly. The Trials of Oscar Wilde I find a good deal better than Stephen Fry’s Wilde (which I did like a fair bit). There’s a profound charge from having an Oscar as unrelentingly butch as Peter Finch. Lionel Jeffries’ Marquess of Queensberry is about the most thoroughly hateful villain in any film I can recall – like Freddie Jones, he comes just the right side of over-the-top. And the date of the film, 1960, guarantees a reticence that makes the danger quite electrifying.

Wilde has long stirred mixed emotions in me: this also goes for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (a woman’s picture if ever there was one) and The Fly (Beauty and the Beast shot through with razor blades). Saboteur did surprisingly well for a second-tier Hitchcock (an ‘on the run’ plot again – which I believe goes for The Woman in the Window too), beating off critical favourite Rope (although a lot of minor Hitches came lower down on the 2010 list: Stage Fright, I Confess, The Wrong Man, the execrable Family Plot). However, I have a profound buried crush on Robert Cummings – one that’s only just come back to me – so that may well account for it. Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil troubles me somewhat. I clearly liked it, but, at the same time, I can remember almost nothing about it. 2010 was a busy year, though, and I find much the same applying to Laura and The Queen of Spades by this point (I remember their outstanding gay aesthetes, Clifton Webb and Anton Walbrook, but precious little else). I hope this won’t happen with Citizen Kane.

A follow-up entry, covering 2011 to 2013, will no doubt follow soon. Lucky, lucky you.

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The Curse of Ham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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What Halloween Is, As I Grow Older

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

Champaigne - Still Life with a Skull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Essays, Experiences, Film, Personal Excavation, The York Dungeon

Reviewing the Reviewer

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

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

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

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

… Occasionally runs the risk of slipping into caricature.

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

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

Nobody has ever been that mental.

Stop overselling the character!

Throw off all the mannerisms!

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

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

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

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

He was crap, that’s the problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatre of Blood (1973)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s that inclusiveness that makes them so worthless.

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Filed under Essays, Personal Excavation

A Letter to the Friar

Tomorrow I travel to London to start rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet and Love’s Labour’s Lost. Full details can be found on my website, as well as the Grassroots Shakespeare page. To get my thoughts in order, I thought I’d take a break from writing letters to myself and instead write one to Friar Laurence. This entry might also mark a two-month hiatus from bloggery: I haven’t worked out if I’ll have the time and energy and consistency of internet connection to go on through June and July. I’ve no doubt at all that I’ll be back in August. And in any case, thirty blog entries for a year isn’t bad going…

Dear Friar,

Is that going to work out? ‘Dear Friar’? I think Juliet calls you ‘dear father’ at some point, but this seems grossly impertinent coming from me. I don’t know what shoes you wear. I don’t know what you eat for breakfast. I don’t know the Bible at all that well. And I don’t know any Latin – save what I’ve learned by rote for Love’s Labour’s Lost. I know I’ll feel like a ghastly traitor until I’ve at least thought about these things – even though the towering likelihood is that you’ll emerge wearing my shoes, happen to eat what I eat for breakfast, and know precisely as much about the Bible and Latin as the play dictates I know. At the moment, I don’t know where to have you.

Small wonder that I’m not sure I deserve to have you. I’ve never had much luck with Shakespeare. I’ve acted in both of these plays before. I was Dull and Mercadé in Love’s Labour’s Lost in 2010; the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet in 2011. Tiny characters, existing on the fringes of their worlds – just as I’ve dithered about ineffectually on the fringes of classical acting. Dull was a prism for the parade of clowns, buffoons and lunatics I’ve been saddled with in most of my Shakespearean delvings. That sounds dismissive, I know, and no doubt reflects on my limited gifts to do something original with such characters. The end result always took me out of the play: any ‘humour’ was applied to the text with a trowel, rather than emerging from that text. On the other hand, Mercadé was played on that knife-edge of terror I’ve had whenever I’ve tackled a ‘serious’ Shakespearean role: the terror that everyone’s going to laugh at my voice before I get the first line out. In 2009, when I played Cleon in Pericles, this led to my only ever experience of stage fright.

Now, the Apothecary felt like a crystallisation. But of what exactly? Impossible to say. I’ve written and thought about the character a great deal – producing, on one occasion, a dissertation-length essay; my last word on acting at that particular time. The best I can say is that the Apothecary encapsulates my belief in the value of Romeo and Juliet. A belief founded on the ‘spirit’ of the play, as Donald Wolfit might have expressed it. For the spirit of the play is self-evident. Romeo and Juliet is, quite transparently, a play about love.

Love, dear Friar. Love, love, love. That elusive atmosphere of love is my quarry for the next few months. I’m ransacking so many golden memories for where it might be found. In books: in the sun-splashed endings of Dickens, or the rain-spattered ending of Wilde. In music: in Tchaikovsky, in Beethoven, in Michael Crawford, in the theme tune to The Animals of Farthing Wood. In times and in places: in a day spent in Knaresborough, or a summer spent in Cambridge.

I seek it everywhere but in people. I’ve been shut out of romantic love most of the time. All of the time, if I’m honest. It could be worse. It’s not remotely desirable to become the individual that others worry about constantly: ‘Is he alright? Did you notice how quiet he was today? Do you think we should call him up?’ Better always – always! – to be the individual that everyone assumes is alright, content, at peace with their lot. In time, it becomes the truth. And while I’ve never dived into another human being – in the sense that a full-comprehending love allows – I’ve always been permitted to dive into acting. Into characters. (Into you most recently, Friar.) It’s not that work is more important than life. Or that work is a life substitute. Work is the life. It has to be – and I’m not sure it wasn’t a choice either. I think this suspension follows on naturally from my heightened sensitivity to love.

The programme for that 2011 production of Romeo and Juliet contained a note by Tim Cribb (a wonderful man). After expanding on Tybalt as a symbol of hate, Cribb writes the following:

As well as being fully physical, their love is intensely ideal, a dream of human perfection, of what kinship, of what a family, a whole society could be. This is what begets the most wonderful poetry of the play, but it ends in the tomb, and Tybalt is there too. The repentant parents promise to erect a shrine to the lovers in pure gold, but that is in some future world after the play has ended and we have yet to see it.

To my mind, the most unheralded aspect of Shakespeare’s genius is his use of minor characters to suggest the world beyond the scope of the play: such characters as the Porter in Macbeth, the Clown in Titus Andronicus, and the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet. That ‘future world’ beyond the play stretches across all time periods, across all locales, into all manner of winding and convoluted human hearts. The Apothecary is emblematic, to me, of all of these sad, drifting, marginalised creatures, shut out of a world of more serious emotions. I’m harshly reminded of my first reading of Stephen Fry’s Moab is my Washpot, wrestling with my unwanted sexuality at age fifteen. One of Fry’s most breathtaking observations is that homophobia has almost nothing to do with disgust at the idea of anal sex – which is, after all, no more than the playground caricature of what gay people might do:

There are plenty of other things to be got up to in the homosexual world outside the orbit of the anal ring, but the concept that really gets the goat of the gay-hater, the idea that really spins their melon and sickens their stomach is that most terrible and terrifying of all human notions, love.

That one can love another of the same gender, that is what the homophobe really cannot stand.

I believe this to be true. It’s the inconvenient truth that’s ignored by the opponents of gay marriage: never do they dare to breathe the l-word. Fry’s buried suggestion is that love is always, always, always more powerful a force than sex. I believe this to be true as well: love is the meaning, sex can be (but, usually, isn’t) love’s expressive mode. It’s probably also the reason that I’m so reticent in discussing these matters. Sex doesn’t make any sense to me without love. I’m not a being of sex, but I am a being of love. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m still fifteen and frightened to death about how life and love will work themselves out.

I think this recollection will certainly inform my playing of Holofernes and Katharine in Love’s Labour’s Lost. I’m determined that neither becomes an attention-seeking comic ‘turn’. Both are different kinds of eccentrics. And an eccentric is nothing more than someone shut off from convention. Holofernes is bound to a love that won’t reject him, in his book-learning and pedantry. The tragedy is that it’s a love that takes him further and further from humanity, rendering him almost incomprehensible. Katharine is frightened into cynicism by her sister’s death at the hands of Cupid. She does receive a love beyond the scope of the play – but, as with that golden shrine, ‘we have yet to see it’. (Copies of Love’s Labour’s Won are not forthcoming.) I can see into that in how I go about with acting. I can also see the sadness of it.

But you, Friar… You mean something different to me. You do not quash or deny the love in your heart. You certainly can’t get at it romantically; your holy orders make that so. You are, to put it crudely, married to God. But I wonder whether it’s something more deeply engrained in your soul. It’s not for everyone to discover a fulfilled and fulfilling romance in their lives. And it’s wasted time to reflect on what wasn’t there in the first place. You’ll balk at this, Friar, but I feel the same way about the divine. Wonderful, if it exists – unashamedly wonderful. But unwise to place faith in it. For all I know, the kingdom will never come. But even you’re shut out of romantic love, Friar, you encourage it in others. You stand as an idealistic facilitator of love. A man stationed at the gate to the garden of youthful and playful delights: never to enter, always to peep in through the bars.

Now that I find profoundly moving. Not simply because it’s the most gracious service one human can do another. But because it’s an expression of the impossibility of a fully requited love for so many. A friend sent me this piece by Carson McCullers, saying it reminded her of how I prattle on about the subject from time to time. She wasn’t far wrong:

First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons – but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries. Often the beloved is only the stimulus for all the stored-up love which has lain quiet within the lover for a long time hitherto. And somehow every lover knows this. He feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. He comes to know a new strange loneliness and it is this knowledge which makes him suffer. So there is only one thing for the lover to do. He must house his love within himself as best he can; he must create for himself a whole new inward world – a world intense and strange, complete in himself.

Never have I read an account of love that more closely parallels my own thinking. So many points here border on my own experience: the loneliness; the fact that that loneliness drives the lover to a kind of narcissistic introspection; the ultimate solution of ‘housing’ the love within the self. Shakespeare touches on the same in Sonnet 31: ‘Thou art the cave where buried love doth live, / Hung with the trophies of my lovers gone…’ That this passage comes from The Ballad of the Sad Café – a novella in which someone falls in love with the hunchback for a change – only makes it more precious.

I see you, Friar Laurence, as a shining example – for getting by in a world where love is by no means guaranteed. It’s only through acting that I have been assured a glance into the garden. I pray I might one day get past the gate. The brutal likelihood is that I won’t. The loneliness of the actor is sacrosanct. It’s rather like being a monk.

It’s on this basis, then, that I’m happy to come to you, Friar. The ‘dear’ can wait. For now, though, there is much to think about.

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