Category Archives: Personal Excavation

A Demented Fictionalist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy reading.


‘My Homely Ownsome’

Light Becomes Him

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

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

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


‘My Homely Ownsome’

Perversion of O!

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


‘Skelterton’s in My Clubbet’

Desperate Insecurity as a Basis for Cordial Theatre

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


‘Skelterton’s in My Clubbet’

Helter-Skelterton to the Cock-Tailed Bar

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

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

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

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Night Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Preparing for Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Other Half

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Acting and Obsession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Acting Theory, Essays, Personal Excavation