Category Archives: Sikes & Nancy

Sikes & Nancy: Character Sketches

Whenever I connect with a character, it’s through an image. A year ago, I wrote a long-ish essay on this subject, reflecting on my experience with the Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet. It remains the closest I’ve come to a personal theory of acting. So, in returning to Sikes & Nancy, it’s been my special desire to find a vivid image for each character. There’s such potential for mindless virtuosity in the one-man/multi-character form that a strong sense of who you’re playing – the instant you start playing them – is absolutely essential. To this end, I’ve been re-reading a few classical texts, scouring their little room for infinite riches. I found this, for example, in The Jew of Malta (Act II, Scene 1, Lines 1-6):

Thus like the sad presaging raven that tolls
The sick man’s passport in her hollow beak,
And in the shadow of the silent night
Doth shake contagion from her sable wings,
Vex’d and tormented runs poor Barabas
With fatal curses towards these Christians.

Barabas’s shameless malevolence, breaking forth like a ghost from a tomb, provides a wonderful template for Fagin’s delight in his own wickedness. It’s also a necessary antidote to Shakespeare’s compassionate yet joyless depiction of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. However, Shakespeare has been helpful in other ways. I’ve long believed that Macbeth fired Dickens’s imagination in the creation of ‘Sikes and Nancy’. (As Macready exclaimed after watching it: ‘TWO MACBETHS!’) Macbeth’s near-throwaway observation ‘light thickens’ is one of my favourite Shakespearean fragments; it vibrates with such atmosphere that I’m instantly in the mood for Sikes & Nancy. Here’s something else from Macbeth that excited me (Act II, Scene 2, Lines 56-60):

What hands are here? Hah! they pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

This perfectly articulates the almost wordless terror of Bill Sikes. Blood is everywhere in Sikes & Nancy, becoming ever more surreal as the piece wears on. It not only saturates the chamber of death – ‘how those stains were dispersed about the room!’ – but it invades Sikes’s addled brain, assuming form in the far-off countryside as ‘a human gravestone with its epitaph in Blood!!’ (Dickens’s punctuation). Not even the dog escapes; Shakespeare would have approved.

Examining old works can be very helpful. Using Sikes & Nancy to stimulate new works is a quite different activity. In this case, the new work is an image; the activity is drawing. I’ve never thought in great depth about the links between acting and drawing. On the surface, there’s a basic pleasure in the two acts emerging from the self. A simple mediator is required: on the one hand, the infrastructure of a theatre; on the other, pen and paper. Yet both remain largely free modes of expression: offered up to an audience, with no guarantee of their acceptance or rejection. This reception is the least important part of the process. A truthful work will always retain its integrity – the act emerges from the self, and, quite rightly, represents that self.

Most types of acting are dependent on a text. This makes it a form of interpretation, which many would argue is a semi-creative activity only. How can you truly ‘create’ when someone else has made up all the words? Michael Chekhov, however, was unbending in arguing for the actor as a supreme artistic creator – and nowhere more than through their command of images. From To the Actor:

The images which I see with the mind’s eye, have their own psychology, like the people surrounding me in everyday life. However, there is one difference: In everyday life, seeing people by their outer manifestations alone and not seeing behind their facial expressions, movements, gestures, voices and intonations, I might misjudge their inner lives. But it is not so with my creative images. Their inner lives are completely open for me to behold. All their emotions, feelings, passions, thoughts, their aims and innermost desires are revealed to me. Through the outer manifestation of my image – that is to say, of the character I am working upon by means of my imagination – I see its inner life.

Chekhov offers one particularly relevant example of an artist inspired by an image: ‘The whole morning, wrote Dickens, he sat in his study expecting Oliver Twist to appear.’ Certainly, there’s consolation here for outside-in actors such as myself, who too often feel like frauds for starting with a voice, a gait or a facial configuration. There’s also a protective megalomania in claiming this definitive grasp of your character’s inner life – in a medium as maddeningly uncontrollable as live performance, it’s very reassuring. All the same, I haven’t been into Chekhov quite as I’d imagined. The abiding lesson, I think, is that truths in acting are intuitive. No matter how good the teacher. This has struck me often while I’ve been working on my voice. My spine is far too idiosyncratic to square with the majority of breath-release, throat-salvaging stratagems. I’ve returned to my old techniques, won through experience, and I’ve been quite happy in doing so. There’s what works in the abstract and what works for the individual.

This lesson is also apparent in a survey of that rare species of actor-artist. The one who instantly springs to mind is Antony Sher. Drawings of every kind figured heavily in his preparations for Richard III, as shown in his tremendous book Year of the King. Yet Sher also took a year out of acting to focus on his painting. Which suggests art as an escape rather than an aide. But the enormous canvas that resulted – entitled ‘The Audience’ – is riddled with theatrical persons. For Sher then, acting and art are wholly integrated; ‘The Audience’ proves that there’s no set hierarchy or even any meaningful separation. Edward Petherbridge is another actor-artist, who’s placed many of his works for display on his self-maintained website. Petherbridge returns again and again to the self-portrait. Now, what can this mean? Is it an effort to more clearly visualise the fusion of actor and character? Or is it a kind of exorcism ritual, a reassertion of the self? (Last year, I took part in a mask workshop led by Roddy Maude-Roxby. He was adamant about the importance of a ritualistic separation of the personalities of actor and mask.)

Then there’s Charles Laughton. He was heavily influenced by Japanese art, often losing himself in a canvas for hours before solving some problem with a character. Yet Laughton wasn’t an artist himself, and likely had such refined sensibilities that he was unable to even doodle. That Laughton went on to play Rembrandt, in Alexander Korda’s meditative 1936 film, is somehow more appropriate for this lack of straightforward artistic ability. Rembrandt saw the soul revealed in flesh. And so did Laughton, in his acting. Sher, Petherbridge and Laughton all relate to the aesthetic world in very different ways. It seems, however, to release the right energies in all of them.

Let’s have a look at the drawings then: the six characters of Sikes & Nancy, etched in fine liner. The doppelgänger aspect of Sikes & Nancy has come to fascinate me recently, so I’ve paired each character with their uncanny ‘other’. (Click on each picture to get a substantially larger version.)

Fagin and Mr Brownlow

Fagin and Mr Brownlow first. Both aged, both mentor figures, both morally questionable. And yet both have redeeming qualities. Fagin’s salvation is his diabolical sense of humour. Like Barabas in The Jew of Malta, he only half-heartedly pretends to be other than what he is. And, like Barabas, he whole-heartedly revels in his wickedness, conducting himself with all the shambolic trappings of stage villainy. Brownlow’s redeeming qualities are those for which he’s generally recognised: his desire to save Oliver Twist and persecute Monks. Yet in ‘Sikes and Nancy’, taken as a fragment of the novel, Brownlow is the least sympathetic character. He’s scornful, patronising, mordantly ecclesiastical and – to Nancy, at least – downright cruel. (Conveniently enough, it escapes an audience’s notice that this is how most sensible people behave when lured under a bridge at midnight.) Brownlow is safeguarded, though – by being on the ‘right’ side of society – whilst Fagin is doomed from the outset. I really like how Fagin’s turned out: a misshapen, hook-nosed worm in a cowl. It’s more than a little Arthur Rackham (whose illustrated version of A Christmas Carol was the first that I owned). Brownlow is ruled by verticality: rigid and unbending, with a ramrod for a spine.

Nancy and Rose Maylie

Nancy and Rose Maylie now. The women of the piece, united by a shared compassion. Maylie barely appears in Sikes & Nancy, having only five lines. All are breathless exclamations of pity. Like most of Dickens’s slightly wet heroines – Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, Bertha Plummer in The Cricket on the Hearth, Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities – Maylie is valuable primarily for what she represents. Save one interjection, Maylie is silent during Nancy’s interrogation by Mr Brownlow. Yet Nancy speaks to her often, as an icon that represents all that she could have been – a Coventry Patmore style ‘Angel in the House’ – and, inevitably, all that she has lost. Maylie is also the character who provides my production’s sole prop: a white handkerchief. When that handkerchief is dipped in Nancy’s blood, the women experience a physical intertwining. It works as a confirmation – that Nancy is a fallen woman, doomed to this fate from the beginning. But it’s also a contamination – connecting the purest of women with the monstrous Bill Sikes. In the manner of J. B. Priestley in An Inspector Calls, Dickens tries to remind us of the following:

We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will come when, if man does not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.

Fire and blood and anguish all figure heavily in Sikes & Nancy. Speaking of fire, these drawings were both modelled on a candle-flame (thus all the tapering away and arrant leglessness). But there’s a difference. Nancy is festering, the personified contagion shed by the raven in The Jew of Malta; Rose Maylie is much more elegant, more akin to an angel in a medieval tapestry.

Bill Sikes and Morris Bolter

Bill Sikes and Morris Bolter last. These characters are linked by a structural point: midway through the story, Sikes takes over from Bolter as the instrument of Fagin’s revenge on Nancy. This exchange begs a larger question: at what point does a Bolter turn into a Sikes? Bolter is arrogant, dim-witted, absurdly rude and easily manipulated. But he’s never actively malicious. Sikes, meanwhile, is a walking wall of frazzled synapses, exploding into rage at the slightest provocation. And yet, if we believe the musical whimsicalities of Lionel Bart, Sikes had humble roots:

Take a tip from Bill Sikes
He can whip what he likes.
I recall he started small
He had to pick-a-pocket or two.

Part of the fun of Bolter is that he’s not quite a child. He’s a perverse, stunted adolescent, the negative reversal of Kit in The Old Curiosity Shop. But the possibility that this comic stooge might eventually transform into Sikes is remarkably frightening. In my drawing, Bolter looks a little like Phiz’s illustration of the Goblin who stole a Sexton in The Pickwick Papers; all that’s missing is the gravestone. Sikes looks bloody terrifying (to me, at least), with a Kabuki war-mask instead of a face. The coat reminds me of the ever-terrifying Mr X in Resident Evil 2. Many’s the time I hid beneath a computer chair, rather than survey that game’s hellish progress. Many’s the nightmare that followed.

In closing, I must once more remind you to book your tickets for the Colchester run of Sikes & Nancy! If you need further persuasion, Simon Callow’s now given the show a fiendishly lovely endorsement. You can read it at the link attached, while I plunge my burning cheeks into a pot of porter.

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Doing a Professional Theatre

At the climax of The Flesh and the Fiends – John Gilling’s sterling 1960 body-snatching melodrama – William Hare is hounded through the darkened streets of Edinburgh. His last-ditch hideout is an abandoned old house. As he barricades the door, the mob lights its torches. As he canters ineffectually up a staircase, the mob beats his feeble defences down and throngs inside the building. And as he lunges for some iron bars, his terrified face is thrust at once into startling close-up. It’s an unforgettable image: Donald Pleasence, slime personified. The ravening mob takes hold of Hare, and drags him off into the dark.

By this time, The Flesh and the Fiends had become a film event for me. This had nothing to do with Peter Cushing (here, as always, the Olivier of horror), nor the admirable work of director John Gilling (who helmed Hammer’s superlative Cornish horrors The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile). Instead, this conviction came from an eerie sense of recall. Here again was the murderer running fugitive from the mob; here were all the old feelings of terror and guilt and a strange exhilaration; here was what looked suspiciously like (and, as it turned out, was) stock footage from David Lean’s Oliver Twist. That last close-up of Hare came almost as a premonition.

‘Hullo,’ I thought. ‘That’ll be me again next month.’

It gives me very great pleasure to announce that Sikes & Nancy is coming back. For three nights in February, I’ll be evading the torch-wielding mob at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester. To ensure that the details are branded on your memory, here are the precise times and dates in the boldest of bold capitals:

7TH FEBRUARY (7:45PM): MERCURY THEATRE, COLCHESTER
8TH FEBRUARY (7:45PM): MERCURY THEATRE, COLCHESTER
9TH FEBRUARY (7:45PM): MERCURY THEATRE, COLCHESTER

And while I’m at it, here’s a lovely new publicity image. Flocked wallpaper and blood spatters in bilious harmony:

Sikes & Nancy Publicity

Just marvellous. In the modern tradition, tickets can be booked online at the Mercury Theatre’s website. All manner of concessions are available, so it’s worth looking into. At the very least, do ‘Like’ the page and boost my fragile ego on Facebook!

But wait! Why should you bother coming to Sikes & Nancy at all? My arguments for the piece’s merits are well rehearsed by now. Sikes & Nancy is pure theatrical storytelling: I speak out to the audience and unfold the tale, without resorting to any artifice beyond myself and a few chairs. It has a clutch of the greatest characters in English literature – Fagin, Nancy, Bill Sikes – all of whom make a powerful plea to the emotions. Yet it’s also straightforwardly entertaining, deriving its thrills from blood-and-thunder melodrama as much as the fact that it polished off Charles Dickens.

More widely, Sikes & Nancy has received stonkingly good feedback. There have been five stars from TCS and Varsity both; student journalism and I don’t always get on, but I bow to the eminently correct appraisals of these particular critics. It’s been warmly received by audiences as far-flung as Cambridge, York and London’s West End. No less a legend than Simon Callow witnessed and enjoyed the West End rendition, before hurtling off to kill his own Nancy in The Mystery of Charles Dickens. And whilst Sikes & Nancy has never been short of interesting venues (not least Lady Peckett’s haunted mead room), the Mercury is a beautiful theatre with a glowing reputation, well worth visiting in its own right. Add to this the sheer length of time I’ve been working on Sikes & Nancy – ten months thus far – and you can rest assured it’ll be coming back stronger than ever. The script is being refined; the thought processes are bubbling up and strengthening; the acting is growing more distinct, more precise. I personally rank it among my two or three best performances.

My engagement at Colchester is significant in another way: I consider it my professional stage debut. ‘Consider’ because I’m not sure precisely when an amateur credit becomes professional. What of plays with professional directors, after all? Or those staged in professional venues? And where exactly does the Dungeon fit in? Nonetheless, this revival of Sikes & Nancy is a personal milestone. It’s providing me the first glancing possibility that I might be able to do this for a living. There’s some way to go yet, but the hope is very welcome.

I’m not sure how much I’ll be blodgering on the rehearsal process, since I’ve covered a lot of this ground before. Here are links to five previous posts, all of which focus on different aspects of Sikes & Nancy. Lest the play seem scarily well documented – or (God forbid!) ‘professional’ – bear in mind that each post is littered with digressions.

Two Goodly Announcements: My announcement of the play’s 2012 engagements in York and London. It also contains my all-time best argument for attending Sikes & Nancy. Digressions include EastEnders barrow-boys, Rotten Corpse and the Dungeon Halloween that was so cruelly stolen.

First Re-Readthrough: My thoughts after a close reading of the script. Inevitably in-depth, so if you have a copy of Oliver Twist, you’re advised to dig it out. Digressions on Christopher Marlowe, Alfred Hitchcock, Sweeney Todd, Ingrid Bergman, Stephen King and the Groke.

Re-Rehearsals Underway: A more general update, focused on the umpteen problems of restaging a play, from change for change’s sake to the art of the extra-textual. Also includes Edward Quekett’s gorgeous poster design for the original. Digressions: ‘Macbeth doth murder sleep’; ‘everybody ought to have a maid’; ‘ah, well, you know, that sort of ish-ness’.

An Exercise in QuotationA study of the original text of Oliver Twist, coupled with Dickens’s accounts of murder in The Pickwick Papers and Master Humphrey’s Clock. In other words (Dickens’s, to be precise), an opportunity to quote some rip-roaring prose. D: comedy catchphrases, social niceties, the Daily Mail (only two of those go together).

The London Adventure: My almost debilitatingly thrilling account of staging Sikes & Nancy in the West End. Dahl, Gish, Leonard, Sanders, Zucco, Seaward, Callow.

Of course, these foundations will count for nothing without continued development. My primary rehearsal aim is to make Sikes & Nancy as truthful as possible. Not by searching for a naturalistic truth, but an emotional truth. And not a naturalistic-emotional truth, but a more intuitive emotional truth, geared at all times towards heightened expression. I’ve been inspired in this regard by Charles Laughton. The BBC quietly aired a season of Laughton films over Christmas, marking fifty years since the actor’s death. His performances have been a highlight of the last few months: I’ve happily devoured The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Rembrandt (1936), Captain Kidd (1945), Arch of Triumph, The Big Clock (both 1948), The Strange Door (1951) and, yes, even Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952). Laughton is at his best when he breaks your heart, as demonstrated in his towering Quasimodo. I’ve found myself deeply moved by two performances especially: the eye-rolling, cuckolded grape farmer in They Knew What They Wanted (1940) and the pathetically defeated schoolmaster in This Land Is Mine (1943). The latter should be compulsory viewing for anyone possessing a heart and a soul.

Laughton’s genius was to discover an intensity in his characters, so overwhelming, so breathtaking, that he often transcended the limitations of the dramas in which he appeared. Yet Laughton seldom achieved this by imposing on his text: his gift was to convert his text into a dazzling, extrovert projection. This seems to me a sensible approach to Sikes & Nancy. Never to impose, but always to find where the energies of text and actor unite to the greatest expressive end. I’m accordingly reading Michael Chekhov’s To the Actor; his belief in the imagination as an ever-expanding resource is wonderfully freeing:

A sensitive body and a rich, colourful psychology are mutually complementary to each other and create that harmony so necessary to the attainment of the actor’s professional aim. You will achieve it by constantly enlarging the circle of your interests. Try to experience or assume the psychology of other eras by reading period plays, historical novels or even history itself. While doing so, try to penetrate their thinking without imposing upon them your modern points of view, moral concepts, social principles or anything else that is of a personal nature or opinion.

Chekhov states that physical and vocal physical freedom are imperative to this regime. Imagination is pointless, after all, when not permitted to get out. To this end, I’m going to be working at my voice. A stable grasp of my natural voice has long eluded me. In Sikes & Nancy, it’s essential that the narrator speak cleanly and economically, so a study of Cicely Berry and Patsy Rodenburg will be a great help. I’ve been up to a fair bit of physical ‘training’ recently, to counter my long-standing back problems, so I should be performing in a state of resolutely improving health.

Otherwise, I’m seeking to immerse myself in Dickens’s world (no, not this Dickens World) as much as is humanly possible. I recently finished The Mystery of Edwin Drood for the first time. Its shameful murder, Gothic streak and transcendent descriptions of light will all be very useful. (Dickens was performing ‘Sikes and Nancy’ for the last few times as he was writing Drood.) The moment I finish A Tale of Two Cities, I’m going to plunge into The Old Curiosity Shop, steeped as it is in the Victorian obsession with young, beautiful, dead girls. (Nancy has retrospectively fallen into this morbid tradition, thanks to her glamorisation in umpteen stage and film adaptations.) I’d also love to get round to Barnaby Rudge, having heard so much about its depiction of the mob, but I doubt I’ll have time. Meanwhile, Malcolm Andrews’s terrific Charles Dickens and His Performing Selves has been renewing my education in the Dickens Public Reading (a storehouse of knowledge long since banished to the murky realm of dissertation). There are also two classical plays that I’ve been meaning to get back to for ages: The Jew of Malta (the most positive statement that hilarious Jewish criminals need not be anti-Semitic) and Macbeth (in my view, the dramatic ancestor of Sikes & Nancy, and a play that Dickens revered).

I’m still refining the scripts for Frankenstein and Dracula (one more draft for each), so my workload will be intense in the weeks to come. But I’m utterly delighted that that’s the case. So please: do me that best of services, and make an effort to see Sikes & Nancy. I promise you won’t regret it.

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Sikes & Nancy: The London Adventure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah.

No. No, I hadn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sikes & Nancy: An Exercise in Quotation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next fragment, a sentence this time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sikes & Nancy: Re-Rehearsals Underway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sikes & Nancy: First Re-Readthrough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two Goodly Announcements

A newsy-type update this time round. Can’t tell you how nice it is to be writing about current affairs for a change! (I’ll be making up for that in future entries, I’m sure.)

My first important message: Sikes & Nancy is at last coming back! To be fair, it’s only been two months since the Cambridge run – but virtually everything related to that blasted institution seems a lifetime away. Three dates for your diaries, then:

3RD OCTOBER (8PM): GOLDEN FLEECE INN, YORK
5TH OCTOBER (8PM): GOLDEN FLEECE INN, YORK
8TH OCTOBER (4PM): TRISTAN BATES THEATRE, LONDON

A few things worth commenting on here. The London performance is, fairly transparently, a showcase intended for industry figures. Unfortunately, this is a necessary evil if I’m ever to fulfil my dream of playing a barrow-boy on EastEnders in twenty years. However, I’ve always been determined that these slimy concessions receive support from an ethical framework. Sikes & Nancy is much more than a negligent monologue/duologue mash-up. Where I’m concerned, it’s a labour of love. And pervasive love, not self-love; it’s a theatrical construct I’m eager to share rather than parade myself in. The vital distinction with the one-man form.

Sikes & Nancy unites many a thing that makes me gibber and foam with excitement. I love Dickens with a passion quite indiscriminate, but I’m a particular acolyte of his early works. Sikes is drawn from Oliver Twist: Dickens’s second novel, sandwiched between The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby (which together formed the basis for Pickwick & Nickleby, my first one-man show). Yet Sikes was also the Public Reading that formed the terrifying final act in Dickens’s performance career. Youthful anarchy fused with the obsessive mania of age. An appealing theatrical cocktail. I’ve always had a special affection for Oliver Twist (originally through David Lean’s remarkable 1948 film) and it’s a thrill to bring it to the stage in some form. A large part of my affection for Lean’s picture was due to Alec Guinness’s infernal performance as Fagin. As ever with Dickens, it’s the characters, the very best characters in English prose, that draw me in. Their hold is so great that they demand impersonation; a direct incarnation! I relish entering into these people, so far removed from my everyday self: whether the brutishly masculine Sikes, or the pathetically defeated Nancy, or the disgustingly wicked Fagin, an overgrown sewer rat in his filth and cowardice.

Yet a sharply etched grotesque is nothing without an emotional pulse. Sikes & Nancy has that going for it as well. I find it emotionally stirring, in the same way that A Christmas Carol, properly told, will bring me to tears of joy. But where the Carol is moving – by its light, its hope, its redemption – Sikes grips by its pitiless streak. By its darkness, its hopelessness – its damnation, of each and every character. I enjoy performing something unrepentantly dark, provided there’s an emotional justification. And Sikes, unlike the vast majority of Victorian melodrama and Gothic horror, really does earn its emotional engagement. Now, I love melodrama and horror even when poorly handled – witness my adoration for carnival ghost trains, Tod Slaughter’s barnstorming and the lesser Hammer films. But not once does Dickens extort or manipulate. He extends a hand – with belief, with compassion – and, provided you’re willing to go with him, he’ll transport you to extraordinary places. If that’s not the point of worthy theatre, then I don’t know what is.

Passion’s the heart of my argument. I can only persuade you to attend Sikes & Nancy by my very great affection for the play. It doesn’t work because of my performance. It works because it’s bloody good theatre. With good theatrical bloodiness. Another thing I adore. Eager parties can book for the London performance on the Tristan Bates website (tickets for the York performances will be available on the door). I’m sure I’ll wind up posting something on the process of revisiting a one-man show (an experience that’s entirely new to me). If you’re after more lively updates and reminders than the ponderous world of blodgering allows, then I suggest you join the obligatory Facebook Group.

My second bit of news: I’ve received some awards for my work with The York Dungeon! At the end-of-season party – the delectably titled ‘Rotten Corpse’ – I collected the 2012 gongs for ‘Best Actor’, ‘Scariest Actor’ and ‘Ego of the Year’ (the last for the highest number of public votes). In result, two exquisitely crafted voodoo dolls and a resplendent gold skull have entered my inventory. I’ve also extended my Dungeon contract to Bonfire Night. (So if you fancy coming to see me, you’ve got an extra two months for it!) The very great excitement here is that I’ll finally get to spend another Halloween at the Dungeon! My last Halloween was also my first season, way, way back in 2008 – nearly four years ago now. This year, we’ve been promised a seasonal revamp of the Witches show to incorporate a Mother Shipton theme. Just how we’ll defame the benevolent old hag to fit the Dungeon brand remains to be seen… Beyond that, though, the Dungeon’s atmosphere becomes highly charged at Halloween. It’s the actor’s dream: the public flock in, so you can entertain the belief that the world revolves around you… And pumpkins! The Dungeon will be crammed with pumpkins. That means enough pumpkin soup to last till Christmas… And Christmas! Everyone likes Christmas! And Halloween! By God, we’re onto a winner here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Experiences, Sikes & Nancy