Category Archives: The York Dungeon

Familiar Old Ghosts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The people there are wonderful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Pollard

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

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

Drowning in Your Dream

It was in 2015 that I discovered Anthony Newley. He was my patron saint that troublesome year. A man of the theatre, to which he brought new expressive possibilities. A man who did homage to Dickens, in musicals of The Old Curiosity Shop and A Christmas Carol. A man who yearned, unceasingly, to achieve love – and who always counted himself a failure. Pictured below is his wonderful ‘Who Can I Turn To?’ from The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. I’ll be drawing attention to other Newley songs. Many are masterpieces in miniature. So play along with me – do, do.

Who Can I Turn To

A conspicuous hole in my 2015 was just how little I wrote. There were two (necessary) redrafts of the Irving play, some light flourishes for Winter Gothic, a few other scripts that I was never at peace with – and four essays on this website. This last is the most inexcusable. At the very least, life-writing keeps a muscle honed. And at best, it is the most liberating self-help, something I was sorely in want of last year. But toiling under the delusion that blogs exist to be read – and what blog has ever been read, truly read? – I decided not to waste more of my time on one.

Essentially, my sense of humour ran out. Now I am more amused by my cosmic littleness: ever striving, self-important, to find order in my universe. By pretending to be other people. The last laugh of 2015 was when the Dungeon again flooded to levels inoperable. Three years ago, I felt a light tragedy (there I stand as the Reaper, dramatising). But this second time, I feel weariness, giving way to contained hysteria. A lingering ‘oh, really?’ followed by ‘is that the best you can do?’

Dungeon Flood 2

Blogs are for writing, not for reading. So here I am again, bashing away at the keyboard, trying to make sense of 2015.

It began in recovery. I was rounding off an exhausting spell at Trafalgar Studios, where I’d been acting my one-man play Sikes & Nancy. One performance of ‘The Murder’ – as Dickens mortally demonstrated – is liable to cause a stroke. Well, I performed it thirty times in four weeks. I have my own word for this strange form, the theatrical nervous breakdown: ‘heartattacting’.

It therefore seemed right to take a month out. Make sure that I properly recharged my batteries. The one-person form can beget a stifling neuroticism. Instead of getting lost in another person on stage, you retreat ever further into yourself: your body, your face, your voice; above all, your mind. Increasingly, the play becomes an act of self-definition: you are the play; the play is you; and on and on and on you go, in ever-tightening circles. Strangulating. I had become my own fortress. It was vital I tried to escape.

During my long-drawn attempt, I came to Anthony Newley. This began with hearing – more accurate, beholding – his thrilling rendition of ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’. I still think it Newley’s keystone work. Flushed with first love, I wrote thoroughly of it at the time.

Anthony Newley typified that cosmic littleness which I was struggling to locate in myself. Newley’s constant metaphor is the fool versus the world: we are all silly little clowns and jesters and zanies, and our only refuge is in laughter, the laughter of the damned. Newley’s music is not without its flaws. But there is an irrepressible rightness about it, as with the best of Cole Porter. Both miraculously created new old folk songs; songs that transmute their surface littleness into an almost mythic vastness.

Cole Porter’s song-book stands alone. But Newley’s songs are best, by far, when completed by Newley. Once you get into an accommodation with him, even his flaws become assets. Newley’s sentiment can seem gushing, excessive – before his passion-performance will confirm its sincerity. His warbling vibrato becomes the sound of the soul erupting from the body – the more so when imperfect, when unachieved.

Newley made of his person a self-defining theatre, each emotional impulse externalised and heightened. This might be my deepest point of sympathy. Translate Sikes & Nancy into cabaret and you have ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’:

Look around you, Mister Clown
You’re drowning in your dream.
A sea of strangers, each one reaching out for you…

This idea of ‘drowning in your dream’ has haunted me. Sikes & Nancy had fulfilled quite a few of my acting dreams. I was acting on London’s West End – and in the title role (title roles, to be precise). I was serving Charles Dickens, that writer I love beyond all others. I was advancing myself as horror actor, pitching my performance between Henry Irving and the vintage horror film. My hero Simon Callow even gave the show his blessing – and, on the last day, his attendance.

Yet, as Wilde said: ‘When the Gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.’ Such colossal good luck at age twenty-three is all but unprecedented. I would be a swine not to see it. I remain supremely grateful for Sikes & Nancy. I look forward to tackling it again. But what was I to do with my acting now?

The first half of 2015 passed in fitful cycles. I would work like a fiend to make more acting appear. I would then take an absolute break, because I couldn’t take the frustration. Yes, I was acting at the Dungeon – but that, to me, has long constituted ‘the work’ as opposed to ‘The Work’. But nothing is quite as exhausting as working to secure The Work: working and waiting, then working harder, then waiting much longer for something, for anything to turn up. ‘It Isn’t Enough’ exemplifies this unhappy Micawberism:

It isn’t enough to hope.
It isn’t enough to dream.
It isn’t enough to plot and plan and scheme.
It isn’t enough to stand here, saying that life is grand here,
Waiting for something good to turn up…

I eventually read my reviews for Sikes & Nancy. That was in May, I believe, almost a half-year after the show closed. On a base level, I needed to raid them for quotations, to press into letters and the like (thereby facilitating The Work). But I hoped also to best my old terror of criticism. Better the whole humbling truth, after all, than a fear-hewn fortress.

The experience proved shattering. I did them all in one go: digested nearly forty appraisals of me, me, me. At this distance, I see that the reviews were, on the whole, extremely good (you’re welcome to survey the good bits). But I hadn’t the benefit of distance. How could I? Not only was I the piece’s actor – its sole actor – but its deviser, its designer, its director. There was nothing to read that didn’t somehow impinge on me. Implicate me. Writers pointing out all that was ‘remarkable’ in my person, for good or for ill, all that was conspicuous enough to provoke some ‘remark’.

I am a monumental self-doubter. So it was no shock that I mainly absorbed that which was deemed clumsy, or jarring, or misjudged. But it was the bald fact of exposure which was really insufferable. I am a man who always avoided his school reports, all from fear of knowing what people think of me. In trying to connect with the outer world, in reading those sod-buggering reviews, I was only drawn further into my fortress-self.

Really, I needed to learn from Newley, and rejoice in my idiosyncrasies being noticed at all. ‘This Dream’ would often insinuate itself, in my trampings to and from the Dungeon:

I have this dream,
I have this wonderful dream where I win,
Where I win every battle I fight,
And I kill every dragon in sight!
Each night, I like awake and I wait for this dream.
What a world I create, when I dream I’m not lonely…

Ah, loneliness. Something that plunged me into an appallingly black mood in February, just before I resumed the Dungeon. For I am a man without a personal life – and I think people with a partner (or the meaningful possibility of such) find it easier to tread water.

I think much of this void is the consequence of not talking about being gay. It was in 2003 that I realised I was gay; it wasn’t until 2010 that I discussed it. And then with only with two or three people. That’s a long time in hiding. My first instinct in this had been not to make anyone else uncomfortable. Selfless. Seemingly. In actual fact, self-persecution. Clearly, it was me who was more uncomfortable than anyone at the idea of my intersecting with love. That dread of uncontrollable exposure – as with a stack of theatre reviews.

Silence can speak. Over the years, I’d worked myself to a point where practically everyone about me knew I was gay – without my ever having said a word on it. This no doubt gave the impression that I found the subject incendiary. Thus nobody mentioning it, least of all me. A cycle difficult to break.

Well, this year I got a good deal better at talking about being gay: freely, easily and, yes, even gaily. Why this change?  I’ve been blessed this year to be surrounded with people naturally more comfortable with themselves – who regard sexuality, quite rightly, as a non-issue (and, furthermore, a source of great fun). It’s been liberating, being so taken out of myself. It’s answering – albeit slowly – some deep-seated need in me.

Then again, I may have simply gotten bored. That constant rumble of low-level internal pressure. What had it all been for? ‘What Kind of Fool Am I?’ swims into my head. It comes from Stop the World – I Want to Get Off, a show that follows Newley’s Littlechap from birth to old age. This is the last he sings before death. It’s especially painful on Newley’s final studio album, blasted out across his frail, attenuated vocal cords:

What kind of clown am I? What do I know of life?
Why can’t I cast away this mask of play and live my life?
Why can’t I fall in love, till I don’t give a damn?
And maybe then I’ll know what kind of fool I am!

When shall I ever be able to answer these questions? For something in this idea of a long-drawn coming out – this lifetime of coming out, in fact – remains dreadful to me. To me, openness should really be total. Or else null. It’s this bloody-mindedness, I believe, which prevented me disclosing my sexuality on a more trivial basis. It had to be a full-blown, all-embracing romantic love. Or else nothing at all. A poet or a monk.

This ‘all or nothing’ principle is the only real danger I have in me. It has continually thwarted my love life. Yet I suspect it’s also been the foundation of anything worthwhile I’ve achieved, in stoking my single-minded devotion to work. A work in which I try to assume Newley’s ‘mask of play’ – that play I’ve found so hard-won in life.

Fortunately, I did have a long-awaited victory with my acting. In August, I managed to get Frankenstein’s Creature before an audience. I wrote on the build-up to it here. And now, in the retrospect, I regard it with untroubled joy.

Despite playing a monster, the king of monsters, I found myself being more human than I’ve ever been on any stage, ever. I credit Jack, my director, with that – for not letting me get away with anything. I credit also Quentin, my producer – for standing by Jack in not letting me get away with anything. Every choice was expertly interrogated. Don’t whine – don’t ask for pity – for God’s sake, stop elongating your vowels – stay playful with it – above all, keep thought alive. At last, I was liberated to deliver that which I’d sighted in Sikes & Nancy: lightness, quickness, ease. The ‘mask of play’ redeemed.

The Creature has displaced Quasimodo – in my mind, at least – as the best performance I’ve given. I shall do Frankenstein’s Creature again, and right gladly.

Creature Ascends

Best for me were the play’s final moments, where the Creature transcends all earthly things. In embracing his isolation, he locates in it the opposite, and joins with the impossible vastness of everything. So it can be with one-man theatre. The staging was patterned on Newley’s Expressionist pantomime in ‘Who Can I Turn To?’ (much more than I realised at the time, as the photo illustrates). Newley stands on his loneliness also:

With no star to guide me
And no one beside me,
I’ll go on my way and after the day
The darkness will hide me.

That August, I shared the Creature’s ecstasy. By the end of the run, I too felt reborn.

Then, a few weeks later, an accident.

I went and fell in love.

More on that next time.

And maybe tomorrow, I’ll find what I’m after…

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Filed under Essays, Experiences, Frankenstein, Personal Excavation, Sikes & Nancy, The York Dungeon

Forcing the Soul

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

Middlesbrough Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palace Theatre Southend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the Black Lagoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fires of Industry

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

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

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

Strangling Fagin

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

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

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

Or this:

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

And not forgetting:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Penal Colony

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

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

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

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

Henry VIII in Glass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Halloween Is, As I Grow Older

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

Champaigne - Still Life with a Skull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bits, Bobs and Odds

Baffling, isn’t it – how everything happens at once? And always right at the end of the month? You know, literally in the last few hours of the very last day? I mean, God forbid it’s more a case of me rushing, in an agony of guilty conscience, to meet my fanciful self-imposed quota of two blog entries per month – on peril of disappointing my hordes (hordes, hordes!) of diligent, conscientious, and (most unkindest cut) time denomination-obsessed readers!

No. No, I believe that month-ends carry an innate mystic charge. Howsoever traumatic and debilitating the peregrinations of blodge-upkeepery maysoever become, it’s all of a piece with some wider cosmic pattern. Which brings me swiftly (almost) to the point: I have three announcements to make!

Announcement the First: I’ve created a website for myself, located at www.jamesswanton.com! I felt this was an inevitable step, in order to establish a more stable online profile. To be honest, I haven’t much enjoyed the creation process: it’s meant a scattered week of excavating my own personality. I’m now bereft of any quirky, soupy or wacky details about my life; the website’s taken it all, folks (and there wasn’t all that much to begin with). As an actor, though, all I’ve really got to sell is me. So I’m forced to mine my quarry. And now the site’s largely finished, I’ll have an instant solution every time someone asks me for a date, a link, a quote, or a photo. (Alright, I’ll admit it: I enjoyed compiling the Photos section far more than I rightly should.) The website will also relax any pressure on this blog to carry out serious promotional activities. (Or meet that blasted monthly quota; though I’m not relenting yet!) The blog will instead be freed up – for the deranged, embittered and self-pitying invective on which I truly thrive.

Concerning this blog, the website has another useful function. I’ve created an archive of former blog entries, located on the Links page (two hyperlinks for you there). This should make older posts considerably easier to find.

In the next few days, I’ll be following up my website with other ghoulish self-publicity strategies – a Twitter feed and a Facebook page, I have no doubt! So do watch out for those. I’ll keep you posted via the website – which you are, by the way, duty-bound to Favourite.

Announcement the Second: Sikes & Nancy is returning on 23rd March! I’ll be performing as part of York Theatre Royal’s Imaginarium, which is being produced by Scrooge & Marley co-conspirator Oli O’Shea. Due to my show’s disturbing nature, I’ll be performing in the later time-slot of 9pm-12pm – so if you’re intending to see me, do please book for that one. Don’t rule out the earlier slot, though; I’m sure there’s abundant fascination to be had in both. There may also be ticket deals on the horizon. I can’t make any promises, but I’ll make sure to post anything beneficial on my website.

Imaginarium‘s set to be an eclectic kaleidoscope of very different theatre pieces: a feast of ‘the captivating, the bizarre, and the exquisite’ (I’m not certain which most appropriately describes Sikes & Nancy). The official line-up will be announced in the next week. I’ve been informed that some Edgar Allan Poe might also feature in the PG-13/midnight movie slot. This would complement Sikes & Nancy exceptionally well: I recently performed ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ as an audition piece, and the performance experience was eerily similar. (Actually, Poe admitted that ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ was inspired by Dickens’s inclusion of ‘A Madman’s Manuscript’ in The Pickwick Papers. I examined its influence on ‘Sikes and Nancy’ in a previous blog entry.)

I’m hugely excited about Imaginarium. It’s a pleasing next step in the continuing growth of Sikes & Nancy, which has rattled on for nearly a year now. Although I’ll have to abridge the script to fit a fifty minute time-slot, I’m convinced that my experience with the longer version will influence the way I play it. I hope it will be more concentrated, more focused, more deeply alive. The venue, St William’s College, also keeps up the tradition of playing Sikes & Nancy in ancient and (potentially) haunted spaces. Who knows what ghosts lurk in this medieval building, cast in the shadows of York Minster for three quarters of a millennium? Imaginarium will also be a homecoming of sorts. York Theatre Royal was where I cut my teeth on acting: both by practice (all those years with York Youth Theatre) and by inspiration (marvelling at David Leonard’s Shakespearean villainy in the pantomime). And it goes without saying that I’m delighted to be doing a professional theatre in my home town.

Announcement the Third: I’m very proud to be one of the actors reopening The York Dungeon! As you may know, the Dungeon faced horrendous flooding towards the end of 2012; a cursory Google search turns up the whole gory story. This meant a few quite lovely things: selling charity cakes outside the building (to frenzied screams of ‘CIKE!’ and ‘CUKE!’); accidentally filling my wellies with diseased flood water; crowningly, attacking Serena Redshaw with an umbrella in full monastic dress – only to see the footage appear on the national BBC News (pictured below). Redundancy, sadly, was inevitable, and it’s to the management’s credit that the actors were treated so kindly throughout the anomalous situation. It was the end of an era: the parting of a long-established team.

Evil Media Control

Now, however, the Dungeon is rising from the sodden ashes. Spurred on by the recent relocation/rebranding of The London Dungeon – which saw such scintillating additions as Brian Blessed – the York incarnation has been extensively reimagined. Obviously, I can’t give away too many details; apart from anything else, I don’t know that much yet. However, I have been told that every script has been redrafted. This is sure to have a knock-on effect. Denied the chance to salvage vocal patterns from the old Dungeon, every character will be galvanised into vivid new life. Those parts of the attraction hit by the floods – including everything mentioned in this post – have been pulled apart and built from scratch. And although we won’t have Brian Blessed, I’ve no doubt that we’ll have the great Bryan Heeley.

The costume designs and makeup effects are also getting an overhaul, in aid of greater authenticity. This will result in fewer faces of this calibre, but that’s a fairly small price for artistic integrity:

Vintage Dungeon Face

The doors creak open to admit the public from 29th March – so you’ll have chance to see me in action a mere week after Imaginarium! (Lucky public!) Two million of your finest recession pounds have been lavished on the Dungeon’s refurbishment. I have every faith it’ll be the best The York Dungeon has ever looked, sounded and, yes, most importantly, smelled.

That’s all for the moment. I must now go and stake my evil media control on Twitter.

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Filed under Announcements, Sikes & Nancy, The York Dungeon