London Horror Festival 2021
Join Irving’s restless spirit as he tells the story of how he transformed himself from a stuttering, spindly country boy into the most formidable actor of the nineteenth century. It is a story of a man who petrified London with his Gothic portrayals of mad monarchs, guilt-stricken murderers and the devil himself. A story of a man who could never escape his monsters – even in death.
Hi James! Thank you for talking to The New Current. How have you been holding up during these very strange times?
I've found it very hard to function normally - that is, as normally as I ever function. I caught Covid early on and it weakened my voice for months on end (my worst nightmare as an actor). Progress on the book I've been writing these past few years slowed to a crawl under lockdown conditions. And the cancellations of various exciting projects (including a different revival of Irving Undead) just went on and on.
I set out wanting to be a model pandemic survivor. As it was, 2020 left me feeling horribly undefined. 2021 has been a fairly dead year so far - a long plateau as opposed to the short sharp shocks of 2020 - but I'm looking forward to a frenzied creative renaissance now the plague's easing somewhat.
Has this time provided you with any new creative inspiration or opportunities?
Thank God for films and filming! These have offered me my persistent get-outs.
I shot my demonic business for the film Host during the first lockdown. I recorded my scenes at home on a mobile phone, devising my own makeup and lighting and jump scares. Funnily enough, that most housebound of projects has become the piece of my work that's easily been most widely seen.
Films went on thriving in defiance of lockdowns. I was making The Jack in the Box: Awakening as we tumbled into the second lockdown; it felt like an almighty cheat to go to sleep in my hotel, wake up in that lockdown, and still be allowed to keep working (films being exempt from the typical restrictions). Also during that second lockdown, I was permitted to go back and forth to London for makeup tests for Dashcam - the follow-up to Host - which we then shot just before the third lockdown. And that prolific horror director Charlie Steeds put me to work on three separate films, in Cornwall, Wales and York.
I also managed to keep some theatrical spirit alive - albeit wedded to film - by streaming M. R. James and Dickens tales from the wonderful York Ghost Merchants. Solo performance, the Victorian Gothic, livestreams - all of these elements are now resurfacing in Irving Undead.
You are reviving Irving Undead at the London Horror Festival 2021. Are there any nerves ahead of your run?
Always - but on the neurotic 'will I enjoy myself?' level rather than any fears of making a fool of myself in public. I so loved acting this one before the pandemic, and the subject - Henry Irving, the greatest Victorian actor - means so very much to me. I'm consoled in knowing that Irving himself suffered the most horrendous stage fright, which served to further distort his already peculiar voice and physicality. So any renegade nerves may enhance rather than detract from the authenticity of my portrayal.
Can you tell me a little bit about Irving Undead? How did your one-man play come about?
Irving Undead is a ninety-minute attempt to resurrect Henry Irving: the foremost actor of the Victorian stage, who's commonly supposed to have inspired Bram Stoker to create Dracula. I have my own theories on that, but the play provides an opportunity to share Irving's extraordinary life story.
The seed of the play was in a conversation I had with Simon Callow in 2013, who distilled my mission as an actor as being to illuminate 'the soul of the monster'. Simon also recommended Irving as a possible study for me. The more I learned about Irving, the more I became convinced he was the most haunting, haunted actor who ever existed. The script for Irving Undead became a repository for my findings.
I've performed one-man plays before - The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Sikes & Nancy, Frankenstein's Creature - all of which have their monstrous elements, but none of which allowed me to address monstrosity in relation to actors and acting. Whether or not you believe he was Dracula, Irving proves endlessly fascinating in this regard.
When did you first discover Sir Henry Irving and what was it about his life and career as an actor that intrigued you so much?
I first heard about him as a footnote in the history of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Irving never took seriously Stoker's suggestions that he play Dracula on stage - and now we've all of us heard of Dracula, whilst precious few remember Irving. A painful irony.
Across the last eight years, my interest in Irving has matured into an enriching creative self-identification. I admire Irving for so much. He was unapologetic in his love of Gothic parts and subjects. He was renowned for unleashing an outsize mystery on the stage; it was a blood-freezing experience to see him act. He was eternally controversial: damned and celebrated for the very same physical and vocal eccentricities. Yet, rather touchingly, this oddest of men eventually found a kind of acceptance. But it was always hard-won. Nothing ever came easily to Irving. He was perpetually wrestling with difficulties.
I feel I can relate to a lot of that, though without in any way confusing myself with this actor of genius.
What has been the strangest fact you've discovered about Henry Irving?
Let's forget about Dracula for a moment. What's almost always overlooked is that Irving also had the chance to create the role of Sherlock Holmes on stage. He'd performed Arthur Conan Doyle's A Story of Waterloo to unanimous acclaim. The part of Holmes was his for the taking, and it would have fitted him like a glove. But it never happened.
Irving likewise considered playing Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but again passed on it. In fact, when Richard Mansfield infamously played Jekyll and Hyde during the Jack the Ripper murders, he was acting it at Irving's Lyceum Theatre (Irving was away on his annual American tour). Irving's actor-son would play Jekyll and Hyde - but never Irving Senior.
Irving seemed reluctant to connect with these seminal Victorian myths. Perhaps he was mythic enough in his own time that he didn't fancy sharing the gaslight.
Where did your passion for theatre come from?
I associate the lighter side with childhood. I had an instinctive love of what I called 'spooky stuff', which manifested in dressing-up games, imitating Disney villains, hoarding Halloween decorations, all of that. I also found myself drawn to Charles Dickens - long before I was old enough to read and appreciate the work - and later had an early breakthrough when I played Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at school. I adored the grotesque in Dickens - 'spooky stuff' again - yet I was dimly aware of a deeper emotional pull. In adolescence, my superficial fascination with the grotesque began to darken and deepen. It increasingly became an escape valve: a way of getting out energies that would otherwise be deemed unacceptable.
I discovered that I was gay and, moreover, a hunchback, and I didn't know what to do with either of these things. I felt myself to be completely romantically ridiculous - and at a time when I'd started falling hopelessly in love. The Phantom of the Opera, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Frankenstein's Creature - all of these monsters became my patron saints. And for myself, I never felt more alive than when playing the undead.
That all sounds terribly sad, I know, but even the sad bits of my life I've found enormously interesting - and I've never truly wished to be other than I am. Monsters will always be my great love. They've saved my soul, repeatedly - and they've given me a career!
"...if you can push your ego out of your own way - then you'll be making the most and best of your situation."
How much has your approach to your plays changed since you started out?
The approach has changed as I've changed. It's now less about extrovert flashes of energy, more about introspective character study. Sikes & Nancy was my calling card at the outset of my career - a full-throttle reimagining of Dickens's Public Reading based on the murder in Oliver Twist. It went from a purely cathartic experience to an ordeal I found intensely frightening to put myself through. I did it thirty times in a row at Trafalgar Studios in 2014. The physical and vocal demands it makes on an actor are borderline inhuman - at least if you want to do it properly. Small wonder it killed Dickens.
I like to take things a little more easily now - though given I've such an unusual face and voice, even my underplaying would constitute overplaying for most actors. And I can still turn on the physical mania when I'm asked to be monsters in horror films. I've learned to connect with that old place in me very viscerally, as and when required, but there's also that self-protecting separation now.
Do you have a favourite quote from Henry Irving?
Oh, yes. Ellen Terry (Irving's great leading lady) recorded a touching moment of self-revelation from Irving, when he was at the height of his powers and acclaim:
'I was thinking how strange it is that I should have made the reputation I have as an actor, with nothing to help me - with no equipment. My legs, my voice - everything has been against me. For an actor who can't walk, can't talk, and has no face to speak of, I've done pretty well.'
What's the best piece of advice you would offer fellow theatre-makers?
Behave constantly as though nobody's going to give you any work - because even if people wish you well, they generally won't be able to hand you a job. So create your own jobs, or, at the very least, actively seek jobs out. If you can do all that hard work (and hard work it is) without developing multiple chips on your shoulders - if you can push your ego out of your own way - then you'll be making the most and best of your situation. Energy begets energy. If you make things happen, more things will (eventually) happen. Or so I tell myself.
And, finally, what do you hope your audiences will take away from Irving Undead?
Perhaps one or two people will be inspired by how Irving triumphed against so many forms of adversity - speech impediments, a dragging leg, a lack of instinctive acting ability, a truly blighted personal life - to become one of the most celebrated artists of his age.
Yet Irving was no everyman; we can follow him only so far. His body-and-soul dedication to his art is legitimately chilling. And he provokes burning questions about the abnormality of the theatrical path. There's a very dark mystery at the heart of the acting impulse - and Irving I believe offers a key to making sense of it.