London Horror Festival
Henry Irving is not a name well known to many, myself included, but thankfully a little pre-show reading corrected that; something I was soon thankful for. The first actor ever to receive a knighthood, he was also a close friend of Bram Stoker, who acted as Irving’s business manager for many years. And perhaps most vital to the understanding of the play, many believe Irving to be the inspiration for Stoker’s most famous creation, Count Dracula; a creation and role that Irving mocked, never considering the possibility that it was a part he should play. It’s this Dracula connection that also allows this show to play as part of London Horror Festival. It’s a rather loose fit, but so be it.
It feels that Irving undead is an absolute labour of love for James Swanton. He writes, he directs, and above everything else, he lives his titular role of Henry Irving. When he first enters the stage, dressed wonderfully in everything you’d expect of a Shakespearean thespian, it is as if Swanton’s whole life has led him towards this character. It’s not just the attire, it is his whole physicality; bowed skinny legs, stooped back, bony long fingers. It is an actor who seems to have physically grown into his role. It’s a man who seems born to play the darkest of characters.
For near on 90 minutes, Swanton is possessed by the ghost of Irving, cackling his way through his life, albeit in a rather non-linear fashion. We begin with his relationship with Stoker and of course how Irvine and others mocked his novel, Dracula. We also quickly get a feel for Irving’s obsession with acting and his bitterness towards others who he feels are not his equal and yet receive greater acknowledgement. His contempt for Oscar Wilde is clear, as he almost spits the name across the stage. The decision to tell this story with a non-linear structure does require attention: it’s all too easy to miss how his talk of a young, crippled boy, Brodribb, is not another character he plays in his career, but in fact his telling of his childhood. Similarly, talk of Florence can be hard to follow without some realisation that she was his long-suffering wife, whom he abandoned along with his children.
Swanton’s performance is unquestionably stunning in many ways. But even the greatest performance in the world cannot hide the fact that this play is surely more for purists; those who can admire such a performance, who can watch a 90-minute monologue and fully appreciate the skill of the artist involved. For the rest of us, the truth is that as the time elapses, so does our concentration, and well, it starts to become just a little boring. Having worked out the basics of who Irving was and his obsession with his profession, for me everything else just seemed all too repetitive. There is only so much ‘old Victorian theatre lovie’ that one can take before beginning to wish for that final death scene to be upon us.
If you want to see an actor completely become his character, this play is absolutely for you. But if you find more than ten minutes of even the best Shakespearian-style monologue too much, then you probably want to give it a miss. Five stars for the performance, but performance alone just can’t hold my attention for that long.
Written and directed by: James Swanton
Irving Undead plays at The Space until 24 October as part of London Horror Festival. Further information and booking via the below link.