Dracula has died? Impossible.
Christopher Lee is immortal! His incarnation of Bram Stoker’s vampire will stay with us for as long as cinema exists. As Robbie Collin of the Daily Telegraph put it, ‘He was the shadow at the top of the stairs, the smiling predator beckoning you in, the flash of silver in the dark.’
The image of Lee as Count Dracula had a deep effect on me as a boy, and played a big part in teaching me how important dressing up could be to the fledgling actor.
Hallowe’en was always a great excuse for me to get the cape and teeth out (please note the high quality top hat). But generally speaking I didn’t need a reason. To start with, Saturday nights were the best dressing-up time, and specifically at about 6.10pm – or in other words, just after Doctor Who had ended. Out would come my long scarf (brown, tasselled) and into the wardrobe (or TARDIS) I would clamber, ready to emerge, transformed into a toothy Time Lord. Here you see me as a Dalek, for our 1977 Silver Jubilee street party. Yes, I am that old…
The King of the Vampires came later, and I arrived at my Christopher Lee obsession after first dabbling in a bit of Bela Lugosi. By the time I was 12, I had become determined to see all the Hammer Draculas, a complicated task in the early 80s. In those far-off days, video tapes were mostly available to rent and weren’t yet widely available to buy in the shops, certainly not Sixties and Seventies vampire films anyway, so I had to scour the TV listings and set my video recorder. Gradually my imagination (and my walls) filled up with a gallery of gruesome pictures from films such as ‘Dracula Has Risen From The Grave’ and ‘Dracula, AD 1972’.
There was a definite connection between my absorption of all those wonderful, evocative images of Christopher Lee striding about in Gothic surroundings, and my growing interest in acting. I would seek out the most realistic fangs, the most convincing fake blood, the most suitably Draculine cloak, determined to be as authentic as possible. I wanted to feel what it was like to be Dracula. To feel my cloak flowing around me, to know what it was like to reveal my fangs. I wanted to inhabit a different personality.
And this, of course, is one of the great thrills of being an actor – dressing up as someone else. It is often sneered at as being too superficial a route into a character, as though it is somehow not as legitimate as a ‘Method’-based exploration, and while there’s a lot more to acting than simply putting on the right hat, I think ‘dressing up’ is a far more direct way to achieve a transformation.
I’m sure we have all felt that frisson of delight when standing in front of the mirror the first time we try on a new costume – seeing ourselves looking utterly different. If there’s a wig or a moustache involved, it can be even more startling. If you see yourself looking like someone else, it is easier to think yourself into a different mind-set. The old cliché of ‘starting with the shoes first’ carries a lot of truth, to me at least; it’s one of the reasons why I love technical rehearsals – you walk onto the set in your costume for the first time. I find that I stand and walk differently; I stop feeling like myself.
This sort of surface-in transformation is as old as theatre itself, of course – just think of the masks of classical Greek theatre. Any of us who have worked with masks will know what an immediate change they can bring about, and what that can teach us about developing a character. I remember a class at LAMDA with our much-missed Movement Theatre tutor Christian Darley (the finest teacher I have ever had) where we had made our own very simple masks from pictures cut out of magazines. Christian encouraged us to study and contemplate our masks alone to start with, then, once we had put them on, to look at our new faces in the mirror, and allow our physicality to be gradually influenced by what we saw. I can recall one member of our group, an otherwise mild and non-confrontational fellow, seeming to change entirely into a red-faced, furiously angry and scary character – very unexpected and shocking for us, and quite a breakthrough for him to discover that he could affect an audience in that way.
It is very easy to feel limited by the way we look as actors; sometimes it takes a physical change to show us what sort of a transformation we are capable of. I think a costume can be like armour – it can give us courage.
And we see this all over the place in other areas of life, not just on stage. How differently we feel about ourselves with some new clothes or a radical new haircut. Look at the sci-fi and comic book aficionados at Comic Con in their astonishingly detailed, often home-made costumes; their absolute otherness giving them the fearlessness to march across the London Underground. It makes me think of the drag world and of those club kids of the 80s, who used androgynous clothes and make-up to play around with identity and gender roles; even of the bizarre world of English folk customs, such as the various Green Men and ‘Obby Osses that cut a caper across the countryside, and which are usually played by members of the local community who otherwise lead relatively ‘normal’ lives. Look at the Whittlesea Straw Bear festival, for example:
– played here by a student called Christian. But when he is being led through the town in that odd, other-worldly costume, a transformation has taken place: no one sees Christian the local student, they see the Straw Bear. The Bear dances for food and drink, and the next day is burned, to make way for another Bear the following year. Very odd, very English – a Christian, wrapped in straw and set on fire… Rather like ‘The Wicker Man’, really – which brings us back to…
Requiescat in pace ultima…