I see dead people: Fringe actors discuss playing dead celebrities and famous icons

This article is from 2015

Festival preview: Playing dead icons

Albert Einstein: Relativitively Speaking, a musical theatre trip through the physicist’s life and times

Bill Hicks, Harry Houdini, Nina Simone, Bob Monkhouse and Arthur Conan Doyle appear at Edinburgh Fringe

The modern cult of celebrity doesn’t stop when a life ends. If anything, it cranks up the obsession even further. We look at some Fringe shows exploring a number of 20th century icons and asks the actors why they want to step into a superstar’s shoes

Through the magic of cinema, television and, more recently, the internet, deceased celebrities and personalities of the 20th century remain among us. If the ancient Romans placed a high value on the accuracy of portrait busts in order to hold their ancestors’ memories, the 1900s witnessed the rise of photo-realism memorials.

This year’s Fringe presents several examples of theatre attempting to bring back the physical presence of departed performers. From dark comedian Bill Hicks, who died in 1994 through Tony Hancock (1968) to Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle (1930) and Harry Houdini (1926), the dead are repopulating the stage.

Elsewhere, Mata Hari turns up twice, in both a musical and a physical theatre solo which questions whether history has written her unfairly as a villain while Albert Einstein: Relativitively Speaking promises a musical theatre trip through the physicist’s life and times. And Nina Simone is the subject of two musical shows that continue the legend and explore her life as a political activist.

For Kevin McNally (perhaps best known as Joshamee Gibbs in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise), the recreation of Tony Hancock in The Missing Hancocks is a labour of love and respect. ‘Hancock was the first comedian I can remember my father introducing me to when his TV shows were repeated in the mid-60s,’ he says. ‘My dad was so like Hancock and I instantly loved him.’ This enthusiasm made Hancock a direct influence on his approach to performance. ‘As an actor, I have always been influenced by his mix of comedy and straight acting. He was, after all, the first “straight” comic.’

Simon Cartwright, who is playing the titular comedian in The Man Called Monkhouse, has a more personal connection to his character. ‘There would be no play or performance from me if it weren't for the friendship I had with Bob. His unconditional and avuncular support was so important to me.’ Cartwright sees his role as almost evangelical. ‘I feel very protective around Bob's memory and the play gives me the immense responsibility and opportunity to share the truth and warmth of him.’

Although McNally and Cartwright are reviving popular British comedians, they perform in very different types of play. As The Missing Hancocks director Neil Pearson recently pointed out in a BBC interview, those scripts have never been seen before and despite being valuable documents of the past, they are still funny and contemporary. Cartwright’s Monkhouse, however, is a look into the personal life of a man who divided audiences, and revolves around the day when his book of jokes was stolen. ‘Our writer, Alex Lowe, made a conscious decision at the very beginning that the play was not going to be another “tears of a clown” story,’ continues Cartwright. ‘What we have is a very real and balanced reflection of his life both on and off stage. There was, of course, a huge amount of tragedy, especially with the deaths of his two sons, Gary and Simon. The play explores how Bob dealt with his emotions, almost placing them in a fourth dimension. There is a powerful moment in the play where he says, “I’ve learned to pretend to feel”.’

Bill Hicks: Dark Poet takes its story from the American stand-up’s biography Agent of Evolution, which recognises the serious themes embedded in what appeared to be shock humour. The DVDs and recordings of Hicks’ shows, however, influenced the script and while the comic is pictured at the end of his life – he died at the age of 32 from cancer – Dark Poet promises to be part monologue, part acerbic stand-up. That show combines the biographical style of The Man Called Monkhouse with McNally’s presentation of Hancock’s performance persona.

McNally is adamant that he won’t be offering a mere impersonation. ‘With a 30-year love of Hancock, I felt that I could be free to invent the scripts but with a deep understanding of how he might have responded to them. I was so immersed in him that I never worried about trying an impersonation. I have him in my bones and can be him with just a little nudge to the left of myself.’ And while Hancock suffered in his personal life with alcoholism before committing suicide, it is his persona – the uptight, anxious, witty man-not-quite-about-town – that defines him and provides the template for McNally’s performance.

While Dark Poet and The Missing Hancocks work with familiar aspects of their characters, Nina Simone Black Diva Power tackles the jazz vocalist’s relationship with activist Lorraine Hansberry (the inspiration for her song ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’) and explores Simone’s development into a ferocious protest singer. Having already offered a more general overview of her work in Fabulous Diva, Ruth Rogers-Wright’s Simone has support from Zuleika Khan as Hansberry, making this less a jukebox celebration than a taut investigation into her political maturing.

In Soul Sessions, Apphia Campbell looks at the parallels between Simone’s life and her own. Having brought Simone to the Fringe with Black Is the Color of My Voice, Campbell has an intimate relationship to the singer. ‘I feel a great deal of responsibility towards her because it’s her life,’ she says. ‘Nina Simone was real. No acting. No hiding. That’s how I approach my performance.’

Campbell recognises the importance of Simone on her own career. ‘Feeling inspired by her music is how this whole play started. Nina Simone’s voice is what attracted me to her. What else could it be? She has one of the most interestingly haunting voices that I’ve ever encountered, and this made me want to know more about the woman behind that voice.’

If Soul Sessions aims to present Simone herself, other plays aim to use the past to comment on the present. Impossible brings together two-turn-of-the-century legends and examines Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle falling out because of the latter’s belief in spiritualism. Yet, as Phill Jupitus (Conan Doyle) points out: ‘The story that the boys have picked out to tell, this odd incident towards the end of his life, is so fascinating in the times that we live in now when there seems to be an active conflict between the spiritual and the secular world.’

‘I think the question of whether there is life after death is an eternal one,’ agrees Alan Cox, who plays Houdini. ‘Exploring the question through the characters of a celebrated writer of detective fiction and a man who made his living performing magic brings some interesting perspectives to theatrical life.’ Impossible takes another approach to the past, using it to examine ideas that retain currency. Cox also identifies how the characters bring in other themes: ‘What interests me is the dynamic of a celebrity friendship and how that plays out in public.’

Celebrity, metaphysics, radical politics, comedy, biography, musical, radio play: the selection of characters who are receiving this kind of second life is diverse, but they all share an iconic presence, and have helped to define the way that their art is understood today. The desire to use performance as a way of understanding the past goes back to the Greek theatre (Aeschylus invented the history play with The Persians), yet the emphasis on iconic characters from more recent times becomes a way of questioning the present.

Albert Einstein: Relativitively Speaking, Pleasance Courtyard, Pleasance, 0131 556 6550, 16, 20, 23, 27, 30 Aug, 3.30pm, £10–£11 (£8.50–£9.50).
Bill Hicks: Dark Poet, The Caves, Cowgate, 0330 220 1212, 10–23 Aug (not 18), 8.45pm, £5 (£3).
Impossible, Pleasance Dome, Bristo Square, 0131 556 6550, 8–31 Aug (not 17), 1.20pm, £12.50–£15 (£10–£13.50). Previews 5–7 Aug, £7.50.
The Man Called Monkhouse, Assembly Hall, Mound Place, 0131 623 3030, 8–31 Aug (not 17), 3.15pm, £13–£14. Previews 6 & 7 Aug, £10.
The Missing Hancocks, Assembly Rooms, George Street, 0844 693 3008, 4.15pm, 7 30 Aug (not 17), 4.15pm, £16 (£13), Previews 5 & 6 Aug, £10.
Nina Simone Black Diva Power, New Town Theatre, George Street, 0131 220 0143, 8–30 Aug (not 10, 17, 24), 7.45pm, £14 (£8–£12; family ticket £40). Previews 6 & 7 Aug, £7.
Nina Simone: Soul Sessions, Assembly Checkpoint, Bristo Place, 0131 623 3030, 8–30 Aug (not 12, 17, 24), 8.50pm, £12–£13.50. Previews 6 & 7 Aug, £10.