"I come from a time and country where I was treated like a wrong hushed up. And now, eighty long, dark years later, I find myself living in the heart of Manhattan… the moment I finally caught sight of New York for real I wanted it… After that there was nothing for it but to leave England, which is nothing more than a rain-swept Alacatraz, and move to America…" Using the words of the man himself with only a few stylistically consistent linking phrases, Mark Farrelly's
A masterclass in how through meticulous study of the subject an actor dares to take on the portrayal of an icon.
I felt slightly uncomfortable in the first half; struggling to come to terms with the man, the image of whom I knew from his performance pieces and interviews; but it took him some seventy years to arrive at that position and it was going to take us the whole of Part One. Naked predates that famous period and deals with the struggling decades from birth to his discovery by the world and of himself.
Fidgeting somewhat as the words flow and we move from one venue to another I watch him gradually unfold as he charts a course through physical abuse, villification and humiliation, learning as he goes more life-informing lessons which he deftly turns into a pragmatic credo. I reflected early in the second half as to why I had earlier felt ill at ease. I realised that I had felt how Crisp himself must have felt in his uncomfortable world. What I had experienced was the power of Farrelly’s performance in expressing the discomfort that had dogged Crisp all those years. I had yearned for Crisp’s future life to materialise, just as Crisp had done. The difference was that I knew what was coming; Crisp didn’t. By the scene break he has bared himself to the world and assumed his unique and quirky identity. He has also made the big decision. His loathing for England has peaked and he must move across the Pond.
Naked is set in the Chelsea boarding house he refers to as ‘a private ward in a home for incorrigibles’ and a ‘cell’. Hope makes the move to New York where he lives ‘in a single room on the Lower East Side next to some Hell’s Angels’. Neither place was spacious or opulent, in fact neither was ever cleaned, but in the latter he was able to say, "l am in my element."
In Manhattan, Crisp becomes a celebrity, following John Hurt’s portrayal of him in the television adaptation of his autobiography The Naked Civil Servant. Here, for a man whose whole life was a performance, he finds himself on chat shows and ultimately onstage in front of live audiences spouting his homespun philosophy. In Hope, Crisp comes into his own and we are treated to one of the mesmerising shows he would have given to New York audiences.
It is also in this second phase that we witness Farrelly’s remarkable craft. "If we don’t suffer, how do we know that we’re alive", Crisp had said earlier. He is still alive, but the body is pained and contorted; the voice is often rasping and the eccentric elongated vowels are stretched even further. The wrists however, far from being limp, as might be imagined, become a conduit of energy to the hands and the fingers which speak as eloquently as the words he utters. It’s a masterclass in how through meticulous study of the subject an actor dares to take on the portrayal of an icon.
For most people who make the journey to this production the life and style of Quentin Crisp are probably well known; rather like going to a concert of one’s favourite band. It’s not a question of what will be on the bill but how well it will come over and whether the old favourites will be included. Be assured the one-liners are there but so is the context that generated them.
Farrelly relates a story in his published version of the script concerning a performance he gave in Edinburgh of another work. He says that "the incomparable Matthew Kelly" was in the audience, so afterwards he asked him what he thought. He relates his words as follows, “You protected yourself too much. You see to be a proper actor [ouch!], you have to stand on the stage, open your arms wide, look at the audience and say ‘I’m the target. Shoot me. You can’t kill me because I’m already dead’. You didn’t do that”. It seems he has learned to open his arms. Matthew Kelly would be proud of him.