We chat to Mark Farrelly aka Quentin Crisp
What do Quinten Crisp, Patrick Hamilton and Frankie Howerd all have in common? Yes they are all gay icons, yes they all prospered in a time when being gay was not only taboo but a crime but what I’m thinking of is they are all to be immortalised on stage by the actor and writer, Mark Farrelly.
Tell me about Naked Hope
I am a big fan of Quentin Crisp, I discovered him about five years ago. I was a low point, I felt like I was a loser and there was no way forward. I find that when your defences are right down, it is when you are at your most open. I happened to watch Quinten’s one man show in LA on Youtube and I connected with him. He is someone who had been through the wilderness and survived. He had a steel identity and strong sense of self.
He has the combination of honesty, depth and humour. Over a few weeks this played on my mind. The play evolved slowly, I did a lot of research and met his publisher and his niece. The best bit of advice from his publisher was “do your thing”.
I first performed it in Edinburgh in 2014 and I thought it would last six months. It then transferred to the St James Theatre in London, then there was a tour and someone who saw it invited me to go and perform it in their venue and it got passed from venue to venue. When I perform in Manchester it will be the 89th performance so I think it will get to 100.
Charles Bukowski said “What matters is how you walk through the fire” that really resonates with me, you can’t avoid the fire but how you handle it says who you are and Quinten was the all-time great at it. His philosophy was, you have to be who you are. He said if you are genuinely a boring person, be good at being boring.
I think it’s important in today’s culture with social media, people are creating skewed versions of themselves and there is a lack of sincerity.
In the play, you play a younger and older Crisp, which is your favourite?
Technically the older is more rewarding and flashy, I’m there in a purple wig and people say “that’s brilliant”
Personally I connect with the first one. I’ve been there. I fell apart at 35, I was out of work, single for the first time, a friend had committed suicide and I spent two years just thinking and reflecting. Quinten used to sit in his flat in Chelsea and think. He would reflect on things and felt that his life hadn’t added up to much and his best days were behind him and he was just waiting for the end. But he did it with some brilliant one liners.
What was the most surprising thing you found out about Crisp when researching him?
When he was in his early 70s, the same age my parents are now, he uprooted and moved to NYC, living on the Lower East Side next to Hells Angels. I didn’t realise how old he was and how he just let go of all his security. That’s the essence of him, to never give up. I think we can learn from that, life can be transformed. It’s too easy to believe that the best years are behind you. It’s the narrative of failure. The show takes you to this moment of despair but then takes you up and up.
At what point backstage, do you feel you are Quentin?
The moment I walk on. I’m waiting to go on and can hear the roar of people waiting for a good night and you try not to think about what you’re going to do, to go on stage on your own and talk for 70 minutes. Your brain tells you to run and your legs go a bit to jelly. But the music cues, and when that happens, I stop thinking about it. It’s like being on the diving board or jumping out of a plane, when people have done it, all you see are smiling faces. I think people like to marvel at someone walking a tightrope.
If you could ask Quentin Crisp one question, what would it be?
What I should do next because he would tell me plainly and I honestly don’t know. Journalists would ask him about the future and he would say “It will all get worse” so I know he would give me a wonderfully pessimistic answer.
When Quinten lived in the US, he famously never bought a meal because people would take him out and he would be this guru figure. A young guy asked him advice for the future, he requested a napkin and wrote something on it in eyeliner, scrunched it up and gave it to the boy. About half an hour later, when he was in his cab, this boy looked at the napkin and it said “You don’t have to win”. That is so true of society which is paralysed with competitiveness, if you feel you have to win all the time you are likely to keep on bashing.
Tell me about The Silence of Snow?
It is another solo play about Patrick Hamilton who was a novelist and playwright in the 30s and 40s. He wrote Rope which was turned into a film by Hitchcock and Gaslight which is a very successful play and film with Ingrid Bergman.
I wrote it at the same time as Quinten and realised that they are two very different sides of the same coin.
Hamilton had a lot of success early on; he had plays in the West End and Broadway before he was 30 and made big money. He then slid into alcoholism and never mastered himself. There is a whole cache of letters to his brother who lived in Barbados, with Patrick saying he was going to turn over a new leaf and get on top, but he never did and died at 58.
The play is a counterpart to Naked Hope, Quinten is very still and calm whereas Patrick is very physical. It is a whirlwind of words and physicality before slowing to a halt. Nigel Jones, Hamilton’s biographer, looked over it and said that I was trying to give it a happy ending and was lying to the audience so I rewrote it and actually die on stage in front of the audience.
But both plays get at the same thing, to live your own reality. Quinten did it whereas Patrick is a cautionary tale about what happens when you make the wrong choices.
How do you run two project simultaneously?
I did them in tandem for 28 days at Edinburgh which was a challenge. In this industry you don’t complain when there’s work. I used to do Patrick at noon and then Quinten at 3pm. It was hard but once you’re in that space, you’re in the zone.
You’re taking on Frankie Howerd next we hear?
This is a two hander and told from the point of view of Dennis Heymer who was Frankie’s partner of 33 years. They lived in Somerset. Frankie died in 1992 and Dennis lived on there for another 17 years. He used to open the house as a tourist attraction. I had this vision of him sitting on the sofa watching Countdown while people asked if they could have a look upstairs.
Frankie made me laugh and it amazed me that his life has never been explored on stage. Dennis is an interesting way in, he lived in the shadow of his partner, their whole relationship was like that. He would pose as the manager or lighting technician. When people visited he would be put in the other room.
I just wanted to present that and people who have read it have had varying opinions, from how could he do that to how sweet that he did that. It’s an interesting exploration of when relationships go on a long time and people treat partners like furniture and don’t value them. I play Dennis in this story. I wanted a richer story than just looking at Frankie’s life.
I went to the house and met with people who knew them. There was a guy who knew them, a sensible practical man and he said that he knew Dennis more and when I asked what he was like, his eyes misted over with tears and he said he was a wonderful man.
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By Chris Park for Canal St Online
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