Henry Irving, father of Dracula, returns to London
Irving Undead – a one-man play starring award-winning actor James Swanton (the demonic spirit in Host) – will be revived this October.
The play, which tells the true story of the Victorian actor Henry Irving, is getting four showings at The Space, from 22 to 24 October, as part of the London Horror Festival. The evening show on 24 October will also be available as a livestream.
Swanton’s previous one-man plays have gone on to the West End (Sikes & Nancy at Trafalgar Studios) and even been turned into feature films (Frankenstein’s Creature at FrightFest). But none of them have been as personally important to him as Irving Undead.
‘I’ve been intoxicated by Irving’s life and art for the last eight years or so,’ says Swanton. ‘My earliest acting influences were the likes of Christopher Lee and Vincent Price and Boris Karloff, so I’ve been thrilled to discover that the tradition of horror acting had an almighty precedent in Irving’s Lyceum Theatre.’
Swanton is no stranger to horror acting – so much so that Kim Newman has referred to him as a ‘horror star of the future’. But Swanton is clear about where the tradition began.
‘There’s no doubt in my mind that Irving was the most frightening actor who ever lived. Irving’s best-loved parts tended to be strikingly macabre: not only his signature role of murderous Mathias in The Bells, but the Flying Dutchman, Eugene Aram, Louis XI, Richard III, Macbeth... Did I mention Mephistopheles in Faust? Despite becoming so respectable a figure in later life, Irving was always subversive at heart.
‘Irving’s résumé amounts to a canon of semi-forgotten horror characters – and this makes him the perfect figure to resurrect at the London Horror Festival.’
One character with which Irving is forever associated refuses to die. Irving is still regarded as a key inspiration for Dracula, who made his first appearance in the 1897 novel by Bram Stoker, Irving’s long-time business manager.
‘It’s a very complicated subject, what inspires any artist,’ muses Swanton. ‘We know for sure that even if Stoker didn’t think Dracula was Irving, he certainly thought Irving should be Dracula! Stoker was bitterly disappointed that Irving never took up his suggestions to play the part.
‘Many have suggested that Irving’s greatest mistake was turning down the chance to become the very first actor to play Dracula. I don’t see that myself. Irving died the most celebrated actor of his age; the first actor in history to be knighted, no less. And despite steering clear of Dracula, Irving will forever have a bit of the Count’s immortality.’
That immortality is unflagging, with stage, film and television versions of Dracula building by the year. Irving himself remains in the shadows.
‘He’s a very difficult figure to get close to,’ Swanton admits. ‘His documented life is built of nothing but work, work, work. And his life on the stage was centred on unleashing an outsize mystery. Within the play, I speculate about what demons made Irving choose theatre over a more balanced life.’
Swanton has recently been building a reputation for horrifying roles on film, most notably the demonic spirit in the lockdown sensation Host on Shudder. He has also played the uncanny android in Broadcast Signal Intrusion (recently screened at FrightFest, Leicester Square), worked again with Rob Savage on his latest Dashcam, and the title role in Frankenstein’s Creature, the single-take feature film that brought him Best Male Performance of the Year from The Evolution of Horror and a Best Actor nomination from Total Film. Most recently he worked with SIFF Award Winner Scott Lyus on his feature debut Walking Against The Rain. He considers these monsters good preparations for playing Irving himself.
‘Fundamentally, Irving Undead questions whether acting is even a choice. It’s such a trying path that it can only be some abnormality that causes any of us to stick at it. The pandemic has brought this home to many actors – and yet, somehow, most of us stagger on. Irving certainly wouldn’t have been kept from acting by multiple lockdowns. He’d have been leading the way with a fiendish workaround in the style of Host!
‘Returning to any theatre after the last few years feels like a resurrection – and this chimes very well with the message of this play. To use the stage to bring Irving back to flesh-and-blood life (or undeath) is the best possible tribute to his artistic medium. A sculptor lives on in stone; a painter on canvas. But the only way an actor can be properly resurrected is through another actor. I best do the old man justice.’
Irving Undead runs at The Space from 22 to 24 October, with a livestream on 24 October (which will then be available on demand for two weeks). Tickets are available on The Space’s website, www.space.org.uk. For the London Horror Festival’s full programme, see www.londonhorrorfestival.co.uk.
IRVING UNDEAD – written and performed by James Swanton
Henry Irving is dead.
Queen Victoria knighted him. Oscar Wilde applauded him. Shakespeare lived through him. And some whisper that Bram Stoker immortalised him – by writing the horror classic Dracula.
But Henry Irving is dead now. And Dracula is very much alive. A state of affairs that Irving will not accept.
Join Irving’s restless spirit as he tells the story of how he transformed himself from a stuttering, spindly country boy into the most formidable actor of the nineteenth century. It is a story of a man who petrified London with his Gothic portrayals of mad monarchs, guilt-stricken murderers and the devil himself. A story of a man who could never escape his monsters – even in death.
This resurrection of the greatest horror star of the past comes from award-winning actor James Swanton (Host, Broadcast Signal Intrusion, Frankenstein’s Creature), who Kim Newman describes as a ‘horror star of the future’.
Praise for James Swanton:
‘A fearless actor … Startling and enthralling … A remarkable performer’ – Simon Callow
‘Extraordinary … Superb … It couldn’t have been more vivid!’ – Miriam Margolyes
‘Fierce emotional intensity … A compelling physical presence’ – Michael Billington, The Guardian