Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Casting Game & Venetia

I'm currently re-reading a favourite novel of mine, Venetia, by Georgette Heyer. I have five favourite Heyer novels: Arabella, Frederica, Sylvester, Venetia and The Black Sheep and reread them every couple of years or so. On one of the lists I frequent, this month's read is Venetia, so there you are, my decision is made for me. And then someone asked who we would cast as the hero of Venetia, Damerel, aka The Wicked Baron.

When I first read the book, this was the Damerel I envisioned, roughly speaking:

But nowadays my taste has altered a little, and I am afraid in any case, I have never been able to take T.Dalton quite so seriously after seeing him as Antony in Ant & Cleo with his then squeeze, Vanessa Redgrave. When he kept saying, "I'm dying Egypt, dying," you could almost hear the audience collectively demanding why he was taking so long about it. At this point I am tempted to digress on the nature of the A&C play. It's one of my favourites, but it seems to me that it is either amazing and utterly excellent, or diabolically awful in performance. There's Hopkins and Dench, who were notoriously wonderful, ditto Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter and then there was Mirren and Rickman, which should have been a dream team but the couple had the charisma and chemistry of a pair of toads in a stagnant pond. Although I've currently foresworn all directing, I might be tempted if someone let me do an open air version of Ant & Cleo. But no, no, no, no. Let my thoughts not that way fly. Directing is hell. Drama is hell.

Back to Damerel. And casting Damerel. My latest thought is Clive Owen:

Here's Heyer's description: "He was taller than Venetia had at first supposed, rather loose-limbed and he bore himself with a faint suggestion of swash-buckling arrogance.....he was dark, his countenance lean and rather swarthy, marked with lines of dissipation."

I hope my fellow Heyer fans, if they visit here, will approve of my choices for Damerel. Actually, it doesn't really matter if they object, it will simply be an excuse for them to think up even better examples. That is the joy of the Casting Game - infinitely more rewarding than seeing an actual adaptation of a much-loved book.

What I love even more than the casting game performed on a published novel is the casting game that I play in my head when writing a new book. We authors, we call this "Creating Place holders", which sounds like a sophisticated way of laying a table, but personally, I continue to think of it as the Casting Game. What I particularly enjoy about the casting game is that I do not play it solely with movie stars. In fact, I rarely play it with modern actors. Instead, I play it with portraits and pictures from the period I'm writing about. Which can be fascinating. Frex: here is a portrait of a young Italian girl of noble family:

There's tons to write about there - the silver gown edged with golden thread, the dog, the open expression of this child's face, how it felt dressing up in this stiff kit, whether she could walk anywhere in it... I could go on. What was even better was that there is another portrait of this young lady, Margherita Aldobrandini, painted some years later after almost twenty years of marriage to her rather unpleasant Farnese husband, Ranuccio, Duke of Parma, who was volatile, cruel and violent. I can't upload it for some argh computer reason, but if you can google it, it's extraordinary - recognisably the same person, but a totally different expression, hard eyes, a chill, tight mouth, a taut, tense body as if she were preparing to lash out or expecting to be lashed out at.

The Casting Game is one of the ways of rounding out a character: somehow, a real face bestows on a character a much greater sense of identity. But I wonder if this is a by-product of existing in such a powerfully visual time. Back to Shakespeare: just check out the way women are defined by the way they sound. Beatrice and Cordelia leap to mind, but there are others. In his world, sound perhaps mattered more than sight, certainly in decoding the signs of one's own culture. That's one explanation for the density of imagery in his plays, the reiterations and repetitions and echoes. Now, we are surrounded by visual images, and directors play with that by trying to recreate worlds, particularly in historical films. Derek Jarman did this wonderfully cleverly in both Caravaggio (obviously, in a biopic of a painter) and in Edward II and his version of The Tempest, as did Greenaway in Prospero's Books. And this is one of the enriching aspects of the casting game, because it is fun to imagine what friends and colleagues and family would like dressed in 16th or 19th century get-up.

There's a confession - I admit it, I do use my circle of acquaintance in my books. Sometimes I borrow your names, sometimes I borrow your physique or features, and occasionally, I borrow personalities and internal characteristics. I think all fiction writers do in one way or another beg borrow and steal from life, but it is a question I am asked and this is the answer. Yup. You never know, I could write about you next. Just don't expect to recognise yourself because it's not a cookie-cutter process. You might be jumbled in there with the physique of Timothy Spall and the whine of Peter Lorre and an early 17th century set of boots of Spanish leather. Writing is a magpie art, picking and dropping and nicking at bits and pieces from who knows what foetid corner of the author's subconscious.

Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and howlet's wing,--
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

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