Friday , November 19 2021
Dominic Gerrard performing 'The Signal-Man'

Theatre Interview: Dominic Gerrard of ‘Ghosts & Murder: Haunting Tales by Charles Dickens’

If you haven’t checked out the Charles Dickens Museum in Bloomsbury, London, now is the perfect time to learn more about its exhibits and offerings as the holidays approach. In addition to house tours, the museum offers in-person and virtual events dedicated to educating visitors about the life and works of celebrated author Charles Dickens. In the context of spooky tales, Dickens may be best known for A Christmas Carol and the “Bah, Humbug!” of Ebenezer Scrooge, but that wasn’t the only tale he wrote that’s appropriate for Halloween.

Helping me on my quest to learn more about Dickens, who lived from 1812 to 1870, is actor and musician Dominic Gerrard. Gerrard’s credits include appearances at the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as theatres in London’s West End. With more than 10 years of performing Dickens’ work under his belt, Gerrard is the ideal guide to give us the ins and outs of the museum and the relevancy of these literary classics today.

At 6:00 pm (GMT) on October 31, the museum will stream Gerrard’s dramatic readings through its program, Ghosts & Murder: Haunting Tales by Charles Dickens. The three tales are Sikes and Nancy, A Ghost in the Bride’s Chamber, and The Signal-Man. Tickets cost £15 or about $21 per streaming device. Be sure to stay on the Zoom call afterwards for a live Q&A with Gerrard.

Headshot photo of actor Dominic Gerrard
Credit: John Godwin

I read that you teach music and drama. What’s something you’ve noticed that students often overlook in their audition prep?

You have to be true to yourself in an audition. You have to allow yourself to audition in your mind the people who are auditioning you, to an extent. It might be that you don’t gel with them and you don’t feel that you want to work with them, which are valid as well. 

I’ve been weakest in my auditions when I try to second-guess what they’re looking for and bend to what I think they want. When I’ve gone into the room breezily as myself, engaging and going for my choices, that’s normally where I score higher. “To thine own self be true” is the idea and the key, because they want to meet you. They are looking for someone they can work with, not perfection. 

Looking back on your career, what’s a role that really stretched your acting chops?

October is an important month for me. It is the 30th anniversary of my first real acting job. When I was a little boy in October 1991, I was in Les Misérables in the West End. That was a huge leap from zero experience to being in a very intricate and complex show! It’s so engrained and left such an impression on me in a positive way that stretched me. 

What stretches me in more recent years is doing solo performances, because you don’t have a company of other actors to play off. It’s all on you to carry the whole responsibility – whether or not you can hold the audience’s attention and convincingly convey characters.

The trickiest character I’ve played is perhaps the Duke in Measure for Measure, which I came to the United States for. He’s such a strange man! You don’t understand what the hell he’s doing half the time. He is difficult because I felt the audience might not like him and be sympathetic to him. Every character I play presents new questions to answer and problems to solve. 

Photo of actor Dominic Gerrard sitting on a green couch in the Charles Dickens Museum
Dominic Gerrard at the Charles Dickens Museum. (Credit: Jayne Lloyd)

What’s your favorite Dickens story?

I think A Christmas Carol is one of the best stories ever written, because it combines Christmas, ghosts, and time travel. I love all things to do with time travel. One of my favorite Dickens novels would be Great Expectations. It’s an embracing and human book that reaches out to the reader and transcends time. You really feel for Pip, the central character! 

Do you remember your first visit to the Charles Dickens Museum?

It was about 10 years ago. I’d been doing productions of A Christmas Carol in different venues. Tim Carroll, my director, and I decided to try Dickens’ own house. It seemed quite fun as an intimate performance. The show has a puppet of Scrooge. 

The house doesn’t really feel like a museum. It doesn’t have lots of display cases. The rooms are there to be kind of lived in. You imagine you’ve stepped into the house and Dickens has just left for an errand. 

Do you have a favorite room or artifact? 

The master bedroom is one of my favorite rooms because it has a real atmosphere to it. For the Halloween readings [like] The Ghost in the Bride’s Chamber, we shot that all inside Dickens’ bedroom, which was quite fun. I use a replica of his reading desk to lean on for some of the stories.

There’s also a room which adjoins it: the bedroom where Mary Hogarth died. That’s a very powerful place because she meant the world to Dickens. He never got over her death. [As you] stand in that room for a quiet moment, you really get a sense of that.

This year, we are streaming the Christmas Carol film that I shot last year in the museum. We’re bringing it back. That film starts in [Mary’s] room. You’re talking about Marley being dead at the start in the very room where Mary Hogarth died.

Dominic Gerrard performing ‘Sikes and Nancy’

What does it feel like to perform these readings in Dickens’ residence?

From my wife’s influence in the last 10 years, I’ve gotten more into immersive and site-specific theatre. I’m taking performances outside of conventional theatre. It’s really fun to step into these spaces, which are already attracting people who want to know more about Dickens or just want a walk about the house. Dickens was writing Oliver Twist in that house. As you perform Sikes and Nancy or these other stories, definitely there is that extra resonance. 

Which elements of Dickens’ writing style make these stories performance-friendly?

First of all, everything he ever wrote—a letter to a friend or full novel—is meant to be read aloud. It’s a gift for an actor [today]. He also spoke aloud as he wrote, practicing the voices of his characters even though most people would never hear what his voice was with those characters. He was also a fantastic actor and performer himself.

You really feel his activism and social conscience. His world comes through strongly in the writing. The issues raised in Sikes and Nancy are depressingly and shockingly relevant now in what he has to say. It’s not that we like him because he’s from the 19th century and we’re into old things. He writes powerfully about the issues we still face today [including] poverty, unemployment, and corruption. He would have loathed Boris Johnson’s government. Everything he wrote and did in his life points to how he would have held Johnson and his government in contempt and satirized them to bits.

Above all of this, Dickens is such a hilarious guy when you read his novels. He’s a bit like a mad uncle. For people who don’t like Dickens, what they have a problem with is that he rambles on. You feel that he’s in the room with you as you’re reading, because he doesn’t filter himself. All that’s in his head pours out onto the page. That immediacy is fun to read, play, and speak aloud.

Photo of actor Dominic Gerrard with a puppet of Ebenezer Scrooge during a performance of 'A Christmas Carol'
Dominic Gerrard in a production of ‘A Christmas Carol’

Of the three stories for your Halloween readings, which one is most terrifying to you?

Sikes and Nancy is definitely the most shocking and affecting. The Ghost in the Bride’s Chamber has quite a nice build and suspense. I know there’s a silliness and bit of humor in it, but it’s good for those jumping-out-of-a-seat moments. 

The last story, The Signal-Man, is his most famous ghost story after A Christmas Carol. There’s a real murkiness to it. It’s never explained properly what’s going on. The mortal characters can never get to grips with the situation. Dickens wrote it only a year after he survived a fatal rail accident, the Staplehurst rail crash. He was so deeply traumatized that he lost his voice for two weeks. He was always nervous traveling on trains afterwards. People said he was never the same. 

In the story, he’s working through that trauma. He also died on the fifth anniversary of the rail crash. This might be a bit melodramatic, but I feel that he’s almost predicting his own death. It’s hard to know who that figure at the end of the tunnel is. He’s not a good figure or an evil figure. With so much left unexplained, I think The Signal-Man is probably the scariest. 

Photo of actor Dominic Gerrard with a puppet of Ebenezer Scrooge during a performance of 'A Christmas Carol'
Dominic Gerrard in a production of ‘A Christmas Carol’

Which director would you like to see take on a Dickens film adaptation?

It’s too late, but I would have been interested in Kubrick doing one. Wes Anderson also came to mind straightaway. He would get the fun and quirkiness, as well as the serious side.

Looking ahead to winter holidays, which version of A Christmas Carol would you pop on for a watch party? 

One that I really like—although I wouldn’t have little children watch it because it frightened me when I was little—is George C. Scott [in] A Christmas Carol. The BBC did one with Guy Pearce a couple of Christmases ago, which is not for family viewing. I thought that was a fun adaptation for taking it somewhere else and being quite different. They mess with the story a lot. You can do the faithful adaptations, but you can have variations on the theme as well. I like that. 

For a family watch party, it would be the Muppets. There’s also Mickey’s Christmas Carol, which is 20 minutes long. Goofy as Jacob Marley is great.

Visit the Charles Dickens Museum website to book a ticket for Dominic Gerrard’s performance, which will stream virtually on October 31. Here’s a trailer for a glimpse of what you’re in for.

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About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros is a frequent reviewer of all things Washington, D.C. She also covers events in Canada and London. Her highlights include interviews with Juliette Binoche, Daniel Davis, Fran Drescher, Derek Jacobi, and Ndaba Mandela.

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