Frank C. Keogh recently played Darren in Greenhouse Theatre Company’s production of Mercury Fur by Philip Ridley at the Trafalgar Studios. Whilst training, I struggled with plays of a poetic nature like Ridley’s, and having Keogh’s insight into the rehearsal process as well as his words of wisdom would have been (and will be) invaluable in helping with the challenge of inhabiting texts like Ridley’s. So how do you begin to approach a play like Mercury Fur – a world in which hallucinogenic butterflies and grotesque acts of violence are the norm?
Keogh’s answer: with the help of the director – in this case, Ned Bennett. “He wanted to strip back the text and look solely at the character relationships and who they are. It wasn’t about imposing a world onto people; it was about creating a world.” Ridley’s language is uniquely lyrical and visceral, and to make this as natural to the actor as breathing, Bennett had the actors explore the text freely. “We had to go through the text and pull out all the things the characters say about themselves, what the other characters say about them, and what the writer says in the stage directions, then read that as a whole, I guess like a monologue. I’d never worked like that before. We did a lot of improvisational work, about the world – pre-riots, as children – and we built our characters through that. Once we’d got the text on its feet we’d do an improvised version of that scene. Ned works a lot on transforming targets, which is seeing how your character perceives another character. It’s a case of creating that particular sentence for that particular character in the most visceral way possible. I could see Elliot as a machine gun verbal abuser that would cripple me within an instant, so when he would rant at me that particular target would be in place and eventually it would become subconscious. We were building on top of everything in the whole process.”
Ridley has dominated 2012. His Pitchfork Disney was at the Arcola early this year, then Shivered premiered at the Southwark Playhouse and Tender Napalm has just ended its tour. Mercury Fur transferred from the Old Red Lion to the West End’s Trafalgar Studios, and Keogh agrees it would be great to have more shows like this on the West End. “People want to be pushed and prodded and have their thoughts provoked and their emotions ripped apart; not just to sit down for two hours and feel nothing. I think it would be amazing in the subsequent months and years if more plays [from the fringe] came into the centre. Mercury Fur isn’t a safe play, and people came that hadn’t necessarily seen something like that before.”
As a regular theatre-goer, I’m adamant that it’s rare you see something with an impact like Mercury Fur. It was a production which moved people to “gasping, shrieking, muttering, tears” and Keogh could feel that reaction. However what’s interesting is the effect which the play had on him as an actor. He couldn’t just snap out of it in the curtain call: “It would get to me at times, until we went downstairs and got everything off – I would leave very quickly. I just wanted to get out of the space. It could be quite claustrophobic. I went away for a couple of days after the show to see my mum just to get away, because it does stay with you. You invest so much that it’s impossible for it to not be a part of you.”
Keogh obviously had to invest a tremendous amount of emotional and physical energy in the role (“it was the best free gym membership I ever had!”), but this isn’t any different to how he tackles any other role. “I’ll always come at it from a truthful aspect: regardless of whether it’s Shakespeare or Jacobean or something, these people are essentially real. I like to get dirty with the acting, and just be raw and honest.” He has found an approach which works for him, and discussing practitioners he notes, “I think it’s what you take from each of them. I wouldn’t say I’ve one particular way of doing something, but I think literally let yourself go and approach it in that free manner and something will come out of that because you’re not restricting yourself. I’m always going to be learning from my experiences and I’ll continue to grow like that.”
Keogh’s love of acting began, like most, at school. But he says that when he considered it as a career, “to move further forward I didn’t really know what to do. I’d gone that far with it, but just within an academic structure.” He bought the Contacts book and wrote off to agents, but was disillusioned and not getting very far. “I had an agent, big television and theatre stuff, and all I saw was fame and fortune, I’ll be honest. I thought I’d made it before even stepping into the audition room.” This was the point at which he considered drama school – an important choice for young actors, and one which Keogh advises (while respecting that “it’s not the only decision”). “For me personally, it was having that structure and time to build something out of what I had. It just offers so much, it can put you in front of people that you wouldn’t necessarily meet and push your boundaries.” But then “once you graduate, you’re on your own. I think regardless of where you trained you’ve got to put yourself out there and keep working hard. Work breeds work: that’s the only way to do it, and eventually good things come.”
Along the way Keogh has met the usual challenges actors face: rejection and, after leaving Birmingham School of Acting, financial difficulties. But his positive mindset has led him to the success he’s enjoying today. “Rejection is a part of it. If I go in and I’ve given my all in that ten-minute or one-hour meeting – whatever – then there’s nothing else you can do. If they like you they like you, it’s not down to you it’s down to what they’re looking for. Be able to take direction and try a very different approach very quickly without going ‘Oh my god!’ and panicking, wondering whether what you did was incorrect. I don’t think there is one correct way; if you’re doing it from a certain point then it’s always going to be an honest performance.”
His attitude is an example that actors don’t necessarily have to be thick-skinned in this industry, just confident they’ve given their all in whatever they do. Keogh instantly struck me as something of an open book, with an obvious passion and energy for what he does, and this shines through in his equally honest approach to acting. His method pinpoints that in attempting to de-riddle Ridley, I’ve been defeating myself by approaching it as a challenge. Whatever the text or medium, it would seem honesty really is the best policy.
Frank C Keogh will soon be appearing in BBC’s EastEnders as Frankie. You can follow him on twitter @FrankCKeogh.
Image credit: Frank C Keogh in Mercury Fur