Brian Cox plays Humbert Humbert in Lolita ...
August 29, 2009
Brian Cox plays Humbert Humbert in Lolita
Brian Cox has made a career of playing demonic characters. Is Humbert Humbert his most notorious
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta.” Vladimir Nabokov’s opening lines are among the most memorable in 20th-century literature, instantly conjuring up a seductive nymphet and the obsessive lust of a middle-aged man.
To play Humbert Humbert, the narcissistic self-styled “nympholept”, demands a brooding presence and a rich distinctive voice, and it is brooding, dark-voiced Brian Cox who will sit alone in Humbert’s prison cell on the Lyttelton stage, in Richard Nelson’s adaptation of Lolita. Next Monday is the first of only three performances and it’s already one of the year’s hottest tickets.
Cox is familiar in disturbing roles, and accustomed to the isolation of the prison cell. He was the cinema’s first (chillingly understated) Hannibal Lecter in the 1986 film Manhunter; he was a perfect Hermann Goering in Nuremberg on TV, and last year sat in heartrending solitude on stage in the British Library, reciting The Ballad of Reading Gaol, in the voice of Oscar Wilde, at one of Josephine Hart’s poetry evenings in which venerated actors (for no fee) prove that poetry is best read aloud.
Lolita, a cause célèbre of the 1950s, has become, if anything, even more contentious over the years. British readers used to get their copies of Maurice Girodias’s green Olympia Press editions in Paris. When the young George Weidenfeld dared to publish here in 1959, a year before the Lady Chatterley trial, there were questions in Parliament — Roy Jenkins as Home Secretary leading the defence. Cox was 16, a cinema junkie from infancy, when he saw and loved the 1962 Kubrick film, with James Mason as Humbert. “But by 1997 they had a devil of a time getting the Jeremy Irons remake done, because of the paedophilia thing,” Cox says. “The danger is that it might be viewed as sanctioning Humbert’s behaviour, which clearly it’s not. From a dramatic point of view, Humbert’s attempt at self-justifying is truthful, but contentious. So we’ve had to remove all that.”
Nabokov’s novel has been judiciously honed down and reconstructed to its essence, to last just 90 minutes (in rehearsal that day they had red-pencilled four dense pages), while retaining the narrative’s road-movie structure — as Humbert, exhilarated but aghast at the despoliation of America’s landscape, drives the petulant 14-year-old Lolita from motel to motel. Cox broke off from rehearsals to talk, and to lunch on grilled zucchini and crispy Parma ham, his choice dictated by the fact that he is diabetic and follows the Montignac GI diet (never mixing proteins and carbs) with its promised reward of Brut champagne at the end of the day.
The Nabokov prose style, which Cox describes as “flirtatious”, is extravagant, parodic, allusive, full of Joycean word-games: it “rushes up on the reader like a recreational drug”, as Martin Amis wrote. When Nelson sent his adaptation, Cox hesitated and took advice; then realised that a one-man presentation would be truer to the book, which is essentially an apologia pro vita sua, than the films. “The voice of Humbert is embodied — his head, his mien — telling his story in his prison notebook, when he’s about to have his fatal heart attack.” (As Humbert writes: “My gloomy good looks should be kept in the mind’s eye if my story is to be properly understood.”) “It’s not about Lolita as a flesh and blood entity. It’s Lolita as a memory, and a cathartic experience because it’s a tragedy.”
Cox is never daunted by playing demonic characters; he approaches them with a studious zeal. He had a cult success with L.I.E, a film in which he played Harrigan, a “chicken-hawk” who befriends young boys on the cusp of sexual maturity; Cox invested him with warmth and humanity. As he says, it is left to the creative arts to reveal what informs a sexual deviant’s make-up; the media shies from it. “Humbert is a severe case of arrested development after his thwarted experience at 14 with the first nymphet, Annabel Leigh. That’s his undoing, the groove of the record that he’s stuck in. He asks, ‘Was it then that this rift in my life began, or was my excessive desire for that child only the first evidence of an inherent singularity?’ He needs women with these childlike qualities; the trouble is, what is charming and innocent in a 14-year-old becomes, in a 45-year-old, perverted. For almost Freudian psychological reasons, as soon as he consummates a relationship, and has his nymphet, the idyll is broken ... that’s where the madness and paranoia come from. It’s a bit like Quentin Crisp — I’ve just seen the John Hurt film about Crisp’s later life — and his desire for butch guys. As soon as he has one, it changes.”
Previous Humberts were played as English gents. But Humbert is a European, born in Paris, fond of mock-genteel French phrases such as entre nous soit dit. He is “a salad of racial genes”. So Cox (“100 per cent Celtic”) has adopted a hybrid Anglo- French-Viennese voice based on Michel Lonsdale, the veteran actor who was the French detective in The Day of the Jackal. “I wanted to get this European feel of over-correct vowels, strange misplaced ‘r’s”.
It is good to find Cox (CBE since 2002) back at the National for the first time since 1991. He was a working-class boy, a fifth child whose dad died when he was 9; having toiled at Dundee Rep at 15, he got a scholarship to Lamda, and spent decades serving his time at the RSC, the National and the Royal Court. In an interesting inversion, when Cox was Hannibal Lecter in 1986, Anthony Hopkins was playing Lear at the National; six years later, when Silence of the Lambs was being shot, with Hopkins as Lecter, Cox was at the National, playing Lear. Then, at almost 50, he left for Hollywood and lived in Los Angeles for ten years. “But there’s only so many farmers’ markets you can do,” he says, explaining why he and his second wife Nicole relocated to Manhattan, where their two small sons attend “the hippie public school” in the West Village.
But he says he finds it hard to know where to settle. His North London house is let, so he is staying with his actor son from his first marriage, Alan, lately seen in Frost-Nixon: “Alan is like me; we’re not one of the royal families of the theatre, we go in for the long slog.” His American agent was horrified when Cox came over here this year to record The Spy Who Came in from the Cold for Radio 4 (he was terrific as Alec Leamas, the Richard Burton role) because his hotel expenses at a modest Covent Garden hotel were bigger than his BBC fee. He will shortly appear in the BBC’s remake of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. Restless and workaholic, he says: “I’m more itinerant than I’ve ever been. But I prefer to be a visitor everywhere.”
Scotland constantly calls him. He has just been to the Edinburgh Festival, as patron of director Toby Gough’s venue The World, whose Mercy Madonna of Malawi was a spectacular success. On his 60th birthday three years ago he and Nicole renewed their wedding vows (they had a Las Vegas wedding) at Lord Dundee’s castle in Fife, and wore the kilt. He took all four children, aged 39 down to 7, on a camping holiday to Findhorn. (Well, they set up tents in his sister’s garden in Dundee for one night, then decamped to a caravan.) He’d like to do a Scottish National Theatre version of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkmann, which would have contemporary resonances after the story of Fred “the Shred” Goodwin.
When I remark on his numerous patronages, he says it comes from “a lack of hobbies”, but Who’s Who cites two: keeping fit and tango. He took Nicole tango dancing on their first date. He’s the perfect build for a tango dancer —5ft 7in and stocky — and was taught by one of the great New York tango gurus, Paul Pellicoro. He used to partner Victor Lownes’s wife Marilyn Cole [erstwhile Playboy Playmate] who is a head taller, so his face would be pressed into her famous bosom.
Having narrated the first Lockerbie documentary, The Maltese Double Cross, he remains convinced, along with Dr Jim Swire, that the trial never got to the bottom of some murky “jiggery pokery” . “Dr Swire is a remarkable man. He is so concerned for the American families denied their sense of closure. But there is far more to the story.” He admits that al-Megrahi’s return to Libya was “embarrassing” but “in the law of Scotland, if someone is terminally ill they can be released. Unfortunately people don’t distinguish between justice and revenge. There’s more to this than an eye for an eye. I’m very proud of what the justice minister has done.”
Lolita is at the Lyttelton Theatre for three Mondays, from September 7, at 8pm
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