In Topsy-Turvy, Mike Leigh's award-winning, highly-authentic investigation into the lives of Gilbert & Sullivan and the D'Oyly Carte company circa 1885, I play the Savoy choreographer. The character was based on the real life of John D'Auban, an eccentric performer and consummate theatrical. Stepping into his shoes was an immensely pleasurable but physically challenging experience. D'Auban was known in his day as a grotesque pantomimic dancer, a music-hall artist. and a choreographer of ballet, of burlesques, and of practically all Gilbert & Sullivan's works. He also taught dance and invented the "star-trap", a rather dangerous piece of stage machinery.
In the six months lIn the six months leading up to filming, I studied ballet, Irish dancing, and (for four hours a day) eccentric dance with choreographer Fran Jaynes. Research on the Internet unearthed an extensive thesis about D'Auban, which revealed where he was born, lived, got married, died and was buried. I visited all these locales. Along with the entire company of actors researching their own roles, I delved deeply into the business of living day-to-day in Victorian London. What trams or buses did one travel on? Where did one eat? What sorts of street food existed, what were the buzzwords of the day? Etiquette, the social and political scene. Nothing that pertained to the lives of these characters was left unresearched, all so that when the actors came together "in character" they had so much ballast to sustain the imagination and keep them completely submerged in the moment, able to improvise freely for hours.
The most memorable times were when we came together to improvise the D'Oyly Carte Company "rehearsal" scenes. The Savoy Theatre (created by reshaping Richmond Theatre) was bustling with sometimes 60 or 70 actors wandering around in character, carrying out their daily business in full Victorian garb. It was extraordinary hurrying to "rehearsal", greeting members of the chorus, stage managers, principal actors such as Grossman and Temple, and then Gilbert himself would stride in and the rehearsal would commence. D'Auban would inevitably be late, having dashed from some pantomime or dance class, arriving like a whirling dervish. He was a very busy man. Egos would clash, tempers flare, life and death decisions about a particular gesture or dance step were thrashed out. Anyone walking in off the street witnessing these moments would honestly have believed they had traveled in time - it was that potent.
The scene that encapsulates D'Auban's spirit in the film revolves around a rehearsal for n which Gilbert has brought in three genuine Japanese women in an attempt to authenticate the Three Little Maids choreography that D'Auban had lashed together from stock "oriental" pantomime steps. Where Gilbert wants reality, D'Auban wants comedy. It is wonderfully reminiscent of the eternal battle of "art" versus "bums on seats." D'Auban's parting shot is "I haven't laughed so much since my tights caught fire in Harlequin Meets Itchity Witch and the Snitch. -- Andy Serkis, December 2000