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Alison Peebles - Happy Days

Alison Peebles is a woman in control. This despite the fact that she’s about to be spending every night for the next few weeks buried first to her waist, then her neck, in sand when she plays Winnie, the heroine of Samuel Beckett’s classic play, Happy Days, in Dundee Rep’s new production.

The last time Peebles was onstage was in John Mortimer’s short play, Lie Down Comic, which formed part of Oran Mor’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint season of lunchtime theatre. Peebles played a bed-bound cancer victim. Both parts suggest that Peebles, who was diagnosed with MS, several years ago, is only good these days for such static parts. This most singular of actresses, however, begs to differ.

“I’m not going to make a habit of it,” Peebles says on a morning off in a Glasgow east end cafe. “I was cautious about doing Lie Down Comic, because I’d already decided to do Happy Days, and I don’t want people to start thinking that all I do is play ill people or people stuck. One of my raison d’etres as well is for people to perceive me in a way that, whether I have to use a stick or what, that I can still act onstage or on television even with having a problem with mobility.”

Peebles, lets not forget, is a striking and formidable actress, consistently cast as powerful women. At The Tron she appeared as Lady Macbeth opposite Iain Glen, played the title role in The Traverse production of John Clifford’s Ines de Castro, and has worked on London’s South Bank with The National Theatre, at The Young Vic and with pretty much every home-grown theatre company that’s mattered.

Peebles also co-founded, with Gerry Mulgrew and Robert Pickavance, Communicado Theatre Company, for whom she played Elizabeth in Liz Lochead’s Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off. More recently, Peebles turned her hand to directing, first on film with two shorts for the Newfoundland and Tartan Shorts schemes followed by her acclaimed debut feature, Afterlife. By then, Peebles had already founded another theatre company, V.Amp, which to date has produced Burning Bright, and a major revival of Chris Hannan’s Shining Souls. She also directed the Aberdeen leg of the National Theatre Of Scotland’s inaugural Home project.

On top of all this, Peebles is attempting – funding permitting - to produce a new V.Amp piece. Titled SM:MS, it concerns itself with a dominatrix who, like Peebles, contracts MS. What was that again about control?

“I became interested in this woman who has power,” Peebles explains in a way that could easily be just as much about acting. “She does a job where she can be dominant and is about sexuality, and has this image of being strong. But her power is taken away from her because of her condition. I was also interested in ageing and how you’re perceived from a sexual point of view, and about how as a woman, the older you get, the more invisible you become. There were all these different issues in it, about bondage, and looking at it in terms of disability, and how you can be bound and tied or enclosed, and how you don’t have control. It’s her job to be in control of something where pain is pleasure for other people. To be in a position where you no longer have control over that changes things.”

Having been turned down for funding by the Scottish Arts Council, however, SM:MS’s future is itself tied. Happy Days, then, will see Peebles return to acting with a role she describes as being “like the twelve houses of Hercules,” with Winnie another metaphor for female bondage.

“She’s completely stuck in her ways,” Peebles admits. “She’s stuck with this relationship with this man who never speaks to her, but she has this incredibly survival instinct, and an amazing optimism. So whenever she nearly breaks down, she always brings herself up, and has this amazing resilience. If she asks Willy a question and he doesn’t respond, she makes the best of it all the time. By the end she’s at the end of her tether. She looks terrible. She’s burnt. She’s got sores all over her. She looks awful.”

Growing up in an environment where theatre was “a foreign country,” Peebles only ever wanted to be an artist. After graduating, Peebles worked as a community artist at Edinburgh’s then thriving Theatre Workshop. It was here she first met Mulgrew, and the first seeds for Communicado were planted, with Peebles slowly inching her way towards acting.

“I was born in the Chinese year of The Snake,” she says, “so it was a very snake-like way to do it.”

Directing came much later. Peebles thought that “it was what other people did, But I always had images, visions and ideas. I suppose the thing about interpretation is that you can sometimes see how things might develop. I do deal in visual images. It’s about composition onstage, the same as with a painting. But it also goes very much hand in hand with wanting a sense of truth onstage. I really believe it has to be about truth, whether that’s high comedy or farce or hyper-realism or something very bizarre. I just think there has to be some kind of connection. I don’t like superficiality.”

With several projects in the pipeline, Peebles’ return to the stage doesn’t mean she’s stopped directing. As well as attempting to get SM:MS onstage, there are other film and theatre possibilities, which, given the peccadilloes of her chosen industry, are currently, like Winnie, stuck.

This is frustrating for Peebles, especially as “I don’t want people to think I’m a one trick pony. It’s been great acting again,” she says. “I’ve a mountain to climb with Winnie. But there’s still that danger that people see me stuck up to the waist and think that’s all I can do. Maybe,” she muses, “I need to do an action film on crutches.”

Happy Days, Dundee Rep, Previews May 26, 29, 30, then runs until June9
www.dundeereptheatre.co.uk/

http://www.dundeereptheatre.co.uk/

The Herald, May 21st 2007
ends

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