When the darkly lysergic fantasia of Anthony Neilson’s play, The Wonderful World Of Dissocia was the homegrown hit of the Edinburgh International Festival in 2004, among its larger-than-life ensemble, one actor stood out. In the central role of Lisa, the young woman who embarks on an uproarious if ultimately self-destructive voyage into her troubled imagination, Christine Entwisle captured her creation’s topsy-turvy mood-swings with an unfettered display of joie de vivre and vulnerability. It was a performance praised unilaterally, which won a Herald Angel Award, and which even casual observers might reasonably have expected such a standout turn to have led to bigger things.
As it is, remarkably, and, as far as some members of the theatre industry responsible for such decisions are concerned, quite shamefully, as she prepares to play Lisa again for The National Theatre Of Scotland’s major revival, which opens at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre next week, Entwisle hasn’t acted on a stage since. Not that she’s been idle, mind. Her comedy duo, WonderHorse, which she semi-disparigingly calls “The Sex Pistols of female comedy acts,” is still doing the underground cabaret circuit. This despite the indignity of being outed on another newspaper’s short-lived and little mourned ‘Page Of Shame’ a few Edinburgh Fringes back following a show called We’re Gonna’ Bugger You. If the title isn’t self-explanatory enough, please consider the relationship between the carrots and cuddly bunny rabbits involved.
Then there’s the sound installation she was commissioned to make in a Cumbrian graveyard. Not to mention the feature film she’s developing about a disaffected Goth called Trevor. There are play-scripts too, and short films. One of these, about a woman who becomes obsessed with Michael Parkinson, has already been filmed. In the evenings following her rehearsals for Dissocia, Entwisle cycles to the Glasgow flat she currently calls home to try and finish editing it.
As wonderfully self-generated and autonomous as such activity may be, however, in two years, nobody’s actually given Entwisle a job. Which is enough, one suspects, to drive a woman, well, mad, actually.
“It’s a very bizarre existential experience,” is how Entwisle somewhat dryly rationalises it.
Returning to a project that was a high-profile success story is always an odd experience, especially for an actress who effectively helped to create a brand new character. Which may explain why Entwisle is initially guarded about going back to something that’s now to some extent already defined.
“We are slightly concerned,” she says, “because it went so well last time, and because we were so the underdogs, when everybody likes it so much, you worry that it’s grown in peoples memories, and it’s never going to live up to it. So that’s a slight pressure, but to be honest I wondered what work we were going to be doing on it. As it turns out, there’s lots to do. Because we had so little time last time, we went as far as we could, and did it by the skin of our teeth. The luxury we’ve got now is to look at scenes we think we know and see if we actually do or not. What’s happening now is characters are being seductive as well as just weird.”
Weird is one way of explaining Lisa’s world, which, as she lurches from one dark place to another, puts Entwisle, onstage throughout, through an emotional wringer she is quick to demystify.
“You can either act or you can’t,” she says bluntly, “and you can either make something believable or not, and it’s kind of as simple as that. I do get genuinely upset, and I do cry real tears, but it is just acting. I really detest that over-preciousness some actors can have, even though I understand why they might want to mythologise it. But, for me, at the end of the night, I know that I’ve been pretending. I don’t feel mad, but I do definitely feel like I’ve been on a journey that hasn’t been that pleasant.”
As is usual with Neilson’s work, The Wonderful World Of Dissocia was written in the rehearsal room, with actors building up their parts as they went. For all involved, this is an enormous risk, with the potential for disaster higher than more conventionally realised plays. Where such an understandably highly-charged environment might make for tantrums all round, however, Entwisle maintains that “All the bust-ups me and Anthony have had, we’ve had them already. We have argued about many many things, and it’s a testimony to him that he keeps employing me. We disagree about lots of stuff, because we come from very different theatre backgrounds, but we share a sense of the ridiculous and a very dark humour, and that helps. Having done a play with him once, it’s never as bad as that again. Some people,” she says, as if to illustrate their shared gallows humour, “say that about child-birth.”
Entwisle’s involvement in The Wonderful World Of Dissocia dates back to a chance meeting with Neilson at the wake of mutual friend Jeff Nuttall, the poet, artist, actor and one of the English avant-garde’s unsung heroes. Nuttall had appeared alongside Entwisle in a radio play of Neilson’s, ????, and Entwisle had worked with The People Show, the still active theatre collective Nuttall had founded in the 1960s. Given Nuttall’s anarchic leanings towards happenings, performance art and freeform event-making, the symbiosis he provided between Neilson and Entwisle was already perfect. Neilson mentioned he was working on a project he was maybe, just maybe bearing Entwisle in mind for. As Entwisle knew only too well from previous collaborations on ???, and ????, Neilson being Neilson, things would undoubtedly be left until the last minute.
“I remember standing on the steps trying not to bite his hand off,” she recalls. “He said he’d maybe give me a ring, but that, you know, it probably wasn’t up my street.”
Sure enough, Entwisle heard nothing until the week before rehearsals were due to start. Entwisle has grown used to Neilson’s seemingly random peccadillos, ever since the bumped into each other in Cardiff while working on separate projects more than 15 years go. From this, Entwisle acted in a short film for Channel Four. Written by Neilson, Deeper Still was about ????, and was an early example of his willingness to break out of conventional realism. In 1994, Entwisle enlisted Neilson’s services as director for a self-penned solo Edinburgh Fringe show. Despite the production being a “not entirely harmonious” experience, it was the The Woman In The Attic’s troubled protagonist, Entwisle suggests, that may have got her cast in Dissocia.
“He knows I can do mad,” she deadpans, “so that probably helps.”
Entwisle was later asked to appear in The Censor and The Year Of The Family, two small-scale plays that defined Neilson’s early work as something of a provocateur, but was unable to do them due to other commitments. It was 2002 before the pair worked together again, at The Drum Theatre in Plymouth, on Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats Of Loneliness.
“That, for me,” she says now, “was the fire and brimstone rehearsal period. I stormed out, we had a shouting match in front of everybody. Basically it’s because we really love and respect each other, and occasionally it kicked off. Then I went away and directed a couple of things, and realised the weight of responsibility you have as a director, so my attitude changed, and since then,” she touches wood, “it’s been fine.”
Born and brought up in working class Cumbria, and what she calls “weaned on telly,” Entwisle wanted to act from an early age. With her Grandad a miner and her mum and dad working in the offices of Sellafield nuclear power plant, her family, however, had other plans. She and her sister were the first generation with any opportunity of higher education, and Entwisle had been earmarked for a solid, secure future as a doctor or a solicitor. As Entwisle puts it, it was as if they were pointing out that generations of hard work had gone into getting her where she was. Now it was time to get a decent job. For a shy girl not, as Entwisle puts it, “always fond of herself,” however, the prospect of becoming someone else held far more appeal.
“I think I inherited from my mother this tendency to emote with films,” says Entwisle. “We used to sit there watching the afternoon matinees, and if there were sad bits she’d cry and be doing all the faces, and I ended up doing the same thing. I liked doing accents and mimicking people, and I suppose, because my sister was so brilliant academically, I wanted something I could be good at on my own.”
Yet, despite such leanings, Entwisle had already turned down her first stage role – playing Buttons in a Sunday School panto – in favour of a less attention-seeking part as a sprig of mistletoe, an unconscious piece of magical-realist casting that could easily have made an appearance in Dissocia. With drama school being such a foreign country to her parents, despite stints in Cumberland Youth Theatre and The National Youth Theatre, Entwisle compromised, and took a more secure looking performance arts degree instead.
When she started acting for real, unlike her peers, Entwisle was encouraged to make her own work. In a pique of reckless precocity, she put on a show in London. Slip A Trip was a look at Cinderella 10 years on, when the prince has long since lost his charm. Arriving on the scene at much the same time as the real life fairy story between Charles and Di was in serious meltdown, Slipper Trips did rather well. Especially as it went on in August, when the rest of the world was in Edinburgh. Whatever, by accident or design, at just 22 years old, Entwisle had accidentally set a benchmark for herself.
Entwisle went on to work with The People Show, the longest-serving example of British avant-garde theatre, and Polish-influenced female-driven company, Scarlet Theatre.
“Once you’re in The People Show,” she says, “you’re family. But if someone had come along and asked me to do Macbeth at the Royal Shakespeare Company I’d have jumped at it.”
While Entwisle insists she didn’t go out of her way to chase after more left-field work, one suspects the attraction was mutual, and admits that “it’s home.” For all she bemoans life in the back of a van en route to one or two-night stands in freezing cold arts centres rather than specialist theatres, her sole experience of a commercial west end show, on a play called Vassa, puts her protests into perspective.
“It was so dull I forgot to come on twice,” she admits. “My part was really small and I was in the green room talking about hairdressing or something, because it was more interesting than what was going on onstage. Honestly, I could not wait to be shot of it and run back into the comforting arms of experimental theatre.”
Bear in mind that Vassa was written by Russian novelist Maxim Gorky, hardly a 19th century Andrew Lloyd-Webber, and Entwisle’s wilfully individualistic streak can seem to border on the perverse, even though she claims to be ““Crucially and fatefully ambitious.”
Other than Vassa, Entwisle’s nearest brush with the mainstream came with a regular part in Attachments, the short-lived TV drama she describes as “a dot com version of This Life.”
Entwisle’s parents were over the moon. Here, finally, in living colour, was validation for their daughter’s oddly chosen career path. Extended family duly informed, initial pride recoiled when Entwisle informed them that she was playing a lesbian. With sex scenes. In an S&M club. This time, her Mam didn’t need to watch anything to emote.
Familial reaction to her work is clearly still important to Entwisle. She wouldn’t let them see Dissocia last time round, but this time is relenting when the show tours to London’s Royal Court Theatre. As long, that is, there’s a friend sitting in which she can focus on to help ease her discomfort. After all, “I’m anally raped by a goat. There’s lots of swearing and crying. It’s not right, putting your parents through something like that.”
Lisa, she says, is the one part she’s played that she’s most proud of. So far, anyway. She remembers another one, in a version of Woyzeck, in which she was a character with special needs.
“Obviously,” she says, “all the characters I play are bit cracked or have got special needs. I suppose something I can get my teeth into is what I enjoy the best.”
Despite, or possibly because of this, Entwisle “adores” comedy. Hence, one supposes, Wonderhorse. “It’s my favourite thing,” she says, citing her Cumbrian upbringing as shaping a deadpan sense of humour that’s as rooted in flat-cap social clubs as much as it is with Dadaist confrontationalism. With such a spirit of populist surrealism ingrained on such a wilfully singular, anarchist heart and soul, it’s not hard to see what led Entwisle to The People Show, to Jeff Nuttall, and, yes, to Anthony Neilson. There’s a clear lineage there that’s about more than just making theatre, but is as much about having fun as it is about causing trouble. As well as kindred spirits, Entwisle and Neilson have, by a series of not always happy accidents, become generational torch-bearers of this form of creative mayhem, and Dissocia its calling card.
Entwisle is the first to admit, however, that she’s unable to settle on any one thing. Another project, on top of the assorted films, plays and installations, is a series of comedy lectures with WonderHorse, titled The Olden Days. As a possible accompaniment, The Old Ones Are The Best will be a series of videos of old people telling their favourite joke. Old people have fascinated Entwisle, ever since she visited her Uncle Ronny in a home.
“They all just sit there and watch the telly,” she observes, “and it’s such a travesty. But I’d bet they’d love someone to go in there with a camera, spend half a day talking to them, and just shine a light on them.”
A few days earlier, down at her local market in Cumbria, Entwisle was stopped by a tiny old woman with a bad leg. After she’d talked about her bad fall and enthused about how she went to Blackpool every year, she let slip how, when she was younger, her mother wouldn’t let her out of the house, or even the car. Even worse, she’d been told that she was brain-damaged, and only came out of the house once her mother died. Entwisle would love to write her story, but wrestles with the writer’s dilemma of whether she’s being exploitative or not. In the meantime, she’s sent her a box of chocolates, and plans to send the woman a postcard from every town Dissocia tours to.
For all her other activities, you get the impression that Entwisle would rather not have to deal with the head-scratching existential puzzles she mentioned earlier. Ultimately, she’d like to be, not liked, but listened to, taken seriously. Her heroine is American performance artist, indie film maker and god-daughter of 1960s acid guru, Timothy Leary, Miranda July, whose film, You And Me And Everyone We Know sums up for Entwisle the loneliness of the long distance actress.
“She’s really in charge of her own material,” Entwisle observes, “which sounds incredibly egotistical, but when you do theatre, there are no footsteps, whereas, if you film something or write something, you’ve got this thing, you’ve made footsteps, and you can prove it was there. That’s becoming more important to me. It’s like, with Dissocia the first time, it’s as if the sand blew over it and left nothing.”
If the stage’s cuddlier, cosier and altogether more secure wing did come calling, though, what, one wonders, would be her ideal part?
“Lady Macbeth,” Entwisle blurts out, like it’s something she’s been waiting to be asked forever. It would be mad not to.
The Wonderful World Of Dissocia, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, Previews February 28-March 1, then runs from March 2-10, then tours
The Herald, February 27th 2007