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Irene Macdougall - Meeting Martha

Irene Macdougall is clearly an actor in her prime. Ten years as part of Dundee Rep’s ensemble company have confirmed this most intelligent of performers status in roles such as ageing starlet Alexandra del Lago in Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth and predatory older woman Mrs Robinson in the stage version of The Graduate. That both these stand-out roles came in contemporary American classics requiring gravitas and fearlessness in being shown in such an unflattering light may well have something to how Macdougall has been cast in the Rep’s new production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

In this blistering piece of emotional warfare first performed in 1962, Macdougall plays Martha, the childless, drink-sodden spouse of worn-out university lecturer George. When the pair invite a younger, still idealistic couple back to their apartment, with a brand new audience to play up to, Martha and George’s domestic arena becomes increasingly savage as they spar mercilessly in what is clearly an ongoing war of attrition. For an actor, tackling Martha’s relentless histrionics sounds like an exhausting prospect.

“She’s a yob,” Macdougall observes of Martha. “She’s a hooligan in her own home. She’s like a child who wants things. She wants a response, she wants love, she wants something in her life. But she doesn’t have any of that, so she fights for it. She shouts, she cries, anything she has to do to try and get these things. This is very much a play of it’s time, and there’s no getting away from that. Martha is a woman who doesn’t have anything to do, but who is a very clever woman who isn’t appreciated. She’s the last of that generation, really, and she’s lost, lonely angry and futile. I feel for her, actually. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t incredibly ugly. At one point she says that George made the mistake of loving her, and is now being punished for it. Through lines like that I have to take the risk of making her as ugly as she gets, then go for moments when she’s not. She’s twisted, and there’s something quite nice about just letting rip at times, but it has to be controlled. It’s about finding the games she’s playing, an not being afraid to be ugly.”

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is probably best known from Mike Nichols’ 1966 film version. Nichols’ debut as a director, it arrived onscreen a year before he cast Ann Bancroft as Mrs Robinson in The Graduate. For Virginia Woolf, Nichols had Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton square up to each other as Martha and George. It was a smart move. Here was a real-life couple even more volatile than the characters they were playing and all too used to tearing chunks out of each other. Such defining images, however, don’t appear to have fazed Macdougall in any way.

“I’m not Elizabeth Taylor,” she says bluntly, “and Robert (Paterson, who plays George in Dundee’s production) isn’t Richard Burton, and at the end of the day you can only do your own show. I seem to have played a few iconic roles. Mrs Robinson was the same. I don’t know if you can let the film go completely, but they can exist side by side.”

Such practical wisdom has been acquired through experience. By the time she arrived in Dundee, Macdougall was already a seasoned performer, who, though born in Scotland, found herself working so much here while technically still living in London after drama school that she could no longer not call it home. Seasons at Pitlochry, Perth and Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre – then run by Ian Wooldridge – grounded Macdougall in a series of classical roles her looks and voice lent themselves to naturally following a peripatetic childhood.

“We moved around a lot when I was young,” Macdougall remembers, “so I picked up lots of different accents, probably because I was searching for friendship or something. Then later on I was given speech lessons, in which I had to learn speeches from Shakespeare. At my next school I appeared in a school play, then the final push to become an actor was probably when my parents said no. I was a contrary little sod.”

At the Lyceum, Macdougall played Ophelia, Viola and other female characters she describes as “murky.” A turning point for Macdougall came when she appeared in the Traverse Theatre’s production of Russian writer Alexander Gelman’s play, A Man With Connections in 1988. Significantly, perhaps, was the presence of Dominic Hill, now in charge of The Traverse following his joint artistic directorship of Dundee with James Brining, as trainee assistant director.

“I’d not long become thirty,” says Macdougall, “and it was about crossing a rubicon from your ingénue twenties into your thirties. I suspect I’d been getting less dramatic roles, and A Man With Connections restored my faith in theatre. We got to explore the work in a different way to what we were used to. It totally opened my eyes, and made me work less from my head.”

Macdougall had a similar experience a couple of years later, when she appeared alongside a young Dougray Scott in The Traverse’s UK premiere of Canadian playwright Brad Fraser’s Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love. Again, Macdougall uses the word “murky” to explain what interested her about the play, which she remembers as an “extraordinary experience.”

“At the time,” she says, “didn’t know who I was or where I was going with my career.”

And so, eventually, to Dundee Rep, and the ensemble company set up by then artistic director Hamish Glen. Macdougall joined, she says, because all too often actors aren’t allowed to practice their craft without intermittent hiatus’ preventing them from developing.

“I’ve been one of the lucky ones,” says Macdougall, with more than forty Dundee productions under her belt, “but that was something I thought long before I joined the ensemble, and I think I’m a better actor now than I was ten years ago. If I hadn’t been part of the ensemble, I’m not sure that would be the case. I remember the moment we really became an ensemble, which was when we did Cabaret at the end of the first season. That really was an iconic moment when everything gelled together. One of the great things about being part of the ensemble as well is watching the best work from other people. I’m not saying you get that all the time, because obviously there still had to be an alchemy, but when you see it, it’s a glorious feeling.”

Macdougall has no plans to leave Dundee in the near future, and as an actor she’s clearly still interested in fresh challenges.

“If you can’t feed what you do,” she says, “then there’s no point in doing it, and there’s only so many posh Edinburgh ladies you can play. Although,” she muses, “I haven’t played Jean Brodie. But then, she’s murky as well. Ach!” Macdougall concludes, resigned to her fate, “We’re all murky.”

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Dundee Rep, February 28-March 21
www.dundeereptheatre.co.uk

The Herald, February 24th 2009

ends

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