The dogs are baying for Susannah York. The veteran actress, who made her name onscreen in 1960s romp, Tom Jones, capturing headlines a few years later in a taboo-busting lesbian scene in The Killing Of Sister George, has not long recovered from laryngitis. This caused her to pull out from a couple of performances of Wuthering Heights, which arrives in Edinburgh tonight. Judging by the volume of her pet pooches barking, however, whether their mistress catches a chill or not on their mid-morning constitutional is of little concern to them.
There are many things that concern Ms York, on the other hand, which go way beyond acting and any notions of starriness, despite her BAFTA winning turn in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? in 1970. As a writer, she’s penned two children’s fantasy novels, In Search Of Unicorns and Lark’s Children. She’s also written a companion volume to her one-woman show, The Loves Of Shakespeare’s Women, which she’s toured across the globe, and is currently at work on two screenplays. On top of this, York could be heard in Edinburgh last week as the narrator of Margaret Mellis: A Life In Colour, a documentary film which looks at the life of the artist and previewed at The Cameo cinema prior to its official opening next week.
In Wuthering Heights, York gets to play story-teller some more as Nellie, the maid who, in April de Angelis’ new stage version of Emily Bronte’s windswept bodice-ripper becomes the story’s sole narrator.
“I modelled her on a lovely Scots woman I’ve known since childhood,” York says of her character. “She has this wonderful sense of humour that’s quite ironical, and I decided I’d make up stories about her that weren’t in the book, but which giver her some kind of background. There’s a lone where she says ‘There are worse than Mr Heathcliff,’ so I made up this story that she’d had an unhappy marriage and escaped to work in the house. At the end she says ‘This is my life.’ Cathy and Heathcliff are her surrogate children, and she sort of scolds them, but watches over them as well, and in some way tries to teach them some sense of right and wrong. I suppose Nelly is the conscience of the story, Cathy and Heathcliff are her babies.”
Angelis is a playwright whose original work with companies including Out of Joint and the Royal Court has frequently subverted costume drama expectations. This is in keeping with York’s own serious side, which has come out in various ways in he Loves of Shakespeare’s Women.
“Every time I’ve ever considered doing a one-person show,” York says, “I’ve always thought, no, but Shakespeare’s Women came up when they were talking about dropping Shakespeare from the school curriculum, which sounded appalling. I know from experience that reading Shakespeare can be quite daunting, and even preparing for my show I wasn’t sure what to choose. I wanted to make it accessible, and to show that with a bit of patience, imagination and persistence, how universal he can be. Getting up onstage on my own was initially a very frightening and daunting experience, because I’m quite shy, and I hated the thought that I would have to be myself. I just wanted to do Shakespeare, with nothing of me. But gradually I’ve relaxed into it, so now it’s half Shakespeare and half me.”
Even more frightening than being herself was when York toured the show to Tel Aviv in 2007. A friend and supporter of Israeli dissident Mordechai Vanunu, who revealed his country’s nuclear weapons programme, York dedicated her performance to him. This provoked a mixture of jeers and cheers, and risked causing an international incident.
“I had originally asked Mordechai to come,” York remembers. “But while he’s no longer in prison, he’s virtually under house arrest, and in order to go to the show he would have had to ask the authorities, and would probably have had his request turned down anyway. So what was I to do? It was pretty vocal when I said it, with some cheers and lots of booing. Throughout the rest of the performance there were a lot of seats being slammed down, and at the end I really had to shout the sonnet I finish with for it to be heard. Afterwards I felt a certain anxiety and guilt for the people running the theatre, and I was very much in the dog-house. The manager of the theatre was very shocked, and I meant to say to him that I was sorry, but what could I do? It was a very important statement and I had to do it.”
Susannah York was brought up in Ayrshire, and fell in love with acting the first time she got a laugh playing one of the ugly sisters in Cinderella. It was either take up the stage seriously or else become a goody-goody missionary as she’d briefly considered aged nine.
“To make people laugh or cry,” she says now, “is partly about showing off, but the real reason I became an actor is that ‘m incredibly nosy about people. Human beings for me are the most fascinating things in the world, and the way to find out about them for m is to become them. Then you begin to understand people and their relationships in a way you never even thought of. That’s why I’ve always done the parts that I have.”
York first came to prominence playing Abigail Williams in a television production of The Crucible opposite Sean Connery, and made her big screen debut as Alec Guinness’s daughter in Tunes of Glory. It was Tom Jones that made her, however, and York could have easily jumped into London’s swinging scene and coasted through similar roles. Too smart to be a bimbo or some swinging King’s Road dolly bird, however, her choices didn’t follow the typical career path of other, less thoughtful bright young things of her generation.
York’s choices, up until her cameo as Superman’s mother in the 1970s movie franchise, were more left-field, and, in hindsight, much more interesting than the frothier fare some of her peers waltzed through. Most controversial of her film roles was The Killing Of Sister George, set in the clandestine world of lesbian London. A sex scene with Coral Browne raised eyebrows, and was the Tipping The Velvet of its day. A few years later York starred opposite Alan Bates in Jerzy Skolimowsky’s neglected classic, The Shout.
York’s curiosity clearly extends to Margaret Mellis: A Life In Colour. She describes Mellis as “a marvellous artist, if not necessarily that well known. She was too young for the Bloomsbury group, and she only really became famous in her 60s, when, like a lot of creative people, she had this new lease of life quite late on. She started collecting driftwood and putting them together in what I suppose you’d call constructivist works. What I liked was that she never quite worked out any design of how these things would end up, but would spend weeks putting this piece with that piece until it felt right. She’s this rather splendid eccentric who’s in her 90s now. I also liked the fact that the film’s director decided to just use her words, so what you hear is either her voice or me saying her words.”
Given that York herself is now in her 60s, any suggestions of her own creative renaissance are politely pooh-poohed. Besides which, the dogs are barking again in anticipation of their now overdue walk.
“Oh, no,” she says. “I feel as creative as I ever did.”
Wuthering Heights, Kings Theatre, Edinburgh, Nov 4-8
The Herald, november 4th 2008