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Pauline Knowles - The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

When Pauline Knowles was cast as the White Witch in the Royal Lyceum Theatre's Christmas production of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, which opened at the weekend, she wasn't sure what to make of her character. In a career that has seen the Edinburgh-born actress play such roles as Chris Guthrie in Sunset Song as well as a plethora of new plays including David Harrower's Knives in Hens, it was the first time she would be playing such an out and out villain.

Given the intelligence, depth and quiet steeliness Knowles has consistently brought to her work, her approach was never going to be a one-dimensional affair.

“It's interesting,” she says, taking a break from technical rehearsals which have included her seeing the White Witch's wand light up for the first time.,“because I've had to try and think of her as someone who isn't a human being. All of the other creatures in it are beavers and what have you, but she's completely different. She's someone who's half Jinn, which is this race who come from a world separate from Narnia, and half giant. But she looks like a human being, and she walks like a human being, and that can be very disguising.

“The other thing as well is to try and not let her have any kind of human feelings, and that's quite difficult. Being cool and cold works fine for a few minutes, but it can get quite dull after that, so you have to try and colour her in somehow and make that work onstage. It's easy to play her ice-cool, but later on when things begin to disintegrate and she becomes more fearful, that's a more interesting journey.”

Humanity of various shades has been apparent in all of Knowles' roles of late. Over twelve months that she describes as “the busiest I've ever had. It's only taken me twenty-six years,” Knowles has played nineteenth century French dancer Jane Avril in Crazy Jane, Nicola McCartney's play for the Birds of Paradise company, and various women based around a Borders-based knitting community in Stellar Quines' production of Sylvia Dow's play, Threads. Inbetween, Knowles played a depressed woman living in a dystopian high-rise in Zinnie and John Harris' short opera, The Garden, and a furiously erotic version of Lot's wife on the eve of leaving Sodom in Howard Barker's play, Lot and His God, at the Citizens Theatre.

“The character in The Garden was depressed,” Knowles says when asked if there was a thread of coolness running through her work, “so there was more a withering there than a coolness. There was a surrender to the situation, so there was a deadness, maybe.”

Of the characters in Lot and His God, Knowles points out that “These people live by their intellect. They don't feel things, but spend all their time talking about them, so there's this fascinating disconnect from feelings.”

With both Threads and The Garden finding Knowles combining acting with singing, it was a pleasure to hear a voice previously put centre-stage several years ago in the Lyceum's production of The Man of La Mancha, then again in visual artist David Shrigley's madcap opera, Pass The Spoon.

“I would absolutely love to do more of that,” she says of singing onstage. “Some of my earliest jobs were with Wildcat, and I did loads of singing. Then people stopped singing, and it's only just coming back. Unfortunately, in the interim my voice has probably dropped a couple of octaves.”

Born and raised in Edinburgh, Knowles first fell under the spell of the stage while a pupil at Holyrood High School. Head of the school's drama department was Frances Paterson, who during her tenure at Holyrood was a great supporter of the Herald's Young Critics scheme run in association with Edinburgh International Festival, and was subsequently awarded a Herald Angel Award for her contribution to the programme.

“She was absolutely brilliant,” says Knowles. “One teacher is all it takes. Frances is a force of nature, and if it wasn't for her I wouldn't be here doing what I do now.”

Knowles initially went to Stirling University to study English and psychology.

“Put those two things together,” she says, “and you've got a play.”

While she enjoyed her first year, she realised acting was really what she wanted to do.

“I just started to ask myself what was I waiting for,” she says, “and why was I messing about. But then, perhaps I'd needed that time away to think about it.”

Knowles' musical theatre experience dates back to her drama school days in Glasgow, when an appearance in a production of Melvyn Bragg's The Hired Man got her an agent. Early appearances included a production of Brecht's Don Juan which was overseen by David McVicar for the future international opera director's Pen Name company.

In the audience for the Edinburgh dates of the show was writer, director and founder of the7:84 company, John McGrath, who signed Knowles up to appear in John Brown's Body, his epic stage history of the industrial working class in Scotland. Produced by Wildcat, the show was staged at Tramway as part of Glasgow's year as City of Culture in 1990.

“That was the first job I was paid for,” Knowles says. “It was this enormous thing where I met all these wonderful people, like Dave Anderson, David MacLennan and George Drennan, who I'd end up working with again.

Following a string of shows with Wildcat and 7:84, Knowles was cast as Chris Guthrie in Alistair Corning’s stage version of Lewis Grassing Gibbons' novel, Sunset Song. T.A.G., production of Corning’s dramatisation led him to adapt the other two books of Grassic Gibbon's A Scots Quair trilogy, culminating in a major staging of all three plays at Edinburgh International Festival.

“That went stratospheric,” Knowles remembers. “It was the first time it had been done onstage, and started as a small touring show. We did it at the Tron in Glasgow, and Vivien Heilbron, who'd played Chris Guthrie on the telly, came to see it, so that was pretty nerve-wracking.”

Knowles went on to work extensively at the Traverse Theatre, where Philip Howard's decade-long reign as artistic director was just beginning. When Howard gave Knowles a script to read by an unknown writer called David Harrower, it initially confused her.

“I couldn't make head nor tail of it,” Knowles says of Knives in Hens, Harrower's still remarkable debut in which she played a young woman who slowly discovers the language of life. Written in a clipped, arcane demotic, “speaking it out loud is a very different experience to just reading it to yourself. It's a play about words and language, and as soon as you speak the lines it resonates and becomes something wonderful.”

In the twenty years since, Knowles has notched up a body of work which has been as understated as it is impeccable.

“I really love new writing,” she says when asked where her aspirations lie, “There's no classical roles that I aspire to, and the roles I do aspire to play haven't been written yet, but I get excited by new writing, and I like what I do.

“At the start of the year I was dancing at the Moulin Rouge in Crazy Jane, and at the end I've been doing Scottish step dancing in Threads. What's not to love? Theatre is what makes us tick. Even something as apparently frothy as The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, it's about what makes us tick, and who we are as human beings.”

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh until January 3.
www.lyceum.org.uk

The Herald, December 1st 2015

ends

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