Skip to main content

David Harrower and Philip Howard - Pauline Knowles and Knives in Hens

When David Harrower’s debut play, Knives in Hens, first appeared at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 1995, one of the many startling things about a work now regarded as a modern classic was the presence onstage of actress Pauline Knowles. Knowles’ performance as the young woman who finds her life in a repressive and arcane rural community transformed by the power of language gave a complex and mysterious text a depth and an emotional richness that brought the play to remarkable, liberating life.

Knowles continued to bring a quietly fearless magic to everything she appeared in over the next 23 years, right up to her untimely death aged 50 in October last year. This was the case whether in new plays at the Traverse, bringing a wicked sense of fun to comic roles such as The Belles Stratagem or deadpan musicality to artist David Shrigley’s opera, Pass the Spoon. Latterly she unleashed a torrent of fury as Clytemnestra in Zinnie Harris’ astonishing reworking of the Oresteia. It was arguably what Knowles brought to Knives in Hens which in part caused her to make her own leap to become such a magnificent actress.

Knowles’ legacy is acknowledged this month when for one night only a very special staging of Harrower’s play will take place at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. This will be co-produced by Harrower and Philip Howard, director of the play’s original production while artistic director, and who now leads the Pearlfisher company, which is presenting this one-off.

Howard and Harrower’s new look at the play is a fund-raiser for the new Pauline Knowles Scholarship Fund, which aims to support drama students attending the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, where Knowles was a student when it was the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Rather than simply present a standard rehearsed reading, as well as reuniting the Traverse production’s two male actors, Michael Nardone and Lewis Howden, the performance will feature twenty-five of Scotland’s finest actresses taking on the role created by Knowles.

“Pauline was amazing,” says Howard. “Both David and I were completely floored by her death, and this idea has been growing since we first talked about doing something at her funeral. It seemed a very practical response to how we were feeling emotionally, and also to mark the importance of her performance in Knives in Hens and what she brought to the play at the start of her career, as well as the great actress she was later.”

Harrower had never met Knowles before Howard cast her in his play.

“It was a leap into the unknown,” he says. “She had this translucent permeable quality to everything she did. She didn’t intellectualise things, but just put her head down and got on with it, and totally inhabited the character. She was never effusive and wouldn’t flatter you. She was so singular, and had no actorly ways, but she made acting look effortless, so it was just an extension of her personality.”

 Knowles was one of a generation of major actresses to have come through the Traverse during the 1990s alongside a similarly fresh breed of writers that included Harrower, current Lyceum artistic director David Greig, Nicola McCartney and Stephen Greenhorn. Some of these will appear in the performance alongside peers that span the generations.

Crucial to the performance too will be the appearance of contemporary chamber group, Mr McFall’s Chamber, who will perform the score composed by the late Martyn Bennett, who also appeared onstage in the original production.

“Martyn’s music was a crucial part of that production,” says Howard, “so getting Mr McFall’s Chamber to do it is a way of honouring Martyn as well.”

Howard worked with Knowles numerous times at the Traverse, and, like Harrower, acknowledges her wilful singularity in everything she did.

“Pauline had an extraordinarily subtle way of conveying emotion,” he says, “and she had a slightly Presbyterian acting style, which was about never wanting to give you too much, and that was essential for new writing, which is all about the play rather than show-boating.

“Pauline had the ability to tell a story without appearing to do too much. She had this amazing face. On one level she could look blank, but she acted with her eyes and her eyebrows rather than her mouth. That made her delicious to work with, because everything she did was full of nuance, and what was brilliant about Pauline in Knives in Hens is she made you feel you were in the sixteenth century without seeming to do anything.

Harrower only worked with Knowles once more after Knives in Hens, directing her in his play, A Slow Air.

“She had this one expression that would terrify me,” he remembers. “If you gave her a note, this eyebrow would go up and she’d just look at you, and she didn’t have to say anything.”

It was this steeliness both on and off stage that made Knowles so riveting to watch.

“She had a quiet determination, a rigour and patience,” Howard remembers. “She was very steadfast, but she was no saint. She didn’t suffer fools gladly. If you ever gave Pauline a duff note, that eyebrow told you what an idiot you were.”

While one can only speculate on what might have happened next for Knowles, it was clear she was an actress in her prime.

“You play this game,” says Harrower, “where you think, if Pauline hadn’t died, what would she have gone on to do? I think she would’ve become this immense figure in Scottish theatre, and that makes her loss all the more painful. She touched a lot of people’s lives, and it’s important to honour that.”

Knives in Hens will be performed at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh on June 11, with all proceeds going to the Pauline Knowles Scholarship Fund at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

The Herald, June 1st 2019.


ends

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Losing Touch With My Mind - Psychedelia in Britain 1986-1990

DISC 1 1. THE STONE ROSES   -  Don’t Stop 2. SPACEMEN 3   -  Losing Touch With My Mind (Demo) 3. THE MODERN ART   -  Mind Train 4. 14 ICED BEARS   -  Mother Sleep 5. RED CHAIR FADEAWAY  -  Myra 6. BIFF BANG POW!   -  Five Minutes In The Life Of Greenwood Goulding 7. THE STAIRS  -  I Remember A Day 8. THE PRISONERS  -  In From The Cold 9. THE TELESCOPES   -  Everso 10. THE SEERS   -  Psych Out 11. MAGIC MUSHROOM BAND  -  You Can Be My L-S-D 12. THE HONEY SMUGGLERS  - Smokey Ice-Cream 13. THE MOONFLOWERS  -  We Dig Your Earth 14. THE SUGAR BATTLE   -  Colliding Minds 15. GOL GAPPAS   -  Albert Parker 16. PAUL ROLAND  -  In The Opium Den 17. THE THANES  -  Days Go Slowly By 18. THEE HYPNOTICS   -  Justice In Freedom (12" Version) 1. THE STONE ROSES    Don’t Stop ( Silvertone   ORE   1989) The trip didn’t quite start here for what sounds like Waterfall played backwards on The Stone Roses’ era-defining eponymous debut album, but it sounds

Big Gold Dreams – A Story of Scottish Independent Music 1977-1989

Disc 1 1. THE REZILLOS (My Baby Does) Good Sculptures (12/77)  2. THE EXILE Hooked On You (8/77) 3. DRIVE Jerkin’ (8/77) 4. VALVES Robot Love (9/77) 5. P.V.C. 2 Put You In The Picture (10/77) 6. JOHNNY & THE SELF ABUSERS Dead Vandals (11/77) 7. BEE BEE CEE You Gotta Know Girl (11/77) 8. SUBS Gimme Your Heart (2/78) 9. SKIDS Reasons (No Bad NB 1, 4/78) 10. FINGERPRINTZ Dancing With Myself (1/79)  11. THE ZIPS Take Me Down (4/79) 12. ANOTHER PRETTY FACE All The Boys Love Carrie (5/79)  13. VISITORS Electric Heat (5/79) 14. JOLT See Saw (6/79) 15. SIMPLE MINDS Chelsea Girl (6/79) 16. SHAKE Culture Shock (7/79) 17. HEADBOYS The Shape Of Things To Come (7/79) 18. FIRE EXIT Time Wall (8/79) 19. FREEZE Paranoia (9/79) 20. FAKES Sylvia Clarke (9/79) 21. TPI She’s Too Clever For Me (10/79) 22. FUN 4 Singing In The Showers (11/79) 23. FLOWERS Confessions (12/79) 24. TV21 Playing With Fire (4/80) 25. ALEX FERGUSSON Stay With Me Tonight (1980) 1. THE REZILL

Edinburgh Rocks – The Capital's Music Scene in the 1950s and Early 1960s

Edinburgh has always been a vintage city. Yet, for youngsters growing up in the shadow of World War Two as well as a pervading air of tight-lipped Calvinism, they were dreich times indeed. The founding of the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947 and the subsequent Fringe it spawned may have livened up the city for a couple of weeks in August as long as you were fans of theatre, opera and classical music, but the pubs still shut early, and on Sundays weren't open at all. But Edinburgh too has always had a flipside beyond such official channels, and, in a twitch-hipped expression of the sort of cultural duality Robert Louis Stevenson recognised in his novel, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a vibrant dance-hall scene grew up across the city. Audiences flocked to emporiums such as the Cavendish in Tollcross, the Eldorado in Leith, The Plaza in Morningside and, most glamorous of all due to its revolving stage, the Palais in Fountainbridge. Here the likes of Joe Loss and Ted Heath broug