The monster in the room is no match for Pauline Lockhart. Don’t be fooled by appearances as Lockhart squares up to giant puppets in Strange Tales, a new compendium of Chinese ghost stories brought to life for the festive season by site-specific auteurs Grid iron in co-production with the Traverse Theatre. The Glasgow-born actor may be small in stature, but as co-writer and co-director of the show, she takes no prisoners. As a fourth degree martial arts black belt, neither is Lockhart someone you’d mess with at any level.
It was Lockhart’s experience with martial arts that first made her look at the work of Qing dynasty writer Pu Songling contained in his collection of almost 500 pieces of work, translated as Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. While nominally ghost stories, their fantastical content took them beyond western notions of the genre in a way that also gave them dramatic thrust.
“They’re not like ghost stories we’re used to,” says Lockhart of Pu’s 400-year-old yarns once the puppet monster has been defeated. “They’re completely different. Some of them are only half a page long, and they’re just weird, with some things happening without any real resolution. Others are these big long love stories in which people fall in love with ghosts, and humans and ghosts can have kids and live together perfectly normally. In others, humans can have relationships with fox spirits, and they’re so theatrical.”
Despite film adaptations including A Chinese Ghost Story, the stories have never been staged in the UK.
Key to the eight tales presented in new translations by Ewan Macdonald care of the Royal Shakespeare Company Chinese Classics Translation Project is the show’s visual elements. Karen Tennent’s set and costumes are augmented by interactive video projections from Susanna Murphy and Cristina Spiteri of Bright Side Studios, while a series of puppets, including the aforementioned monster, have been created by visual artist Fergus Dunnet.
Lockhart appears on stage with fellow storytellers Luna Dai and Robin Khor Yong Kuan. Working alongside Grid Iron’s Ben Harrison as co-director and co-writer, she was keen to put martial arts to the fore.
“I’ve been doing martial arts for 21 years now,” she says, “and I’m always trying to get it into shows. It was a challenge to find other actors who were at least up for giving it a go, but we start every day with a bit of martial arts class. We’ve got them up to fourteen push-ups a day now.”
Lockhart is one of the few women black belts in Scotland. As with the stories in Strange Tales, her interest in martial arts began by accident.
“I was sitting up late night, and watched this biopic about Bruce Lee,” she says, “and thought it would be amazing to be able to do what he did. I went to the library to read about him, and started going to a class in Leith Academy. At first, my heart sank, given the size of me, but I thought, if I’m going to do this I have to take it up seriously, and I’ve stuck it out for twenty-one years and worked my way up. I think as an actor its great having that discipline. It’s just a great constant to have in your life.
“I’m wee, and I’m not really built for it, but I’ve managed to stick at it, and when you think you can’t take anymore, something else kicks in about perseverance. You’re used to holding onto your comfort zone, but this teaches you that you can take things further.”
Lockhart has previously directed shows with acting students at Edinburgh College, and sees herself more as an all-round theatre maker than a straightforward writer or director.
“I’m not really interested in just writing it on the page,” she says. “I prefer to think about how it’s going to be performed and everything else that goes into it. I’m interested in the whole thing, I guess.”
With fellow actor Wendy Seager, Lockhart has also co-founded Wildfire, a theatre company focusing on creating and presenting theatre by and for working class audiences. Coming from Glasgow’s east end, Lockhart is conscious of the lack of opportunities for this much neglected demographic.”
“I’ve been an actor 30 years now,” she says, “but I’m getting to an age where you realise there’s not many people from my background actually in the business. There’s really not. There are people who pretend to be sometimes, but for people starting off now from my background it’s much harder. We could sign on the dole while waiting for a job, whereas now you need money to be able to pursue acting.
“All these people I was at school with, who were clever ore funny or talented, they didn’t have the opportunities they should have had have, and sometimes they ended up in prison or dead. I was one of the ones who came through, but now there’ll be loads more who won’t be able to do that. The opportunities that are there aren’t even going to reach these people. The people who programme theatre have to programme things that will appeal to a wider demographic than middle class educated people. It’s a whole new way of thinking we need, from the ground up.”
This is the case too with Strange Tales.
“We want to create something that appeals to a wider community who might not normally go to the theatre,” says Lockhart. “We’ve been out doing community events with East Asian communities, just to get their voices and find out what they wanted to see. What we’ve ended up with is something that’s entertaining, but which has a wee spiritual message coming through, that’s about living your life, not worrying about fame or money, but doing things that are worthwhile.”
Strange Tales, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, December 3-21.
The Herald, November 28th, 2019