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Iain Robertson - A Little Angel


When Iain Robertson still lived in Govan, one of the workmen hired to 
do some plumbing work  in his house recognised  him, both from the play 
he was doing in town, and from his numerous film and TV appearances. 
Chancing his arm, the workie tried to tap Robertson for a couple of 
freebies. Robertson turned the tables on the guy, and asked if he too 
could supply his services gratis.

“Oh, but that'll cost you,” the disgruntled workie said.

Robertson pointed out that it was the same for him, and that, just 
because he was an actor, he wasn't rich, and was afforded no special 
privileges at the box office. Even if he was, he certainly couldn't 
afford to let anyone and everyone who crossed his path have access to 
his wares for free.

As Robertson prepares to revive his solo turn in Ronan O'Donnell's 
play, Angels, as part of the Traverse's Edinburgh Festival Fringe 
season, such an incident says much about Robertson's approach to his 
craft. On one level, his on-stage charisma and sheer chutzpah when 
inhabiting a role inspires an unshakeable watchabilty he's been aware 
of ever since a teacher pointed out his aptitude for drama when still a 
school-boy. On another, there's a down to earth pragmatism that 
recognises the ups and downs of earning a living in the spotlight 
during hard times. For all the attention Robertson gets, sometimes what 
he does is just a job. At other times, as with Angels, it's most 
definitely not.

“For me it read almost like a short story than a play,” Robertson says 
of his first encounter with O'Donnell's script about a security guard's 
Kafka-like incarceration for a murder he may or may not have committed. 
“But my party piece is doing Tam O'Shanter, and Ronan's writing's dead 
poetic as well, so I started seeing the drama in it. Then when 
[director] Graeme Maley  said that there's not going to be any set, but 
that it's going to be really spare, that sounded exciting as well. I'd 
not long read Peter Brook's book, The Empty Space, and angels s very 
much in that mould of what Brook was talking about how theatre should 
be done. I'm not a big fan of one-man shows to be honest. After about 
ten minutes I'm usually thinking wouldn't it be great if another actor 
came on, but Angels feels different.”

Having last appeared on-stage in a main-stage revival of Tom McGrath 
and Jimmy Boyle's 1970s interpretation of former Glasgow hard-man 
Boyle's road to Barlinnie, Robertson seems already attuned to the 
themes of O'Donnell's play.

“I'm fascinated by this presumption of guilt over innocence,” Robertson 
says of Angels, first seen  at Oran Mor. “I don't know whether Andy 
Coulson would necessarily enjoy the play.”

The character Robertson plays is no Andy Coulson, however. Rather, Nick 
Prentice is a loner whose  off-duty scribblings appear to nail him for 
the crime, but who has an awful lot more going on inside himself than 
he might initially let on.

“When you first meet him, he's a guy who's been in a cell for a few 
hours, so he's full of nervous energy and he's incredibly anxious,” 
Robertson explains. “He seems a decent enough guy, but whether he's 
innocent or not, he's carrying round with him a burden of guilt. 
Obviously, I carry a burden of guilt round with me as well, but that's 
because I'm a Catholic. Nick's guilt isn't about that.”

Robertson sounds wise beyond his years when he says this. This may have 
something to do with the fact that, despite only being thirty-one, and 
being best known these days for taking over the role in Rab C Nesbitt's 
son Gash in Ian Pattison's Govan-set sit-com, Robertson has been acting 
professionally for the best part of twenty years. That was when, 
spurred on by his teachers, the then eleven year old joined a local 
drama group.

“I'd always been really into doing it,” he says, “but I still remember 
going into the community centre feeling really scared and not knowing 
what to expect.”

Somewhat precociously, Robertson applied for and won a scholarship at 
the Sylvia Young Theatre School, a famed breeding ground for soap opera 
stars , boy and girl bands and the late Amy Winehouse. Robertson was 
twelve.

“If I'd waited till  was eighteen it wouldn't have happened,” he says. 
“I was naïve at that age, and if I'd  had the time to think about it, I 
wouldn't have done it. But being in that room, the emotional release I 
got from doing improvisations, after twenty years, I still get that. It 
never gets tired for me.”

Robertson was spotted by film director Gillies Mackinnon, who cast him 
as the youngest of three brothers in 1960s Glasgow in his 1996 feature, 
Small Faces. It won the by now thirteen year old Robertson a Scottish 
BAFTA. A stint in Grange Hill followed, as well as a study of the 
perils of teenage drinking in an ad for Health Education Board Scotland.

“The strange thing is, I kept Grange Hill off my CV until last year, 
because I was embarrassed by it,” Robertson says. “I was really young, 
but the way I was cast, I was playing the Scottish bad guy, and doing 
the Grange Hill equivalent of what Gerard Kelly did in Brookside. It 
took me ten years to realise that I'd been in great things like 
Kavanagh QC and Grange Hill, because I was just too young to realise.”

As young as he was, Robertson's antennae for good roles was razor-sharp.

“I'd met Gillies McKinnon by a fluke,” he says, “and while I was 
waiting to hear about Small Faces, I was offered a part in a kids TV 
programme called The Demon Headmaster. For a thirteen year old, going 
on telly sounded like a great idea, but for some reason I held out 
until I got the film.”

As a grown-up, up, until Rab C Nesbitt, Robertson's most high profile 
appearance was in Sea of Souls alongside Bill Paterson and Dawn Steele. 
Despite living in London these days, Robertson has been seen more on 
Scottish stages than elsewhere over the last few years. He appeared in 
the Traverse's revival of John Byrne's Slab Boys trilogy in 2003, and 
played Romeo at the Citizens. The theatre experience he remains most 
proud of, however, is Bill Bryden's turn of the millennium revival of 
The Mysteries at the National Theatre.

“There's something really interesting going on on Scottish theatre at 
the moment,” Robertson says, “and I think that's something to do with 
the amount of Scottish talent that's around.”

With this in mind, Robertson's ideal role is a typically audacious one.

“Richard the Third,” he says in a flash. “I'd love to do it Scottish, 
and have it set in Scotland. Normally there's this whole idea of him 
walking onstage with a hump, but there's nowhere in the text it says 
that. I thin k I'd have a really interesting take on things. It's the 
same with Angels. The first time I did it word-perfect, I came 
off-stage and was nearly crying. When art creates a moment that you 
only normally get when you go to Glencoe or somewhere you can marvel at 
the majesty of nature, that to me is a very special thing.”

Angels, Traverse Theatre, August 2-26, various times
www.traverse.co.uk
The Herald - August 6th 2012

ends

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