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Pauline Knowles - An Obituary

Pauline Knowles – Actress

Born December 16 1967; died October 17 2018

Pauline Knowles, who has died suddenly of a heart attack aged 50, was one of the most powerful stage actresses of her generation. Over more than twenty years, Knowles brought a quiet intensity and fierce intelligence to every part she played. This was the case when she played the barely articulate rural woman in Philip Howard’s original 1995 Traverse Theatre production of David Harrower’s modern classic, Knives in Hens. It was still the case when Knowles gave a ferociously contemporary portrayal of Clytemnestra in This Restless House, Zinnie Harris’ stunning reinvention of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy directed by Dominic Hill at the Citizens Theatre with the National Theatre of Scotland twenty-one years later.

Knowles occupied both roles with an innate sense of each woman’s everyday ordinariness in ways that made their experiences totally recognisable. As a result, however extreme their actions and however powerful their station in life, Knowles rendered them utterly believable. Without ever being flashy, she transformed whoever she played into extraordinary women of today as much as the period the plays were set.    

Both performances were world class, and revealed a performer of rare depths, whose face alone could signal an internal torrent of complex and sometimes conflicting emotions before she uttered a word. These weren’t one-offs. Knowles’ dedication to her craft was an example to all around her, and she was more than capable of applying her talents in other areas.

Her beautiful singing voice lent itself to big stage musicals such as Man of La Mancha as well as to the painful intimacy of John and Zinnie Harris’ chamber opera, The Garden. There was a deadpan sense of fun there too amongst the music in David Shrigley’s ‘sort-of-opera’, Pass the Spoon, in which, dressed as a giant kitchen utensil as she sang a score by David Fennessy as the perennially cheery June Spoon. Knowles was wickedly gallus as well when she played one half of a blousy double act in Hannah Cowley’s 18th century romp, The Belle’s Stratagem, at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh.

The last few years saw Knowles mature even more as a performer. The pinnacle of this arguably came in This Restless House, the first third of which Knowles carried with a sense of gravitas and grace alongside an anger at George Anton’s Agamemnon which, once unleashed, took no prisoners.

Knowles was born and raised in Edinburgh, where she was the twelfth child of a family of thirteen. With interests in singing, country dancing and basketball, it was while a teenager at Holy Rood High School that she first discovered the power of theatre and an aptitude for performing while under the tutelage of the school’s mercurial drama teacher, Frances Paterson. Knowles initially went to Stirling University to study English and psychology, and it was while in her first year that she realised she wanted to act professionally.

She subsequently went to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, where an appearance in Melvyn Bragg and Howard Goodall’s stage adaptation of Bragg’s novel, The Hired Man, got her noticed by founder of the 7:84 theatre company, John McGrath. He cast Knowles in John Brown’s Body, his epic history of the industrial working class produced by Wildcat at Tramway as part of Glasgow’s European Capital of Culture programme in 1990. It was Knowles’ first paid job as an actress.

More work with Wildcat and 7:84 followed, including John Bett’s production of Oh What A Lovely War and the title role in in Ian Reekie’s production of Antigone. Other early works included David McVicar’s production of Don Juan, John Byrne’s Slab Boys sequel, Cuttin’ A Rug, at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, and in Neil Bartlett’s version of Moliere’s The School for Wives, also at the Lyceum. In the latter Knowles appeared alongside Tony Cownie, who would go on to direct her in the National Theatre of Scotland staging of Byrne’s TV comedy drama, Tutti Frutti, and in The Belle’s Stratagem.
Knowles took the central role of Chris Guthrie in Alistair Cording’s adaptation for TAG of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy of novels, A Scots Quair, with all three plays being seen at the Assembly Hall as part of the 1993 Edinburgh International Festival.

Shortly afterwards Knowles became an integral part of a key period in the Traverse Theatre’s history as Scotland’s new writing theatre, appearing in works by a new generation of playwrights, many of them under the directorship of Philip Howard. Knowles appeared in Howard’s productions of Heritage by Nicola McCartney, The Speculator by David Greig and Gorgeous Avatar by Jules Horne. Knowles gave voice as well in plays by international writers, including Solemn Mass for a Full Moon in Summer by Michel Tremblay, Marisol by Jose Rivera and The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek by Naomi Wallace.

Central to Knowles’ work at the Traverse was Knives in Hens. Playing a young woman living in rural Scotland learning to give voice to her own desires in Howard’s production, Knowles gave vent to a deep-set well of curiosity, vulnerability and determination, bringing Harrower’s broodingly spare text to life with a mix of steeliness, stillness and simmering vivacity which defined her work.

At the Citizens she appeared in Jeff Torrington’s Swing Hammer Swing, and with TAG in Ena Lamont Stewart’s Men Should Weep. Later, Howard would direct Knowles as Marilyn Monroe’s hairdresser and confidant in Sue Glover’s play, Marilyn. With Graham McLaren’s Theatre Babel company, she played Goneril in King Lear and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, and appeared in A Doll’s House and Medea.

At the Old Vic she was in Chris Hannan’s play, Shining Souls alongside Shirley Henderson, and played Yvette in Mother Courage at Contact in Manchester. For Howard Davies she appeared with Sheila Hancock and David Tennant at the Almeida in Maxim Gorky’s play, Vassa. She was Queen Elizabeth in a revival of Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, and appeared with Communicado in Tam O’Shanter and The Government Inspector.

Knowles played Glinda in The Wizard of Oz and Mrs Fezziwig in A Christmas Carol. She was a picture of ice-cool elegance as the White Witch in The Snow Queen, and Lot’s smouldering wife in Howard Barker’s Lot and His God. In retrospect one can see both of the latter feeding into her mighty portrayal of Clytemnestra in This Restless House. Knowles was subsequently named as best female performer in the 2016 Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland for This Restless House, which she revisited when Hill’s production of Harris’ trilogy, now known as Oresteia: This Restless House, was revived for the 2017 Edinburgh International Festival

Inbetween, Knowles took the lead role of a woman having a mid-life crisis in April de Angelis’ play, Jumpy, at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, where she also appeared in co-production with the Citizens for a show-stealing turn in Noel Coward’s comedy, Hay Fever. Knowles appeared in Wee Free! The Musical, one of several shows she did at Oran Mor in Glasgow. This year she took the lead in Problem in Brighton, a new work by David Shrigley which put Knowles at the centre of The Problem Band in a mix of rock gig, storytelling and animation. A highlight of the Brighton Festival, on the surface at least Shrigley’s show resembled the sorts of political cabaret which Knowles cut her teeth on with Wildcat.

What turned out to be Knowles’ final acting role was in Gary McNair’s play, After the Cuts, at the 2018 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and which imagined life in a post-NHS futurescape. As with everything she did onstage, Knowles played the role of a woman in the thick of enforce austerity with such a sense of empathy that you felt like you knew her. It was a rare and precious talent lost too soon, but which made every performance by Knowles remarkable.  

Knowles is survived by her fiancé Angus Gray and her brothers and sisters, one of whom pre-deceased her.

The Herald, October 26th 2018



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