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.