The Big Interview: Siobhan Redmond
EVEN a short time spent with Siobhan Redmond makes you feel that she’d be a very good person to be with if you got lost in the jungle.
She’d somehow manage to keep you laughing as you both grappled with snakes, slapped the bugs out of your hair and pulled leeches off your ankles. Put simply, she’s terrific company, and seems to see the funny side of every situation.
A vastly versatile actress of 30 years experience across everything from regular appearances with the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre of Scotland to long-running roles in The Bill, Holby City, Taggart and as ball-breaking cop Mo Connell in Between the Lines, she says she’s the “pest in the room” at rehearsals who relentlessly asks questions.
“I often wonder where the talking is coming from, then suddenly realise it’s me,” she says, her delivery somewhere between a giggle and a groan. Barely pausing for breath, she goes on: “I like to try and be as clear as possible about what we’re heading towards.
“I never suffer in silence – although some colleagues maybe wish I would. I realise my manners are not what they should be and I should sometimes shut up.”
Despite being so chatty and inquisitive, she says it’s really when the talking about how to do the job stops and the actual doing of it begins that she feels truly at home. Recent times have seen her as Eleanor of Aquitaine in King John and Lady Macbeth in Dunsinane with the RSC. Now she’s in Leeds, rehearsing her part as Mephistopheles to Kevin Trainor’s Faustus in Dr Faustus, directed by Dominic Hill.
It’s a co-production between West Yorkshire Playhouse and Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre, and the contemporary setting comprises three acts of the 400-year-old classical text by Christopher Marlowe plus two specially commissioned acts (three and four) by Irish writer Colin Teevan. The production promises lots of smoke and mirrors, with stage illusions created by magic consultant James Freedman.
Faustus is positioned as a modern day conjurer, whose hunger for notoriety is satisfied at a price when he makes a pact with the Devil (in the guise of Mephistopheles) in order to learn the black arts that will secure his celebrity among the rich and powerful.
“There’s always been argument over whether Marlowe actually did write acts three and four and some evidence that he didn’t, “ says Redmond. “Colin’s writing has brought something new and spellbinding to the piece, casting a different light and contrasting high tragedy with low comedy.”
As for the controversial casting of a woman as Mephistopheles – thought to be a first in this country: “People are entitled to their opinions, and it may upset a some who have a certain idea about the classical play. Faustus was orphaned and brought up by foster parents. He then became an academic, and has never known about women, so making Mephistopheles a woman makes sense. Anyway, in the end he sells his soul for a pig in a poke.
“(Some people) may hate it, but I hope most will come with an open mind. For me, those creatures who are not quite of this world like Mephistopheles are very exciting to play. You need to make them recognisable, yet you also have to believe that they’re from a different place.
“In this version Mephistopheles tells a story, and she is at times mother, sister, lover. She’s Arthur and Martha, she comes in different shapes and forms – and the price I have to pay for all this intense variety is that I get to wear a series of costumes that make me acutely physically uncomfortable.
“But it’s a small price. I’m the luckiest person in the world because I get to dress up every day and play.”
She grew up in a middle-class family in Glasgow. Her mother was a gifted amateur actress and her father, whose roots were Irish, worked as an English and Drama lecturer. They shared their love of the arts with Siobhan and her younger sister with regular outings to the ballet, theatre and cinema.
“I thanked them by deciding when I was very young that I wanted to act,” says Redmond. She read English at St Andrews University, before joining Bristol Old Vic. “My parents worried about the insecurity of it all, but they were still very supportive. At least with acting you know from the off it’s going to be insecure, and I think that helps.”
She admits her career had a “fairytale beginning”. The writer Marcella Evaristi was writer in residence at St Andrews when Redmond was at uni. “She wrote a revue called Mouth Piece and I was one of the cast. Her friend Liz Lochhead came to see it, it turned out we were from the same place and we’ve been friends ever since.”
The director of Evaristi’s show was Michael Boyd, who has also been a friend and colleague since that time. After the first meeting Lochhead wrote and Redmond starred in True Confessions. “People were becoming aware of her work at that time, and so many came to see it. I was lucky enough to work off the back of it for a few years afterwards.”
Although Siobhan Redmond appears, certainly if you look at her CV, to have been in regular – and very meaty – acting employment for three decades, she says “there’s always time to fit in a bit of sitting staring into space in a garret.”
But work always came along, even when she did briefly suffer disillusionment and contemplate pursuing another kind of life.
“At one point I felt tired of intangibles and thought about doing something else. But I was rescued from being becalmed by Look Back in Anger with Kenneth Branagh.”
Her old pal Lochhead also helped to restore her faith in herself and her profession by presenting her with a ribbon bound draft of Perfect Days, a wondrous play about parents and children, love and loss, whose lead role of Barbs the hairdresser was written especially for Redmond.
Redmond is brutally candid about looks and the role they play in an actor’s employability.
“If you are a pretty actress you might be given parts that mean standing around in a red dress, but because I look the way I look I was given something to do... although playing a scene of crime officer in a paper suit who stands about a lot eating has meant I had to get a bigger paper suit.
“I think some very pretty young actresses are made to feel anxious about their acting ability and are never sure if they are being cast for their looks or their other gifts, although many have talent of all kinds.
“I have not had to worry about ageing because I’ve never felt I was cast for my looks. Some days ageing bothers me, but I’m more comfortable in my skin than ever before and don’t feel that age has stopped me from working.
“It’s a fantastic help, too, that some directors are now looking at casting women in roles that have traditionally been played by men. The wonderful Pippa Nixon recently played the Bastard and Paola Dionisotti was Cardinal Pandulph in King John with the RSC, and they were fantastic.”
She says method acting has never been her thing – and maybe that’s just as well, when you consider that one of her roles has been as a biscuit in The Catherine Tate Show.
“I never get confused about where I stop and the character I’m playing begins – although I sometimes get stuck in a mood, as I did when I played Goneril in King Lear,” says Redmond. “I played her for 10 months and wasn’t unhappy about the role at all. But for a month after I stopped my shoulders were up around my ears. It wasn’t alchemy, but my body reacting to playing such an unhappy woman. She has to be the most miserable character I’ve ever played.”
Banishing the Goneril effect was achieved with the help of hypnotherapy tapes, which she still uses to relax. “They also help me to stop grinding my teeth which, coincidentally, I started to do around the time I played Goneril.”
There are many acting ambitions Siobhan Redmond still has in her sights. “I haven’t done a Restoration Comedy, nor a Greek play, or any Irish drama. I could be very entertaining as an idiot/shrew type in a Greek tragedy, I think.
“I also really want someone to write a mermaid play for me, because I became fixated at a very young age with a film called Miranda, starring Glynis Johns. “She’s found by this guy who takes her home to live in his bath, and his wife is understandably a bit put out. She says to the wife ‘You’ve never liked me since I first set tail in this house’. I think I like mermaids because they’re neither one thing nor the other – strange, unfathomable creatures.”
Redmond was awarded an MBE in the 2013 New Year Honours List for her services to drama. Her reaction to the gong seems to be pretty much characteristic of her general attitude.
“It was bewildering and thrilling in equal measure... however, I’m sure neither the Queen, Prince Phillip nor anyone else in the royal family is troubled by my artistic efforts.”
One role she hasn’t played in a packed life is that of motherhood. “I’ve never been with the right person – not that that would have stood in my way had I really wanted to do it. No, I think it’s also the case that I didn’t hear the ticking of the old biological clock that loudly.
“I think not having been responsible for bringing up children has meant that I have a warped view of my own age, and often think of myself as being in the same bracket as people decades younger. I completely forget what age I am.”
Funny, self-deprecating, vastly talented – Siobhan Redmond says 30 years as an actor have taught her to be grateful.
“Work-wise I think it’s a great time to be a 53-year-old... and as for what makes me get up in the morning – well, mostly it’s nosiness. I need to know who’s out there and what’s going on.”
Dr Faustus is at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, from today until March 16. 0113 213 7700, www.wyp.org.uk
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