Maureen Beattie is unfazed despite performing 43 monologues in 21 days – but then she is used to dealing with shocks to the system on stage, writes Mark Fisher
IT’S the height of the festival season and the temperature is untypically hot. Maureen Beattie is mid-way through her performance of Jennifer Tremblay’s The List at the Assembly Roxy and she’s getting concerned about her audience. Right in her eye line there’s an elderly woman on the verge of fainting who has started to slump against her neighbour. Up on the back row another woman is swaying out of her seat.
Something must be done. So Beattie comes to an appropriate juncture in the monologue and stops the show. She asks both women if they’d like to leave, promising them tickets for another day. The younger woman resists – for all her discomfort, she’s loving the show – but eventually realises it’s for the best. “She walked three feet past me then went down like a stone,” says Beattie.
It’s an anecdote that speaks volumes about her attitude as an actor and it helps explain why she is such a compelling stage presence. A less bold performer would have done all they could to block out the audience. They’d have hidden behind an illusory fourth wall to stay focused on their lines. Yes, they’d have stopped the show if disaster struck, but it takes a special kind of awareness to call a halt before a catastrophe happens.
“She flies and she dares,” says director Muriel Romanes, who can think of no other actor she’d rather work with on the trilogy of Tremblay monologues which Beattie is performing in rotation on the Fringe. “We need people in theatre who try to find the extraordinary and that’s what Maureen does.”
For Beattie, it’s a question of being in the moment. “If you have the confidence to do that, the audience go, ‘We were there when people had to go out’. They don’t go, ‘We want our money back’. It’s because it’s live and that’s what happened that day.”
She thinks back to watching her father, music-hall stalwart Johnny Beattie, entertaining the holidaymakers on dreich afternoons at the Ayr Gaiety. It was his job to stay present and make the most of the energy in the room. She remembers too playing the lead in a 1999 production of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida in which the director, Selina Cadell, insisted she make eye contact with the audience who were visible from the stage. It was a shock to the system at the time, but the more experienced she’s become, the more she has realised she has nothing to lose.
“It sounds like I’m saying, ‘Oh gosh, that’s very brave,’ but courage is carrying on if you’re afraid,” says Beattie. “I am not afraid, so I am not courageous at all. I don’t see any point in theatre being like television or film. Why would you go out on a wet and windy night and pay your money for something you could watch on telly? You want something to be extraordinary. You give them the best that you possibly can and if something goes wrong, that’s what happens because, ‘Look, I’m alive, I’m in front of you’.”
So where some actors would be intimidated by the prospect of performing three one-woman plays in a single festival, Beattie relishes the opportunity. “You never want to be in stasis in the theatre,” she says. “You want to be constantly challenging yourself.”
This time, she has other reasons to be confident. After she starred in The List, the first of the trilogy, she was nominated for Best Female Performance in the CATS awards and the show was named the best production of 2012/13. Directed by Romanes, with design by John Byrne, the Stellar Quines production brilliantly captured the anxieties of motherhood and the pain of living with a guilty conscience.
In this first instalment, Beattie plays a woman who has escaped the city in a misguided attempt to take control of her life. She tries to maintain order by making lists, futile protection against the ensuing tragedy.
The team reunited last year for The Carousel, a monologue with a similar preoccupation with generational conflict and responsibility. Here, a woman is en route to her ill mother while trying to commune with her long-dead grandmother. She is haunted by dark stories from the past.
Now the trilogy reaches completion with The Deliverance in a translation from the French Canadian by Shelley Tepperman. In this one, the narrator is attending the deathbed of the mother we met in The Carousel whose final wish is to be reconciled with her estranged son.
Each play stands independent of the others and they can be seen in any order, but watching them together, says Beattie, will bring extra pleasure: “In Deliverance, if you’ve seen the other two, there’s a feeling of themes coming together.”
“They’re about genetic make-up and what’s handed down from one generation to another,” says Romanes. “A lot of it is about childhood, the fact that a lot of children over the generations are at the mercy of parents. The idea about the pain of children makes me cry all the time. In The Carousel, the pain of that child is unbearable.”
Beattie is unfazed by the thought of performing solo, although recognises the challenge in doing the three plays on a single day (17 August). “It’ll be like the Colosseum,” says Romanes. “They’ll come and see whether she can survive it.”
“Come and watch an actress keel over,” jokes Beattie, who’ll be doing 43 performances in 21 days but knows she’s up to the task. “If you get a show to a point where you are absolutely solid with the lines, it is remarkably untiring to do. What is tiring is struggling to perform something where you’re unsure or you’re still making decisions. The energy of a good play means it’s like being on a surfboard.”
This is true, she says, even when the task ahead seems monumentally difficult. “When we did The List there was a sink in the theatre and before it started I would do some obsessive hand washing as the audience came in. There were some days when I would think, ‘I cannot do this. It is the Matterhorn and it is the north face and I have no crampons with me.’ But I would start to speak and suddenly it was the end. I would go, ‘How long was that? Did I miss a big bit out?’
“The Carousel was the same. It used to fly by and then I was saying, ‘Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, tell all your friends.’ It’s about finding yourself in a piece that you know so well that all the trauma has gone out of doing it.”
The Jennifer Tremblay Trilogy, Assembly Roxy, from 6 August, times vary / listings
Published in Scotland on Sunday on 9 August 2015
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