ED2017 Caro Meets ED2017 Interviews ED2017 Theatre

Alison Skilbeck: The Power Behind The Crone

By | Published on Thursday 29 June 2017

If you were around for last year’s Fringe, and you were lucky enough to get a ticket, you may have seen Alison Skilbeck’s excellent 2016 offering ‘Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London’.
And if you did, you’ll be pleased to hear, as was I, that she returns to the Edinburgh Festival again this year with a new one woman show, ‘The Power Behind The Crone’.
I put some questions to Alison to find out more about the show and its inspiration.

CM: Can you start by telling us what to expect from the show? What is the premise
AS: Well, as billed, it is a ‘serio-comic celebration of Shakespeare’s older women’, so I hope audiences will laugh, cry, and feel inspired! There is a sort of ‘play within a play’ format, as I play the role of Prof. Artemis Turret, giving the last of a series of lectures to the U3A, and expecting her famous actress chum Dame Bunti Smart to come and do the speeches. Bunti lets her down, as she always does, so Artemis has to do the lot BUT, it turns out that Artemis always wanted to act, and has been preparing, just in case.

Of course I, Alison, do the speeches as best as I can, but the bits in between are the expert and enthusiastic Artemis, telling us how ‘the words work’, in the very different roles. So it’s also a celebration of acting, and of ‘turning on a sixpence’ to become someone other.

CM: Which Shakespeare characters make an appearance?
AS: In order, which is chronological, Queen Margaret in ‘Richard III’, Duchess of Gloucester and Duchess of York, both in ‘Richard II’, Mistress Quickly in ‘Henry IV Part 2’ and ‘Henry V’, Countess in ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’, Volumnia in ‘Coriolanus’, and Paulina in ‘the Winter’s Tale’. Seven of them.

CM: How did you choose which characters you were going to focus on?
AS: It’s an interesting question. It’s partly taste, who/what I like. I’ve played and love Paulina, and I’ve directed ‘All’s Well’ (the wonderful Tanya Moodie was my Countess at RADA), but mainly I wanted to go from early to late plays, and choose women who were very different, for contrast; sometimes within one play as with the two Duchesses. I know people will say ‘why didn’t you do..?’ And it’s sometimes because they are actually too young, even though they are thought of as old, like the Nurse. We can blame Edith Evans for that. Nurse has to be well under 40. I played her at 19.

CM: Do you think older women are served better by the Bard than young women are?
AS: Not at all! Think of Rosalind, Beatrice, Cleopatra, Lady M, Viola, Olivia…Studying the older women, and the wonderful way their words, and the way he has them use them, show you who they are, just makes you appreciate the way he does it for all ages. The older women do not get so much in terms of amount, it’s true, but it’s highly concentrated. He’s just the most stunning playwright for all ages, and genders.

CM: Do you think contemporary writers create enough good roles for older women?
AS: A very few years ago I’d have said no. Ayckbourn ( I spent 5 years with his company when I started out) has always been even-handed in age and gender; but recently I can cite three great examples: Caryl Churchill’s ‘ Escaped Alone’, Nick Payne’s ‘Elegy’, wth the amazing Barbara Flynn, and Zoe Wanamaker, and, on now, Jez Butterworth’s ‘The Ferryman’ in which Brid Brennan abd Dearbhla Moolloy have a ball playing two very different septua/octogenarians.

CM: What inspired you to create this show?
AS: I think I read Helen Mirren’s remark (‘There are no good parts in Shakespeare for older women’ ) after I decided to write it, but I think I just wanted to find all the roles I could potentially be right for, and see what I came up with. That was just before the explosion of gender-blindness in casting, what with Glenda J’s Lear, Gillian Bevan’s Cymbeline, Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia, and the wonderful work of Harriet Walter and Co… I really wanted to show there are good parts already, too!

CM: What made you want to do it as a solo show?
AS: Lots of reasons. I’ve made it deliberately really portable, so I could just show up somewhere and do it, with no lights or sound if need be. I have created 2 other solo shows already ( ‘Are There More of You’, Edinburgh 2008/11, and ‘Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London’ 2016, both 4 and 5 stars) and I thought a third would be fun! Also, in both those shows I change characters at the drop of a hat, so it’s about celebrating the actor’s craft too, and the fact that you don’t have to be self-indulgent, but can ‘find’ the character in your voice and body, through the words, before the audience’s eyes. No tricks. Don’t get me wrong, I love acting with others, but solo work sets up a very special relationship with the audience, who at Edinburgh are usually amazing.

CM: If you could only play one Shakespeare role, which one would it be?
AS: Out of my ‘Crones’ definitely Volumnia, as she goes such a journey. But I change all the time! Oh, and Juliet. And Hamlet… etc etc…

CM:You are the main force behind this obviously, but who else is helping you bring this to the stage?
AS: It is directed by Tim Hardy, actor, director and teacher at RADA (as am I) and also my husband. We’ve worked together before, and we don’t let the other ‘get away’ with anything! And of course my producer, Jacqui Garbett, of Hint of Lime Productions, who takes care of so much. The sound, which is minimal, but highly effective, is by Nuna Rocha Santos, who is a poet as well, and whom I met when he was on a graduate course at RADA. So it is a team effort too, like all theatre.

CM: You brought a different show to Edinburgh last year, of course – how did that go? What made you decide to return this year?
AS: That was my show about Eleanor Roosevelt ,’Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London’. It was at Assembly too, but the Baillie Room, and after the first 2 or 3 performances we were almost totally sold out, with lovely reviews and feed-back, and old friends I’d not seen for decades in the audience (It has great political resonance too, of course, at this time). That’s what can happen at the Fringe. So there’s part of your answer. I had a great time.

Also, I have to confess it will be 50 years since I was first on the Fringe, as the one girl in the Oxford Revue, with writers Simon Brett and Nigel Williams, actor Bruce Alexander, the late-lamented Nick Loukes, and composer and pianist Paul Drayton. So I thought this Crone had better turn up!

CM: What do you like about being in Edinburgh for the Festival?
AS: When things are going well it’s the best place to be, and you have special places: I love having lunch at the volunteer-run cafe above the Quaker Meeting house, for example… I had already and have made more friends – who also put me up! Seeing shows I know about by young friends, some just out of Drama School , and seeing things I have never heard about but that really open my eyes – like Circus! And I just love the city, the air, the tall buildings, the views. It’s a tonic city. Does you good.

CM: What’s next for the show, after Edinburgh?
AS: I am hoping Edinburgh will tell me that! As I said, it’s very portable, and I can play it for a good few years yet….!

CM: Do you have any other new projects in the pipe-line? Or any great plans for the future?
AS: Well, I am still touring my ‘Mrs Roosevelt’ , and the other one is still available too… As for new projects, I have some writing ideas I’d better not risk airing, but I really would like to act again with other people, and be more available to my long-suffering agent for other theatre and telly work. Other great plans include getting some sleep, which might be a good idea before I travel north!

Alison performed ‘The Power Behind The Crone’ at Assembly George Square at Edinburgh Festival 2017.