ALISON Peebles tries not to think about the future. The actor and director, an acclaimed star of the Scottish screen and especially stage, has multiple sclerosis. She doesn’t know how much longer she’ll be able to work. She doesn’t know how she’s going to live or support herself. She just doesn’t know. “But I am pretty sure,” she says, lowering her voice, “that I’ll be in a wheelchair by next year, because I’m finding it quite hard to walk now.”
Peebles is a red-haired fiftysomething with bright blue eyes and prominent cheekbones. She is an engaging and open conversationalist. She does her best to discuss her illness and its impact on her work and life with stoic matter-of-factness; sudden flashes of black humour arrive like summer lightning. Yet there is surely no doubt that she finds the facts of her situation deeply distressing. “I should really think about the future and prepare myself,” she says, “but I can’t.”
We meet in the Glasgow rehearsal room where she is working on My Shrinking Life, a piece for the National Theatre of Scotland based on her experience of the illness.
MS is a disabling neurological condition resulting from damage to myelin, the protective sheath surrounding the nerve fibres of the central nervous system. Messages between the brain and body get scrambled, which can cause a wide range of symptoms, including problems with mobility and speech; these may, over time, become severe. There are an estimated 10,500 people in Scotland with MS. That’s one in every 500 people, compared with a UK average of one in 800; it has been called “Scotland’s hidden epidemic”.
Peebles has a type of MS called primary progressive, which means that her symptoms have worsened gradually rather than coming on as sudden attacks. She was first alerted to the condition in 1999 by a theatre doctor (for the Tron in Glasgow where, fittingly, My Shrinking Life will open on Saturday) who was concerned about the fact that she kept falling over in rehearsal. The official diagnosis came 18 months later. She went public in 2006, making a documentary, Multiple, for BBC Scotland, having decided that she couldn’t hide the condition any longer. Even before the film, though, she had been working on My Shrinking Life, and it is likely to be a moving and inspiring piece of work – a piece of theatre created and performed by a woman whose creativity and ability to perform are tested daily. It is, in a sense, a showcase for her talents and resolve – both of which are considerable.
“For me, it’s important to show that I am working and living my life as best I can, and I am going to continue to do that for as long as possible,” Peebles explains. “MS affects me because I’m not as free physically, and that’s deeply frustrating. But I’m still the same actor I was when I didn’t have to use a stick or crutch. Don’t write me off.”
When Peebles first began to develop My Shrinking Life, she used a stick only occasionally. Now she wears a brace on her right foot and relies on a crutch, sometimes two, at all times. She has had problems with her vision in the past, and now her right hand has begun to cause difficulties, the fingers closing against her will; she is keeping Ikea in business, she jokes, from having to replace broken wine glasses so often. Also, she feels fatigue, a sensation quite different from tiredness; more like altitude sickness, she says, like being crushed by a weight. Her condition can be exacerbated by tension and hard work, neither of which is in short supply during the rehearsal process, an indication of just how much she is willing to endure to see My Shrinking Life staged.
There is consolation in creating work – “It is an outlet” – and her uncertainty about the future gives every project a sense of urgency and significance. “I want to do as much as I can because it gives me drive and strength.” Last year, she played Mother Courage – one of the great parts – in a touring production of Brecht’s play, using a crutch on stage throughout. “You can lose yourself,” she says. “I always feel I have a power on stage. I feel strong, even though I’ve not physically got the power I had. It’s exciting. I love being on stage. It makes me feel I’ve grown two inches.”
She takes pleasure in the feeling of the audience watching her, the seduction of that, and enjoys her ability to transform into a character and make them feel emotion; any emotion, really, other than the one she absolutely does not want to engender – pity for Alison Peebles. She likes the way being on stage makes her feel in control and the way in which, unlike in real life, she knows precisely where the story is going. She wants to be on stage, feeling these things, as much as possible and resents those who prevent this.
Since she admitted to having MS, she has seen a change in the roles she is offered. “I certainly see parts, particularly in theatre, which I would once have been up for or asked to do,” she says. “But you can’t prove it. There’s always a reason. They can say you’re a bit too old or a bit too young or a bit too fat or a bit too thin.” Her eyes flash as she mimics the pretentious excuse of a producer: “‘Oh, you don’t have the right essence, dahling.’ No, actually, it’s because I’ve got the crutch, dahling.”
And how does that make her feel? “Angry. It upsets me. It makes me feel sad and a bit helpless. What can I do?” She feels that public attitudes to disability are changing, citing the paralympics, and believes that we are approaching a point where disabled actors will be accepted in roles and storylines which have nothing to do with their disability. But we are not there yet, and that day might come too late for Peebles.
Her father, Robert, had MS. He died when he was 56 and Alison was 17. Now, she is around the age he was at the time of his death. He had been outgoing and outdoorsy, a lover of the hills and a semi-professional for Hibs who worked for a firm of electrical engineers. “I didn’t know that he had MS until just before he died,” his daughter recalls. “During the last year of his life he was more or less in hospital all the time, and he had very bad pneumonia. He couldn’t breathe. He was a shadow of himself. There was very little known about MS at that time.”
Looking back, can she see aspects of her condition mirrored in his? “I can see how he walked at different times. I just think, ‘Oh my God, what he must have been going through in his head?’ He had to give up work, which must have been terrible for him. He was a very, very proud man.”
She might, of course, be talking about herself. She wishes she could have spoken to him in recent years about the illness they share. For a long time he didn’t even know he had MS; his wife Marie, a nurse, had protected him from the knowledge. Years later, Alison acted similarly, keeping her diagnosis a secret from her mother for three years. “Then she was absolutely furious with me when I did tell her. She was angry and upset and said I should have told her, which was true.” Marie died last year.
Peebles is moving on. She has put her house on the market. A tenement flat with an internal staircase which she often has to crawl up and down, it is no longer suitable. Earlier, before this interview, she went to see an estate agent who said, quite blithe, “People like you, who are disabled…” This came as a shock. Peebles does not think of herself as being disabled, even though she has the blue badge to prove it. She thinks of herself as a strong person, a creative person, sometimes a glamorous person. It is a state of mind. Her life may be shrinking, but there is something expansive and impressive about her spirit, courage and refusal to accept the passive, underwritten role her body is trying to force her to take.
“I really want,” she says, “to stay on my feet for as long as I can.” «
My Shrinking Life is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 8-15 September and then visits St Andrews, Edinburgh and Inverness
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