Fringe stalwart Bill Paterson is anxious that the profound questions posed by his two-hander on terminal illness should reach a larger audience, he tells Jackie McGlone
WITH his “worried, wee face”, Bill Paterson reckons he’s probably ideal casting for the loving but deeply troubled husband he plays in And No More Shall We Part. First seen early this year at Hampstead Theatre’s Downstairs space, the play pairs the Glaswegian with Irish actress Dearbhla Molloy, who plays his wife.
I saw Tom Holloway’s bittersweet, elegiac play – which takes its title from a Nick Cave song – in January, and couldn’t understand why it wasn’t transferring to a larger space so that more people might see it.
“I’m so glad you felt that,” says the 67-year-old Paterson, “because a lot of people said the same thing, including my friend, [the actor-director] Richard Wilson. So that’s exactly why we decided to ask the Traverse if we could bring it to the Fringe.”
When we meet, Paterson’s anxious expression is exacerbated by the fact that he’s fresh from a dental appointment and a painful root canal saga. “Forty minutes of gouging,” he says, “and my dentist’s a bit of a fan!”
Nonetheless, he manages a large, frothy cappuccino and a chocolate muffin in what is probably Islington’s only yummy mummy-free cafe. We need a peaceful corner because the talk is all of love, life and death.
In Holloway’s play, Paterson and Molloy are Don and Pam, a couple who have been married for a long time – in sickness and in health – but who must now consider the true meaning of that vow and the stark finality of the words, “Til death do us part.”
An ultimately uplifting portrait of a marriage, And No More Shall We Part was written by Holloway in response to his mother’s long, miserable death. “Tom felt there should be another way out and that she had had choices. He wrote the play in two days as an act of homage to her.”
Born in Dennistoun, Paterson’s long career has embraced film and television, from Comfort And Joy and The Killing Fields to The Singing Detective and Little Dorrit. His distinguished stage career – at the Royal Court, the Almeida and the National, where he was excellent in Mike Bartlett’s 2010 play Earthquakes In London, his first theatre role in a decade – has, unbelievably, yet to include work with the National Theatre of Scotland, although he’s open to offers. Paterson has a long association with Scottish theatre, having been a founding member of John McGrath’s magnificent 7:84 company.
He has also written a childhood memoir, Tales From The Back Green (2008), about his memories “suspended in amber like Jurassic Park’s mosquito” of growing up in Glasgow in the 1950s. It began life as a radio script because he longed to hear his own words in the voice of another. “To experience the pleasure or pain of hearing those words either enhanced or mangled by another actor.”
Claiming to have callously fiddled with the hundreds of scripts that “proper writers” have passed his way over the years – “justified with the familiar phrase, ‘I don’t believe my character would say that’” – he has nonetheless breathed life into others’ words and ideas, always acting by “doing as little as possible”. If he is much admired, it is partly because he makes everything he does on stage or screen appear effortless.
Paterson knows about long marriages – he’s been in one for 28 years now, to the award-winning German theatre designer, Hildegard Bechtler, with whom he has a son, Jack (28) and a daughter, Anna-Klara (22). They met when Bechtler – who is designing Opera North’s new production of The Makropulos Case at the Edinburgh International Festival – created the drag outfit he wore to feed chickens in a stream-of-consciousness play called Ella.
His “worried” features may be the secret of his success, but surely it’s also down to the fact that he brings presence to every role, as well as that hypnotically soothing voice, as silky smooth as the finest single malt. Indeed, like the best Scotch, he improves with age. He snorts deprecatingly at this, admitting: “I suppose that’s another reason we felt we couldn’t let this play go, it has something important to say about growing older.
“It might have been different if we’d had some sort of critical response – even mixed reviews, saying, ‘This play is astonishing’ or ‘This is so gushingly sentimental.’ Whatever!” Still, the question of how the terminally ill, their loved ones and families cope with the possibility of a drawn-out, undignified death is in the zeitgeist, he thinks. “A lot of playwrights are writing about this subject now and there is, of course, also an ongoing campaign for a change in the law on assisted death.” Paterson’s own stance remains neutral. “I don’t think you know what you would do until faced with such profound questions.”
Paterson’s involvement with the Fringe goes back decades, from Billy Connolly’s iconic Great Northern Welly Boot Show to the late, great “scul?tor” George Wyllie’s unforgettable A Day Down A Goldmine and Alexander Gelman’s glasnost two-hander, A Man With Connections, at the Traverse in 1988.
A two-hander comes with unique difficulties, though. “With only two of you, there’s nowhere to hide. If we didn’t get on, well… Fortunately, Dearbhla and I did, though we work in different ways. She’s a much more accurate, detailed actor. We’d only worked together once, on a Foyle’s War when I was a surgeon and she was my strict matron. Some big names came up to play the part of Pam; some were married to close friends of mine. But this piece seems so intimate that doing it with the wife of an actor friend seemed awkward somehow. Always, we came back to Dearbhla, who has exactly the right chemistry. She certainly got me through it when I was ready to throw in the towel.”
Don, his character, is naive, he believes. “He doesn’t do the homework about his wife’s illness that I would probably do in his place; I’d go on the internet immediately in his position. So I wasn’t going to fill my brain up with information about, say, Exit or Dignitas – because he doesn’t. Otherwise, I’d be saying, ‘Why didn’t he do this or that?’ Since Don is an innocent, I can always complicate it with my worried, wee face and general demeanour of concern and commitment.”
Sometimes, though, his commitment is stretched to the limit. He’s just filmed a Sky Atlantic crime series in Madrid, Falcon, based on Robert Wilson’s books, in which he and Robert Lindsay are “evil, evil creatures”. Paterson ends up in shorts and T-shirt floating face down in an ice-covered, unheated swimming pool. “I thought I had had it; then I thought of the money, a week’s fee to drown.”
Recently, he made a low-budget film, The List – “it’s two years since I made a film, I’ve been pushed aside.” His last long stint on TV was in Law & Order: UK, which he quit after one series, although it could have been his pension fund. “I ended up doing the same scene with the same two actors on the same set in every episode.”
After the Fringe, he returns to Scotland with a “wee play” he wrote for Stanley Baxter for Radio 4, Astonishing Archie, based on Paterson’s relationship with his brother, John (77). “Dave MacLennan at Oran Mor has been on at me to do it as part of the A Play, A Pie & A Pint and we’ve just confirmed that we’ll do it in October-November, although Stanley won’t be in it.” Meanwhile, he’s writing more stories in The Back Green vein, “the antithesis of the misery memoir”, celebrating his golden childhood and sunny family life, lest it disappear as if it never happened.
Physically, Paterson says he’s a lot like his late father, a plumber turned commercial traveller – “like him in every way.” He was “a gregarious, very mannerly, old-fashioned gentleman, a fine man.” Like father, like son.
And No More Shall We Part, Traverse Theatre, until 26 August. www,traverse.co.uk
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Saturday 18 May 2013
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Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
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