When the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh announced its 2019-2020 winter season back in May, there was one name on the list of artists involved that was almost guaranteed to attract more attention than any other.
For more than 25 years, Elaine C Smith has been one of Scotland’s best-known show-business stars, instantly recognised for her role as long-suffering wife Mary Doll Nesbitt in the long-running television comedy Rab C Nesbitt, for her glorious singing voice, and for her many appearances in pantomime in Glasgow and Aberdeen; and it’s a fame and influence she has used carefully, founding her own production company with her husband Bob Morton, offering support to a few well-chosen charities (often involving prevention of violence against women), and, for a while, writing a newspaper column in which she publicly backed the cause of Scottish independence.
Smith herself, though, describes her comedy fame as something of a “gold-lined straitjacket.”
On one hand, it has brought fame and success beyond anything she thought possible back in the early 1980s, when she gave up a steady job as a school drama teacher in Edinburgh to become a professional performer with the radical 7:84 and Wildcat Companies.
Yet on the other, that very success has tended to limit her public image as a performer, and create a sense that broad popular comedy is her only medium. All of which helps to explain why, at the age of 60, and now a devoted grandmother, Smith is particularly delighted to be preparing for two new main stage shows – next spring’s production of Brecht’s Puntila & Matti at the Lyceum Theatre and the Citizens’, and the National Theatre of Scotland/ HOME Manchester adaptation of Jackie Kay’s Red Dust Road, set to open at this year’s Edinburgh Festival – that will provide her with major opportunities to flex her serious dramatic muscles.
“I think what’s happened,” says Smith, in a break from Red Dust Road rehearsals at the NTS’s base in Glasgow, “is that I’ve finally reached the age where you really only want to do the work that you want to do. It’s not that I never need to work again or anything like that; but I’ve reached a stage when it seems important not to waste time doing stuff that doesn’t give you a chance to grow.
"I really got to know David Greig during the “yes” campaign in 2014, and when he became artistic director at the Lyceum, we were looking for a chance to work together.
"Then last year during the Glasgow panto season, David and his associate Zinnie Harris came to see me after the show, and told me that they had this idea about doing Brecht’s Mr Puntila, but with a Mrs Puntila in the leading role; and right away, I just said “This is it. I’ve been waiting for this.”
Brecht and his collaborator Margarete Steffin wrote Puntila & Matti in 1941, during Brecht’s brief exile in Finland after he fled Nazi Germany, and before he and his family gained entry to the United States, where they lived until the end of the war.
The play – adapted for the new production by leading Glasgow novelist Denise Mina – tells the story of a wealthy landowner and businessman who is cruel, greedy and violent when sober, but the soul of merry conviviality and kindness when drunk, and of his hilarious relationship with his worldly-wise young chauffeur. “It is a very funny play about the struggle between capitalism and humanity,” says Smith, “and I feel it’s very close to the mixture of comedy and hard-edged politics that John McGrath and David MacLennan used, back in 7:84 and Wildcat days, to create popular theatre – and of course, Brecht was one of their inspirations, always.”
There is also a political edge to Smith’s role in Red Dust Road, where she plays the part of Jackie Kay’s adoptive mother Helen, a lifelong Glasgow communist who famously adopted Jackie after turning back at the door of the adoption agency which was telling her there were no babies available, and saying that she and her husband didn’t mind about the colour of the baby’s skin.
Jackie Kay’s father, John, was on the board of Wildcat Stage Productions when Smith first joined the company, and Smith knew Jackie Kay as a little girl; so the part of Helen lies very close to her heart, and she was deeply moved when she first read Kay’s memoir after its publication in 2010.
“This is the story of Jackie’s search for her birth parents,” says Smith, “and it’s a wonderful story, so searingly honest and painful in parts, and yet full of life and love. Tanika Gupta has done a great job on the adaptation; and now our job is just to make that great story as theatrical as possible, to lift it off the page, and give it a real dramatic life.
“It’s strange,” adds Smith, heading back into rehearsals, “that I never really thought about being on telly or being famous at all, when I decided to leave teaching and have a go at acting.
For me, it was always great popular theatre that was the height of my ambition. That’s why my first glimpse of 7:84 back in the early 80s changed my life; it’s why I love pantomime so much. And it’s why I’m so happy to be working on these two shows, on theatre that has that sense of political passion, and real popular storytelling; I feel I’m coming back to where I started, in the best possible way.”
Red Dust Road is at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, from 14-18 August, and on tour to Greenock, Stirling, Inverness and Manchester; Mrs Puntila And Her Man Matti is at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, from 28 February until 21 March, and at Tramway, Glasgow, from 25 March until 11 April