There’s a thing called the “Caledonian antisyzygy”, that is said to embody the emphatic alternations of darkness and light in the Scottish psyche; the enlightenment philosophers and the fighting drunks, the intense commitment to common sense, virtue and respectability, and the Jekyll-and-Hyde descents into Gothic realms of the dark and macabre.
Whether this syndrome actually exists, or is just another Scottish stereotype, is hard to say; but one place where it certainly flourishes, in the real world, is in the remarkable acting career of Alan Steele, who – since his professional acting life began in the late 1990s – has carved out a niche in patrolling those borderlands between the benign and the cruel, the respectable and the unimaginably evil. Some of his finest performances have been given at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, where he played James Bridie’s sinister Dr Angelus in a memorable 2011 production, and also – in 2014 and 2017 – twice played the phenomenally successful Scottish playwright JM Barrie, watching in care and sorrow as his characters navigate the drama of the politically disturbing Admirable Crichton, and the truly sinister and melancholy Mary Rose.
Steele is also a regular member of Gordon Barr’s Bard In The Botanics company, revelling in creating fine Shakespeare performances with a distinct Scottish perspective. Thanks to the Bard company’s special relationship with the Byre Theatre in St Andrews, Steele has become the Byre’s regular pantomime dame, creating a character whose bold alternations between good-hearted bonhomie and hungry desire for love and admiration once again conjure up that same sense of light and dark. And when it was announced that Bard In The Botanics would emerge from lockdown with a production of Twelfth Night, Steele was at last able to play a character that might almost have been written for him – that of the stiff-necked and puritanical steward Malvolio, whose hard-won dignity collapses when he is tricked into believing that his wealthy and beautiful mistress, Olivia, has fallen madly in love with him.
Alan Steele grew up in Renfrew, brought up by his grandmother and aunt in a tough but stable home that was a refuge from the chaos then engulfing the rest of his family. At school in the 1980s, he was cast as Fagin in a production of Oliver!, and immediately knew that he wanted to be an actor; but it took years of working in temporary jobs in Glasgow and Edinburgh – as a waiter, a barman, a bingo caller, and in a record shop – before he was able to complete his education at Langside College, and, in his mid-20s, take up a place at Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, graduating in 1998 into a first job in Kenny Ireland’s Lyceum production of Much Ado About Nothing, which starred Elaine C Smith as Beatrice.
Since then, career highlights have included several seasons of “extreme touring” across Scotland with Alasdair McCrone’s Mull Theatre, and an appearance in Rowan Tree Theatre’s adaptation of James Hogg’s Memoirs And Confessions of A Justified Sinner, perhaps the most notable of all explorations of a divided Scottish psyche. Here, though – in a Scotsman Session filmed in the Glasgow Botanics – he returns to his beloved Shakespeare, to play the opening of one of the most famous comic scenes in the whole canon; the moment when Malvolio finds a letter which he believes to be from his mistress Olivia, and begins to entertain thoughts that will drive him from reason and dignity, into something like madness.
The Bard In The Botanics 2021 season continues until 28 August – for details and tickets see https://www.bardinthebotanics.co.uk/productions
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