Scottish audiences have been dazzled by the powerful performances of Anna Russell-Martin since she graduated from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland just 18 months ago. Now London calls and after that, who knows? Interview by Joyce McMillan
The time is October 2019, the place is the main auditorium of the Traverse Theatre. The house lights fade, the stage blazes into life, and striding towards us comes a girl, or a young woman. She wears shades, and something like the styled-up remnants of a school uniform; her gorgeous, angular face is dazzlingly beautiful, rather than conventionally “pretty.” And she radiates glamour and defiance with a force that causes a sudden sharp intake of breath, across the whole audience.
The play is The Panopticon, Jenni Fagan’s stage version, for the National Theatre of Scotland, of her own acclaimed 2012 novel about a girl called Anais, brought up in Scotland’s care system, who possesses a creative imagination so wild, wonderful and surreal that it seems bound to power her eventual escape. The director is Debbie Hannan, named just a few weeks later as new joint artistic director of the Traverse.
And the woman in the spotlight is Anna Russell-Martin, who – in the 18 months since she graduated from the acting course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow – has cut an extraordinary swathe across the world of Scottish theatre, in what has been described as Scotland’s most exciting stage debut since Alan Cumming first trod the boards, 35 years ago.
Nor was The Panopticon Russell Martin’s only triumph, in the past year. In May, she thrilled audiences at Oran Mor and the Traverse with a terrific performance as airport security guard Emma – caught between sympathy for another woman and pressure from her proto-fascist boss – in Uma Nada-Rajah’s fine Play, Pie And Pint drama Toy Plastic Chicken, based on a real-life incident. In March, she played the 21st century Nora, caught in a web of pay-day loans, in Stef Smith’s superb new take on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House for the Citizens’ Theatre at the Tramway, set in three different time-frames since 1919. And before that, in 2018, she delivered an outstanding solo performance, at the Tron Changing House, of Jack Thorne’s challenging monologue Bunny. It has been, she admits herself, an extraordinary year; and one in which she has barely had time to catch her breath between roles, far less think about the long-term direction of her career.
“Its been amazing,” says Russell-Martin, speaking from a friend’s flat in London, where she’s hunting for accommodation. “What’s happening next is that Nora is transferring to the Young Vic in February for a six-week run, so I’m looking for a flat down here, and trying out a few different places. I would like to base myself in London for a while, just to see how that goes; although I would always want to be working in Scottish theatre, too.
“At the moment, though, it’s mainly about getting Nora on at the Young Vic, and making sure London has a chance to see that fantastic version by Stef Smith at its absolute best. I was made to study A Doll’s House at school, and to be honest I hated it. I don’t think I even really saw it as something to be acted – it just seemed like another text you had to read. But as soon as I began to read Stef’s version, I just got it; in fact, a few pages in, I started to cry, because the whole situation seemed so real and relevant to me.
“I still cry, whenever I read it; and it has just been fantastic, to be able to play so many great characters one after the other, in my first year as a professional actor.”
Russell-Martin was born in Coatbridge in 1998, into a family that had no theatrical history at all – “although I would say that they are quite dramatic people, really!” Her father is an NHS mental health nurse, often using art and creativity in his work; and right from the start, Russell -Martin felt that her parents wanted her and her two older brothers to aim high and fulfil their dreams, instead of putting them on the back burner, as the older generation had often had to do.
“At first, I went to dance class,” says Russell-Martin, “and I loved it. But then one day, the dance teacher asked my mother if I had ever tried acting, because I seemed to enjoy that aspect of dance so much; and from then on, I never really looked back. At secondary school I was quite sporty – my school, St Andrew’s in Coatbridge, was big on that – but I went to classes at the Vivace Theatre School in Glasgow, and through one of my primary school teachers I joined the Kirkintilloch Players, and just played every role I could get. And for me, it was always the character roles. I never wanted to be the pretty princess. I’d be playing the wicked witch, or the grandmother; and even at the RCS, I spent a lot of my time playing mothers, and people much older than me.”
Before the RCS, Russell-Martin spent two years on the national music theatre course at Knightswood School in Glasgow, but says she was always “an actor who could sing and dance a bit,” rather than the opposite; and when she left school in 2015, she went straight into the highly prestigious RCS acting course, graduating in 2018 into a prized internship at the Citizens’ Theatre, which led to her appearance in Nora. And she agrees that if there is a theme running through her theatre career so far, it’s something to do with being slightly less interested – for the moment – in the classics, and more interested in drama that is intensely contemporary, and highly accessible.
“I really loved the experience of doing Toy Plastic Chicken at Oran Mor,” she says, “because fundamentally I believe the job is to entertain, before you can do anything else; and there, you’re just jumping in with two weeks’ rehearsal, and trying to give a good show to people who want a pint and a pie. It seemed to me that that was the kind of show that my Mum and Dad would come to and enjoy, and I loved that. Theatre should be for everyone; and if you can’t create something that entertains people, and speaks to them about their lives – well then, there’s a lot of competition out there, and they’ll just go and watch the football, won’t they?
“As for my future – well, you can plan as much as you like in this profession, but because it’s all about creating and learning, everything changes as soon as you start doing a new role, and I just feel that I want to be open to new things that are happening everywhere, in London, America, Scotland, wherever. So for me, this is the dream, exactly what I hoped for as a young girl when I first started acting. And so far, I’ve found this a very warm industry, friendly and supportive beyond anything I would have imagined. There are bound to be exceptions, of course. But on the whole, people seem to welcome you with open arms; and that’s a wonderful feeling.”
Nora: A Doll’s House is at the Young Vic, London, from 6 February until 21 March