Obituary: Pauline Knowles, award-winning actress at the heart of Scottish theatre for nearly 30 years

Pauline Knowles as Mrs Racket in The Belle's Stratagem. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic
Pauline Knowles as Mrs Racket in The Belle's Stratagem. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic
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Pauline Knowles, actress. Born: 16 December, 1967 in Edinburgh. Died: 17 October, 2018 in Glasgow, aged 50

PAULINE KNOWLES, who has died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 50, was one of the shining stars of the last 25 years of Scottish theatre, an actress who brought an unforgettable combination of skill, integrity and generosity to a huge range of roles, on almost every major stage in Scotland. Audiences will perhaps remember her best for recent stunning performances at the Lyceum in Edinburgh and the Citizens’ in Glasgow, notably as the betrayed and murderous Queen, Clytemnestra, in Zinnie Harris’s 21st century reworking of the Oresteia, This Restless House, which first appeared at the Citizens’ Theatre in 2016, and was re-staged as part of the 2017 Edinburgh International Festival.

Knowles’s performance as Clytemnestra was recognised as Best Female Performance at the 2016 Critics’ Awards For Theatre In Scotland, for its extraordinary qualities of raging strength and absolute vulnerability; and as the Queen who spent her treacherous husband’s absence at the Trojan Wars running her palace like a boozy night-club, Knowles was also able to use her wonderful singing voice, which added an extra dimension of range and variety to her stage career.

Her last appearance at the Lyceum, earlier this year, was a comedy triumph in the role of Mrs Racket, an exceptionally merry widow about town in Tony Cownie’s version of 18th century feminist comedy The Belle’s Stratagem, set in the booming Edinburgh New Town of the early 18th century. In a brilliant double act with Nicola Roy, as her friend Mrs Ogle, she won the biggest laugh of the night for her ever-so-slightly slurred, “I won’t insult your intelligence; we’ve had a few drinks,” as she conveyed Ogle home in a barrow from an Assembly Rooms ball; and those great roles marked the growing fulfilment of a career that began in 1990, when Knowles – then still a student – was cast by John McGrath in his Glasgow 1990 Tramway production John Brown’s Body, and that also included her appearance at the Traverse, in 1995, as the first-ever Young Woman in David Harrower’s internationally-acclaimed debut play Knives In Hens.

Pauline Knowles was born in 1967 in Edinburgh, the 12th in a family of 13 children. The family lived in the Inch housing estate on the south side of the city; Knowles’s father was a sales representative and her mother dedicated herself to bringing up a family born over a span of more than 20 years, from the late 1940s to the late 1960s. As the second youngest in a family with high educational ambitions, all of whom enjoyed music and family sing-songs, Pauline was encouraged in all her talents and interests, which included singing, dancing and a flair for school work and sports.

At Holy Rood High School, she was taught by the influential drama teacher Frances Paterson, who later became a friend; and although she left school intending to study English and psychology at Stirling University, she realised after her first year there that acting was her vocation, and transferred to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, graduating in 1990 into a career that involved occasional appearances in television dramas including Strathblair and Taggart, but was otherwise entirely focused on stage work in Scotland.

Over almost three decades, Pauline Knowles’s name on a cast list became a byword for quality and thoughtfulness in Scottish theatre, as she worked with David MacLennan and David Anderson at Wildcat, Graham McLaren at Theatre Babel, Philip Howard at the Traverse, Giles Havergal, Guy Hollands and Dominic Hill at the Citizens, Tony Cownie at the Lyceum and elsewhere, and latterly in some outstanding work with women directors, including Zinnie Harris’s short opera The Garden at the Sound Festival in Aberdeen, Cora Bissett’s 2016 production of Jumpy at the Lyceum, and a stunning performance as Lot’s wife Sverdlovsk in Howard Barker’s Lot And His God, directed by Debbie Hannan at the Citizens’ Theatre Studio in 2015.

She also appeared regularly, over the last 14 years, in A Play, A Pie And A Pint lunchtime shows; her final performance, during this year’s Edinburgh Fringe at Summerhall, was in Beth Morton’s production of Gary McNair’s post-NHS dystopian drama After The Cuts, originally a Play, Pie and Pint commission. And when she was not involved in full stage productions, she enjoyed taking part in rehearsed readings and development work, working frequently with the Scottish Playwrights’ Studio among others.

“Pauline loved to be busy,” remembers her brother-in-law David Brown. “She was never one for just hanging around waiting for the next show to come along. She was always reading, always thinking, always keeping herself fit and ready for the next thing.” And although her work was sometimes very demanding, involving long absences on tour, she also remained deeply involved in family life, often spending time with her brothers and sisters, with her mother who died last year, and with the younger generations of the family

Then a decade ago, while she was appearing in a Citizens’ Christmas show, she texted her brother-in-law David to thank him and her sister Helen for a birthday bouquet that had been delivered to the theatre, not realising that David had changed his mobile number. After a baffled exchange of messages with Angus Gray, the man who had inherited the number, Pauline agreed to meet him for a drink; and within a few months, Angus had become her lifelong partner. The couple became engaged on Pauline’s 50th birthday last year, and were planning to marry in 2019.

“Pauline was a very private person, in some ways,” says her close friend and colleague Richard Conlon, who worked with her recently at the Lyceum in Jumpy and The Belle’s Stratagem. “But she was also great fun, a tremendously genuine, warm person and just great to work with. She had this absolute directness that could be really unsettling – very clear, very precise about the text, and yet with huge integrity and heart. She was very technical – she always knew when things weren’t working, and why. But she also had great instincts, and she put her whole self into the work, always.”

The playwright David Greig, artistic director of the Lyceum, described the news of her death as heartbreaking, and wrote that “she was at the heart of Scottish theatre making for so long – so clever, funny, transcendent and loved”; playwright Stephen Greenhorn, originator of River City and writer of Sunshine On Leith, talked of a “great actor and lovely person”, with a career “threaded through Scottish theatre, from Knives In Hens to This Restless House.” And the playwright and director Zinnie Harris, who watched Pauline Knowles bring her character of Clytemnestra to life, describes her as “enormously truthful, emotionally resourceful, and demanding of herself as she worked on a role; but she also had this glorious generosity of spirit towards the text that meant sometimes you would watch a scene in rehearsal, and she would literally take your breath away.”

Pauline Knowles is survived by her fiancé Angus Gray and his two children, by 11 of her 12 brothers and sisters, and by a much-loved extended family; and also by a Scottish theatre community which has been profoundly influenced over the last three decades by the outstanding human qualities she brought to her work, and which is now struggling to believe that it will never hear her unique and beautiful voice again.

JOYCE MCMILLAN