Rab C Nesbitt and Two Doors Down star Elaine C Smith recalls her days teaching drama in Edinburgh ahead of new play at the Lyceum
EIGHT of the ten-strong cast of Mrs Puntila and her Man Matti, are clambering over scaffolding and singing their hearts out as they rehearse the Act One finale of the Royal Lyceum’s latest production.
The missing pair, Elaine C Smith and Steven McNicoll, meanwhile, are running lines in another room with Turkish director Murat Daltaban and his translator.
It’s a situation 61-year-old Elaine has never before found herself in and a short while later, over lunch in the nearby Dine Restaurant, she reflects, “I’ve never worked with a translator before. At first I didn’t know how it was going to work, but it’s amazing how quickly you get used to it and realise that comedy really is universal.”
Comedy has played a major part in Elaine’s career, which now spans some four decades. From City Lights, in which she was ‘pure, dead, brilliant,’ to Naked Video, and from Mary Doll in Rab C Nebitt to stealing every scene as Christine in the critically acclaimed Two Doors Down, Elaine has never been far from our screens. Which makes it all the more endearing that there is a generation of grown-up Edinburgh school kids for who she will forever be, Miss Smith.
“A woman came running out of her beauty salon in Bruntsfield as I was passing to give me a voucher and said, ‘You won’t remember me Miss Smith, but you taught me when I was this wee...’ the actress laughs, “I really loved working as a drama teacher and I loved the kids. I am one of that rare breed, a Weegie who loves Edinburgh.”
Elaine taught at Firrhill High for three years before landing work with 7:84 Theatre Company that took her away from teaching. She also taught at James Gillespie’s and Bonaly, Comiston and Oxgangs primaries, and it was while teaching, that she met her husband, Bob. “He taught Modern Studies at Firhill but, of course, we met at a Union meeting,” she grins.
Right now, all Elaine’s focus is on Mrs Puntila and her Man Matti, in which she plays the title role. Adapted from Bertolt Brecht’s 1940 play Mr Puntila and his Man Matti, Denise Mina’s new adaptation gives the lead character a gender-change.
The piece tells the uproarious story of Argyll landowner Mrs Puntila who, when drunk, is a generous and kind-hearted boss who convinces everyone they can have a bright future under her wing. When sober, however, she’s a cruel and greedy tyrant. Behind the scenes, her shrewd chauffeur Matti, played by McNicoll, irons out her drunken mishaps while pursuing a hopeless romance with her already-spoken-for daughter Eva, a match which will only be possible if Mrs Puntila can get over the class divide.
“Denise Mina brings contemporary politics, zero-hours contracts, pensions, people having to reapply for their own jobs... all those things to the play, so she has contemporised it in a way that makes it quite relevant. It’s also very funny,” she promises, warming to her theme.
“I have a line at the end, where I am sitting pontificating, pished, I say, ‘Look at Bonnie Scotland. Look at it, isn’t it brilliant. I love it. Yes, there’s a wind that would blow the knickers off a nun and a sky so blue that even King Billy would ask you to turn it down...’ that is what I mean. Funny. I even get to throw knives at a judge who is sliding down a table, Murat has all these amazing ideas, at first I was like ‘Eh?’ but they work.”
She thinks for a moment before adding, “Brecht scholars may be going, ‘This is not what we want, we want the text as Brecht wrote it,’ but that’s like the people who go to see Shakespeare and sit with the script, mouthing along with the lines. What I want, is to see these worlds brought alive and made relevant.”
To emphasise her point, she recalls, “One of the best Shakespeares I ever saw was a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the Young Lyceum, here in Edinburgh, in the Seventies. It was the first time I had seen Shakespeare on stage and they did it in hot pants, sparkly Afro wigs, baseball boots... and Oberon came down on an assault course net. I was at drama school at the time and never thought Shakespeare could be like that. The experience stayed with me for ever.”
Reminiscing about those early days, Elaine confides that although turning 60 a year and a half ago was a milestone, it wasn’t one that caused her too much concern.
“I’ve been playing 45 yar olds since I was 20 because with a big chest you always get to play older,” she laughs. “It didn’t frighten me at all, but there is a part of me that still doesn’t believe it. There’s a relief that comes with turning 60 and I had months of celebrations. I think because I’ve lost so many people, old and young, over the last three years that I just felt incredibly lucky to get there, so many people don’t.”
One thing entering her seventh decade did do, was to convince Elaine to take more breaks between jobs.That’s why she has four weeks to herself after Puntila before filming the next series of Two Doors Down and donning the dowdy costumes of the outrageous Christine - a godsend for any actress.
“I have got to the stage in my life where I’ve had a great shot at this. It’s a lottery and I’ve had a great go, so it’s time to give others a chance, but then Christine fell in my lap,” she explains.
“I watched the pilot. It was fresh and reflected a different Scotland, one we hadn’t seen before, so I said to my agent, ‘If anything ever comes up on that, you know, a cleaner at bus stop, I’d be happy to do it.’
“Unbeknownst to me, the series’ creators Simon Carlyle and Gregor Sharp had already said they thought it would be great to get me in it. I thought I’d be in for two episodes as Sharon’s mum, but it fitted in with what I was doing and suddenly Christine became what she has become. As a woman, she is liberating to play because I don’t have to care what I look like.
"She really is one of the bestest characters ever but it’s also one of the hardest shoots I’ve been on; eight actors in a room in a nine page scene, that’s a lot on television. Just think how much footage they need to get every look, every raised eyebrow. It’s unlike any other sitcom I’ve ever done but by the end of the day I don’t know whether it’s New Year or New York.”
Recently there has been talk of the return of another sitcom Elaine became famous for, Ian Pattison’s Rab C Nesbitt. A stage-play has been touted by Gregor Fisher and Elaine, confirms, “Yes, we’ve been talking for a year and a half, and yes, if it was a one-off, I’d come back, but the talks are ongoing.”
Not that we’ll have to wait too long to see Elaine back on an Edinburgh stage. After Puntila, the Fringe beckons with plans to bring Ida Tamson, her hit A Play A Pie and A Pint collaboration with Mina, to the Gilded Balloon in August.
“You’ll be sick of me,” she laughs, “You’ll be like, ‘No her again’, but it is a great play, dark, funny and tragic and with a wonderful cast."
Mrs Puntila and her Man Matti runs at the Lyceum from 28 February to 21 March