Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Interview • ISHIA BENNISON • Cymbeline • RSC • 2003

ishiaIshia Bennison has one of the most infectious laughs in the business: a deep, throaty gurgle that can have you giggling in an instant. She has been around longer than her looks might suggest if you remember that she played Guizin Osman in the early days of EastEnders (1985-1989). Recently she has been engaging us in ITV1’s three riotous series of At Home with the Braithwaites as the vulgar but endearing Denise Skidmore.

Ishia has worked on stage all over the UK and abroad, particularly for Northern Broadsides. ‘I’ve had some wonderful jobs and brilliant parts,’ she says about a career that has encompassed such strong women as Medea (Lilian Baylis Theatre 1992), Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Manchester Library 2002) and an acclaimed Cleopatra for Broadsides (1995). Michael Coveney, writing in the Observer, was much taken with her Queen of the Nile: ‘…the wonderful Ishia Bennison is a gutsy, skittish, scratchy Cleopatra, funny and feisty, achieving her dignity through refusing all compromise.’

When I spoke to the actress, she was clearly having a ball rehearsing the Queen in the RSC’s Cymbeline with director Dominic Cooke, a production that opened last week at the Swan Theatre in Stratford. One of the Bard’s later romances, Cymbeline is at once strange and fantastical not unlike The Winter’s Tale but rather darker and somewhat confusingly plotted.

‘We’ve just finished going through the play, paraphrasing and paraphrasing all the parts and then we split up into groups and we work the play, we do our own versions of it. We can set them anywhere we like — we’ve just had a kind of American talk show for the end of the play. And the only kind of proviso is that you don’t play your own part. So none of us — apart from the paraphrasing — have actually said a line of our own parts yet!’

She was finding this an exciting and valuable method of working and, where often one doesn’t get to be thoroughly familiar with a play until much later on, no matter how much preparatory work has been done prior to rehearsals, this company already knew Cymbeline inside out. ‘Everybody’s included so that the people who don’t have a huge amount to say have also been playing everything so that there’s a real equal footing feel about it all which is great.’

Ishia has worked with Dominic Cooke before and is full of praise. ‘He’s really special, I think. Very, very clever young man. He’s done lovely things for us like he’s held off the design, which in a company like this is very tricky. So, instead of arriving and having a set of designs — which, as you know yourself, so often dictate how you work — there aren’t any. Yet! Things are being built so within all this setting up and doing these parts, we’ve also had endless well-chosen props and costumes. It’s like having the biggest dressing-up box in the world.’

Every creative sinew was being put to use in rehearsal. At one point Cooke had them all drawing huge pictures: ‘…the kind of Damien Hirst vision of the ancient Britons or whatever. All sorts of very representational and funny stuff. It’s lovely to not to be constrained. How often does that happen?’ Indeed. Of course, none of this means the result will automatically have that alchemical something extra that denotes an all-round success, but as Ishia says, it’s a great way to work.

Although we had lost touch some years before due to circumstance, Ishia and I originally met in the early 1980s when our then respective partners were on tour together. ‘You and I hit it off straight away,’ Ishia remembers. And we did. She is a gutsy, gentle, ferociously hard-working and loyal human being, and enormous fun to have around — it’s that laugh, you see. But I was unaware how she had started or what had prompted her to head for one of the most insecure, character-forming ways — to say the least — of earning a living.

She is from Yorkshire stock and was brought up in Hull without any connections to the theatre. Her desire came ‘completely out of the blue’ brought on, as for so many, by doing plays at school. ‘It was realising that they were something that I really enjoyed, that I seemed to be quite good at, and that were great fun to do. I just absolutely adored it and decided at school that that’s what I wanted to do. But really quite early. That’s how. Terribly boring, really!’

She trained at Manchester Poly (now Manchester Metropolitan University School of Theatre) which she describes as ‘a breeding ground for wonderful actors like Julie Walters, Richard Griffiths and George Costigan’. Indeed, Ishia worked with Costigan last autumn in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Manchester Library for which she received a Manchester Evening News nomination for Best Actress. ‘Such fun and so great with George — he’s just an adorable bloke. And what a part!’

This was not the most serene period of her life as she was also filming At Home with the Braithwaites. ‘Talk about sitting at home for God knows how long, it’s ridiculous. And I was so tired and they’d pick me up from the end of rehearsal, drive me over to Leeds, sleep there, get up, film at 5.30am and then back in the car and then back into rehearsal.’

Such to-ing and fro-ing is not conducive to learning lines. ‘Of course I was so knackered it just wouldn’t go in. I’m usually pretty quick on getting it down, or working hard on getting it learnt, and I can remember saying to the director, Chris — because I didn’t know the third act the week before we opened and Martha never stops talking — I remember saying, “It’s alright, Chris, don’t worry, I will know it.” “Yes, darling,” he said, “I know but — when?” He’s a bloody good director, Chris Honer. I think he was absolutely superb. I’d never worked with him before and we weren’t quite sure how it was going to turn out. But I thought he was absolutely brilliant. And of course it was wonderful knowing George.’

Costigan used to tell Ishia she was ‘very odd’ because she somehow started on the play backwards. ‘I didn’t quite know what he meant!’ she says with raucous laughter. ‘I sort of knew where I was going to get to but I wasn’t quite certain I was going to get there. What I found very difficult was starting it off and finding how to begin it, which is so often the way. The ends kind of take care of themselves because the process has gone so far to get there, and it’s always the beginning that’s so difficult. And this really was very difficult at the beginning because they are so outrageous, or she is so outrageous, and it’s how far to go really, how far to go to start, and tough, very tough.’

When I ask if Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is likely to get another life, she tells me that she and George would certainly like to do it again and that there are ‘vague possibilities’. ‘But who knows? The good thing is it’s in one’s range for a bit. One isn’t going to get too old for it that quickly!’ Ishia accompanies this comment with hoots of laughter, as do I, for it is and always has been a truth universally acknowledged that there are fewer parts for women than men and even fewer once you hit your forties and fifties. ‘And to be honest,’ adds Ishia, ‘there ain’t that many of the real parts that you really, really want to do. It would be nice to do some Chekhov or something — I think that would be very nice.’

She is also a great fan of Ibsen. ‘The Enemy of the People — so modern, so about the world we live in and the machinations. So sharp.’ There were some who were not enamoured of Ralph Fiennes in Adrian Noble’s production of Brand, his last as artistic director of the RSC, and which is currently running in the West End. ‘People had a problem with it. I thought it was wonderful. It was moving and extraordinary and intelligent and touched all sorts of places and ideas. And I thought he [Fiennes] was fantastic. It was wonderful seeing it in the Swan because it’s such a great space.’

Much of Ishia’s work has been for Northern Broadsides, the company founded just over ten years ago by actor and director Barrie Rutter, and famous for productions of Shakespeare with a Yorkshire accent.

‘That was divine,’ she says. ‘I did the first production which was Richard III when of course we had no idea or not whether people were just going to laugh in our faces when all these northern actors turned up doing Shakespeare northern. We had no idea what the response was going to be. And we opened in Hull, which is both Barrie’s and my home town, and the three queens were all at the same digs. We got up in the morning to find this freebie paper had been pushed through the door and right at the top it said, “Broadsides a flop”. And we went, “Oh my God, this is ridiculous!” And then we went, “Hang on. We haven’t opened!” I’m afraid Hull does have a reputation for small-mindedness and talk about not welcoming the sons and daughters home! They decided that because ticket sales weren’t brilliant that we were a flop before we opened. Fortunately, we went on to prove them wrong and got loads of wonderful notices and things. But how could people book in advance when they didn’t know? Anyway, it was fantastic and we opened in the Shipyard in Hull which was fabulous and then we played everything and everywhere. I went to India with them, to Brazil with them, to Europe — all over Europe — and we just had the most brilliant time.’

With her Mistress Overdone in the RSC’s Measure for Measure and now Cymbeline, Ishia has had little time this year for anything else. When time does allow, however, she teaches at The Artists Theatre School based at Ealing Film Studios and run by fellow Braithwaites actress Amanda Redman with whom she has become great mates.

‘She’s got this wonderful drama school that she started and I’ve been helping her with productions there and teaching. It’s brilliant. I mean it’s such hard, tough work for the kids and then what happens is that one helps them. A lot of them want to go drama school so you help them with auditions. The take-up is brilliant — it’s pretty much 100 per cent which is just remarkable.’

Sadly, our time was over all too soon and she is due back in the rehearsal room. Should your only experience of Ishia Bennison be from television, you have a treat in store if you make your way to Stratford this summer.

Sarah Vernon © 2003

Originally published on R&V on 10-08-03

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