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Obituary: Pauline Knowles – ‘influential actor of intensity and fierce understanding’

Pauline Knowles with George Costigan, Lorn MacDonald and Cliff Burnett in This Restless House at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow in 2016. Photo: Tim Morozzo

Pauline Knowles, who has died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 50, was a leading actor on the Scottish stage whose talents were only recently acclaimed but whose meticulous professionalism and strong critical eye had a powerful influence on emerging Scottish talent over a 28-year career.

She had a considerable number of roles to her name, including the notable premiere production of David Harrower’s Knives in Hens, directed by Philip Howard for the Traverse in 1995, co-starring Michael Nardone and with live music by the late Martyn Bennett.

While she consistently impressed with an intensity and fierce understanding, it was not until 2016 that she was judged best female performance at the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland for her portrayal of Clytemnestra in Zinnie Harris’ adaptation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, This Restless House, at the Citizens, Glasgow, directed by Dominic Hill.

Pauline Knowles as Clytemnestra in This Restless House at the Citizens Glasgow in 2016. Photo: Tim Morozzo
Pauline Knowles as Clytemnestra in This Restless House at the Citizens Glasgow in 2016. Photo: Tim Morozzo

Born in Edinburgh in 1977 to Dora and Jasper Knowles, Pauline was the 12th of 13 children. She was brought up in the city and went to Holy Rood High School, where she came under the spell of the stage thanks to then head of drama Frances Paterson.

Other childhood interests included basketball, singing and highland dancing, and she initially went to Stirling University to study English and Psychology. However, after a year in which she had already made a name for herself as a singer to look out for on Stirling’s pub circuit, she moved to Glasgow to study at the then Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama – now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

While studying in Glasgow she was spotted by John McGrath, who cast her in her first professional role in Wildcat’s production of John Brown’s Body at the Glasgow Tramway in 1990, during Glasgow’s year as City of Culture.

After graduating, she appeared in productions for Wildcat, 7:84 and Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum, before taking on the role of Chris Guthrie, the central figure in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel Sunset Song, adapted for TAG Theatre by Alistair Corning. The huge success of the production led Corning to adapt the other two parts of the Scots Quair trilogy, culminating in a staging of the three at the 1993 Edinburgh International Festival.

Besides appearing in productions for the Traverse, Lyceum, Citizens and Oran Mor, as well as Theatre Babel, Communicado and Magnetic North, Knowles was a strong supporter of the Playwrights’ Studio Scotland, bringing her keen and astute dramaturgical skills to the development of numerous plays through her involvement in script development workshops and reading new plays. Part of a generation of performers who came into a golden age of new writing in the theatre, she was as adept at working with writers as she was with directors – for whom she had a particularly withering look if they gave her a false note.

Although remembered for her intensity, Knowles had a strong comic side, brought out in a show-stealing performance as the New York Jewish hairdresser in Sue Glover’s Marilyn for the Citizens in 2011 and, most memorably, as June Spoon in David Shrigley’s “sort of opera” Pass the Spoon for Magnetic North the following year.

Pauline Knowles was born on December 16, 1967, and died on October 17. She is survived by her fiance, Angus Gray, and 10 of her siblings.

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