Edinburgh Festival Day 2 / Theatre: Second time lucky: Sarah Hemming talks to Eleanor Bron and Cindy Oswin about giving bit-part characters their big break

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The Independent Culture
ONE of the great literary mysteries is what on earth Godot is doing to keep him away so long. Is he detained by metaphysical business, or simply stuck in traffic? There are so many possibilities it's strange that nobody has written a play about it. After all, the lure of the secret lives of minor or off-stage characters has resulted in some intriguing spin-offs - with the first Mrs Rochester retelling her life story in Wide Sargasso Sea, Hamlet's chums off-loading their frustrations in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Mrs Vershinin, who only appears in Chekhov's The Three Sisters as a series of suicide attempts, finally getting her say in Helen Cooper's Mrs Vershinin. Other such characters get a new lease of life at this year's Fringe. In Scenic Flights Cindy Oswin liberates Winnie (from Beckett's Happy Days) from her mound of sand and sends her on a world cruise, while in Desdemona - If You Had Only Spoken, Eleanor Bron gives three women a second chance to state their case.

Bron selected her characters - Petrarch's Laura and the wives of Luther and Goethe - from a book of 11 monologues from suppressed women, fictional and historical, by German writer Christine Bruckner. 'Each monologue puts a slightly different view about women and the ways they have been written off. Some are on domestic violence, several of them are on men's need to go to war, and Mrs Goethe's monologue is really about society and snobbishness. One thing Bruckner does stress in every one is the importance of sex and sexuality. Some of them I found really touching. I was terribly moved by Laura.'

In the monologue, Laura, the beautiful woman whom Petrarch chose to be his muse, is dying of the Black Death. In her pain she addresses the poet, complaining that, by putting her on a pedestal in his sonnets, he has denied her existence as a real woman.

Bron is aware that the impact of such a piece may be lost if members of the audience are not familiar with the original work in which the character first appeared. But, she feels, Bruckner has foreseen this problem. 'I found that when I did a bit of research on the characters, I knew it all already, because she has woven everything you need to know very neatly into the text.'

She has sufficient confidence in Bruckner's text to leave the most famous character, Shakespeare's Desdemona, off the stage all together - partly for practical reasons (Bron is far closer in age to Laura, Mrs Goethe and Mrs Luther), partly to give voice to less predictable characters. Yet of all Bruckner's women, Desdemona alone is able to give vent to her feelings and change her fate. The fact that, in the book, she is able to talk Othello out of killing her prompts the question: if Desdemona could have spoken up and saved her life, why didn't she? Had Hamlet acted straight away, he wouldn't be Hamlet and the play wouldn't exist; if Godot had shown up, or Jimmy Porter's wife had left him in the first act, the audience could all go home. So is Christine Bruckner's Desdemona a credible extrapolation of the characteristics that constitute Shakespeare's Desdemona, or is she simply a literary game?

'Well, of course, the question is: 'If she was capable of saying something like that, why didn't she say it?' ' Bron agrees. 'But then that's true of all of us. What is interesting as an actress or a writer is that you can recycle all your experiences but make different choices. And in the case of a character like Desdemona, who already has an existence somewhere, you allow her to have that life that most people don't get.' So is she in keeping with the Desdemona who married Othello? 'I think she is. She's quite feisty in the play.'

'I believe characters can have a life off the page,' says Cindy Oswin, the writer and performer of Scenic Flights. 'I'm not worried about being true to Beckett. She's my Winnie now.'

In Scenic Flights Winnie has emerged from the mound of sand in which she spends the whole of Happy Days and takes a grand tour of self-discovery round the world. Being buried in sand has left her with a few neck problems, so she spends the trip in a surgical collar. This physical detail aside, how close is she to the original character?

'She still carries a lot of the characteristics of Beckett's Winnie,' says Oswin. 'She's quite a frustrated tragic figure. Beckett's Winnie was much posher - I wanted to make her closer to myself - though she has similar speech patterns to Beckett's Winnie. But I wouldn't have dreamt of making the play entirely about myself. I felt very comfortable with the idea of taking an existing character and giving her another life.'

But Oswin found that, having adopted Winnie, other Happy Days elements sneaked in with her. 'Things have happened coincidentally. Without looking at Happy Days, I wrote a character into the play called Mr Bathroom. Then when I went back to Beckett later, I found there's a character called Mr Shower.'

Oswin is experienced at giving voice to unsung figures: she has written and performed a play about, among others, Caroline Brunswick, the wife of George IV, and is currently working on a series of six pieces about women featured in the National Portrait Gallery.

Given the paucity of good parts for women, there is plenty of room for improving the lot of other short-changed characters. 'Well, actually, Jocasta deserves to have more of a shot,' says Eleanor Bron. 'She only features rather fleetingly in Oedipus - I think she deserves a longer go. And then I just think of all the small parts in plays. Like the aunt in The Heiress, who leads such a ghastly life. I'd like to see more of the lives of many bit parts.'

'Desdemona - If Only You Had Spoken' runs to 5 Sept (not 23 Aug, 1 Sept) at 4.45pm; 'Scenic Flights' runs to 5 Sept (not 27 Aug, 1 Sept) at 9.30pm. Both at The Pleasance, 60 The Pleasance (venue 33), 031-556 6550.

(Photographs omitted)

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