Written by Justine Brooks


Interview: Cathy Tyson

The powerhouse actor talks feminism, fear and women in authority with Justine Brooks, as they catch up between rehearsals for the world premiere of Winter Hill.

Cathy Tyson: “On a very personal level, this play made me think about what I’m not doing out of fear.” Photos by Ray Jefferson, Bolton Camera Club.

You’d imagine Cathy Tyson, award-winning star of stage and screen, would be pretty unflustered about taking on a brand new play. But she’s feeling challenged.

She’s currently in rehearsals for Winter Hill, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s new play set in Bolton, and it’s seriously stretching her comfort zones. “It’s never been done before and so there’s nothing to hang it on,” she explains.

Tyson, perhaps best known for her appearance in the 1986 movie Mona Lisa alongside Bob Hoskins and Michael Caine, is working with an all-female cast in Wertenbaker’s new drama. The story follows a group of seemingly ordinary women striving to protect their community from unscrupulous developers building a skyscraper hotel building, the largest in Europe, on the land that is called Winter Hill.

It’s a David and Goliath tale of people taking charge of their destiny, exploring the lengths to which people will go, in order to protect what they love.

Tyson plays Irene, deputy leader of the council. “I’m learning about being in the council, about what it is to be a councillor. Where does the seed come from to become more involved locally, to go beyond yourself and to think about community? I’m learning in ways I’m not used to doing, which isn’t always a smooth-running thing, but I’m not retreating to my comfort zones.”

Wertenbaker’s play explores the boundaries between freedom fighting and terrorism. Does Tyson believe that activism is now more important than ever?

“There are various ways to make change: the small ways, and the active ways, the moderate ways where people chip away. Some change is slow. Many people are active but don’t get the headlines.”

“I’m interested in our own misogyny towards ourselves. What is clear to me is that women in positions of responsibility don’t have to be Margaret Thatcher. They don’t have to be Tomb Raider in order to denote strength.”

Thanks to her breakthrough role as a high-class hooker in Mona Lisa, and her central part in Kay Mellor’s 1990s television series Band Of Gold, Tyson has a reputation for playing steely women. “I want to play all sorts of characters,” she says. “The important thing for me is to portray the accuracy.”

For Winter Hill, this means she’s had to have a rethink.

“I first thought that because my character is a deputy council leader that she had to be a certain way. I realised that I was blocking out vulnerability but that I can be afraid and be a strong woman at the same. There’s been a shift for me to discover that Irene is scared and unsure, which are things that in a patriarchal environment can be deemed as ‘feminine’ or ‘weak’.

“I’m interested in our own misogyny towards ourselves. What is clear to me is that women in positions of responsibility don’t have to be Margaret Thatcher. They don’t have to be Tomb Raider in order to denote strength.”

Tyson is performing alongside a host of recognisable women: Denise Black, Louise Jameson, Fiona Hampton, Janet Henfrey, Souad Faress, Eva-Jane Willis and Susan Twist.

“It’s an exciting and inspirational group – a caring group of actresses,” says Tyson. “Just because we’re women doesn’t mean we’re feminists. Some men are feminists and some women aren’t. That’s important to remember. You could meet a group of women who want to talk about washing machines and Hello! magazine.”

Working on Winter Hill has brought much to Tyson as a woman. I get the sense that she has entered a stage in her life in which she feels free, unencumbered even. “I’m a mother. And I’ve been a single mother bringing up a child in London, which is in itself a form of activism.” (Her son Jack is now 29 and quite able to look after himself. These days the pair work collaboratively – Tyson writes poems and Jack puts them to music.)

Tyson with the cast of Winter Hill, on its real-life namesake near Bolton.

Tyson is keen to point out that she’s learned a lot as a person from working on Wertenbaker’s play.

“I want to see more of this kind of work – I want to see more respect of female talent, for it to be a regular occurrence, not just a one off. I’ve been inspired about female leadership, both with my character and through working with a female director. Timberlake has created work for all these people and I’d like to see it beyond this production.

“The women in this play have interesting jobs: a mathematician, a council worker, a university lecturer. One of the themes is about being happily unmarried, which really interested me.

“My character is not in a relationship and she has a fulfilling life. This play tells us that you can have a fulfilling life without being in a relationship, without being a mother – not being anti those roles either, just happy as you are. I think that really challenges traditional roles. I like the way the women in Winter Hill don’t talk about men. They talk about books, work and everything else.

“On a very personal level, this play made me think about what I’m not doing out of fear. I have a driving licence but I haven’t driven for years. I was thinking that if I did start to drive again I should probably take my test again, but one of the cast said, ‘You’d pick it up in no time’. And I think I would.

“That made me think about what else I have not been doing, out of fear. It has been a fertile time!”

Winter Hill is at Octagon Theatre Bolton, Thursday 11 May to Saturday 3 June. Click here for more info and tickets.



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Written by Justine Brooks

Justine lives in beautiful north Leeds with her 12-year-old daughter and a lurcher called Lionel. She runs a PR and marketing agency and is writing a novel.