Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Turning a Crisis into a Drama; Far from Keeping Her from the Stage, Losing an Eye Brings New Possibilities, Says Sheila Gish

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Turning a Crisis into a Drama; Far from Keeping Her from the Stage, Losing an Eye Brings New Possibilities, Says Sheila Gish

Article excerpt

Byline: NICK CURTIS

SHEILA Gish sits barelegged under a sundappled chestnut tree outside Chichester's Festival Theatre, wearing a polka-dot dress and an eyepatch of midnight blue. For two decades this superb stage actress has embodied a string of passionate, sexy, often fatally flawed women in classics, ancient and modern, and she is currently starring as Arkadina in Chekhov's The Seagull at Chichester, despite losing her right eye in a recent operation to remove a facial tumour. Gish lifts her blonde hair to show off the patch, made by her 83-year-old mother. "It's rather divine, isn't it?" she says jauntily.

Even those critics who have not warmed to Steven Pimlott's nonnaturalistic production of The Seagull have felt compelled to praise the "bravery" of Gish's performance and her determination to go on. But Gish refuses to see herself as a victim. "I know I'm giving the performance I would have given with two eyes," she says.

"I have made no concessions to being partially sighted, no concessions to having been in hospital and having my shoulder taken apart [her surgeon, Dr Iain Hutchinson, used bone from her back to rebuild her cheekbone in the 12-hour operation]. I'm proud of that. I feel I've achieved something."

She didn't tell Pimlott about the operation until it was over. Once he was convinced that she felt able to do the part, he suggested - apologetically, of course - that her eyepatch might be a useful tool for the needy actress Arkadina, explaining the character's fall from superstar status, her selfishness, her need for sexual validation.

Fortunately, Gish is as pragmatic as Pimlott, and is able - or has schooled herself - to look at the possibilities rather than the limitations of her misfortune.

"Obviously, the patch, in various colours and shapes, is going to be a part of whatever I do from now on," she says bluntly. "I've turned down Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest twice because I couldn't think of anything fresh to bring to the part, but now I can see an interesting way to play her. And apart from Captain Hook," - she cackles - "a role I've always wanted to play, I'm thinking of all those Jacobean melodramas, not to mention a few comedies."

Both theatre professionals and audiences notice the patch then forget it, she says. She and Pimlott plan to work together in the near future.

Television roles might be thin on the ground from now on, but perhaps the film career that has thus far eluded her may blossom. "I said half-jokingly to someone that I could play a Bond villainess now, and then thought, actually, yes, why not?" she says.

"Filmmakers find it hard to place a reasonably attractive middle-aged woman; they call for the 18-year-olds. But a middle-aged woman with an eyepatch . …

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