When you visit Inveraray Jail, watch out for Matron. She doesn’t stand for any nonsense. You’ll find her down in the prison, dressed head-to-toe in black, keeping everything in order. She’s stern, she’s scary, and she never, ever smiles. But by night Matron, or at least Hanna Nixon the actress who plays Matron, is something quite different. She ditches the heavy lace-up boots, the modest dress and the bonnet and becomes something altogether more glamorous. By night Matron is Marilyn Monroe.
Hanna first made an appearance as Marilyn at a friend’s gallery opening party. She whipped up a white dress (Hanna’s worked as a theatre costume designer and makes all the costumes at Inveraray Jail), dyed her hair blonde and perfected the accent. The response was phenomenal and ‘Unmistakably Marilyn’ was born.
You could call Hanna a die-hard Marilyn fan. She’s watched all the films, read all the books and collects the memorabilia. It’s this knowledge and passion that brings an extra element to her tribute act. ‘I’m not just a lookalike,’ she says. ‘I become Marilyn. I sing as Marilyn, I speak as Marilyn and my gestures are Marilyn. I want people to believe that they’ve actually met Marilyn.’
Marilyn’s look is iconic. Getting the clothes, hair and make-up right is important for Hanna and helps her get into character. ‘As you get dressed you feel yourself transform. You change how you hold yourself and how you walk,’ she says. Hanna always leaves Marilyn’s beauty spot until last. ‘As soon as I pencil it in, that’s it: I’m Marilyn.’ It’s the same when she plays Matron. ‘I always leave the bonnet till last. Once it’s tied on, I walk down the stairs to the prison and I don’t come out of character until the end of the day.’
Matron and Marilyn are such different characters, but Hanna loves playing both. ‘With Matron I get to be really stern and that’s great fun,’ she explains. ‘Lots of visitors try to get a smile out of Matron, but they never will. The more they try, the sterner she gets. She’s not here to make friends.’ Marilyn, on the other hand, is all sweetness and charm. ‘I love the allure of Marilyn, the way she enchants people. As Marilyn, I sweep into the room, wave to someone across the dance floor, all smiles and oozing confidence. I’d never be able to act like that in real life,’ she says. Although Marilyn is clearly a more glamorous figure, Hanna admits to rather liking Matron. ‘She’s got a tough job. She’s firm but fair and I reckon deep down she really does care about the prisoners.’
Hanna’s characters are so convincing that people can’t help but respond and interact with them – and that’s when the real fun starts. Visitors try to make Matron laugh or persuade her to be nicer to the prisoners. And everyone wants Marilyn to sit on their knee. There’s no script and Hanna – a brilliant improviser – has to be ready to respond in character.
So if you meet Matron by day in the prisons or Marilyn by night at a party, say hello. Just don’t expect to see Hanna until she’s off duty.
Matron is just one of the many inhabitants of Inveraray Jail who are brought back to life today by costumed characters roaming this historic centre. The characters are based on factual prisoner records retained by the courthouse after its closure in 1889.