Richard Eyre’s TALKING THEATRE: with Fiona Shaw

Fiona Shaw

Fiona Shaw, 1958–

In Part Three of our week-long Talking Theatre Special – Richard Eyre interviews actor Fiona Shaw.

Born in Cork, Fiona Shaw is celebrated for playing many classical roles—Medea, Electra, Hedda Gabler, even Richard II. Most good actors are highly intelligent; few are highly articulate. Fiona Shaw’s fluency never leads her into waffle, but as an actor she has often struggled to conceal her intellectual brilliance, like a great beauty concealing her glamour. With a film crew squeezed round the sofa where I was used to sitting watching TV with my family, I felt as if we were playing an ambitious children’s game. Of the future of theatre she said: ‘The theatre is a fantastic whore and could be anything. If a thousand atom bombs drop, somebody will stand up in the ashes and tell a story.’

Why do all the great Irish writers emigrate?
I suppose until this very decade [the 1990s] the whole nation emigrated, I don’t think it’s just writers that emigrated. Engineers emigrated, doctors emigrated. It’s partially the tragedy of the famine that the country just bred its nation for export. But Joyce of course said that it is the sow that eats its own farrow.

Is all Irish culture underscored by British colonial rule?
I think that temperament is history, and so in that way the Irish temperament has been fundamentally affected by being the baby sister or brother to this big island. The effect of London on Dublin has been enormous. It’s the jumping-off ground, isn’t it? It’s the Ellis Island of Irish culture. Beyond Dublin what made Ireland separate from England is that the Irish had no bourgeoisie. You had an aristocracy and a remarkably kept-down peasantry—in that way, very like Russia: the parallels between Russia and Ireland are enormous. We didn’t produce a Chekhov, but we produced an O’Casey. The other big effect of England on Ireland were the penal laws which forbade Irish people to speak Irish and which caused a sort of surrealism in the country, where people couldn’t own a horse worth more than five pounds, couldn’t own land or hand land over. So the average age of marrying for men in Ireland was fifty. And people attended mass on rocks and in caves and were taught in hedge schools. So the fusion of landscape with the metaphysical, or the fusion of landscape with learning, was not like any other country in the world. Irish English is, on one level, a language forced onto a country that was trying not to speak it, and it then became a sort of tool of revenge: the Irish have attacked the English with their own language. And on the other side you had this rural lost language of people speaking a sort of archaic English forced on them by early settlers, and people struggling with translations from the Gaelic and of course being laughed at by the English for speaking a peculiar English. In Gaelic you say: ‘Toin traich megonair,’ which is ‘I am after my dinner.’ That’s still used as the construction for that kind of sentence.

With the exception of Joyce, Irish writers—Congreve, Farquhar, Wilde, Beckett and so on—choose to write for the theatre. Why?
The theatre is immediate: it needs people. It’s not like a French literary tradition, which would be about intellectual thought. England is a very odd hybrid because I’d say the centre of the English theatre since the seventeenth century, maybe from Shakespeare, is antithesis, isn’t it? The notion that you can declare an argument: ‘To be or not to be’, and at the end of that you could’ve concluded something about the world. The Irish theatre is based on hyperbole and contradiction.

If it’s possible to talk about any national character with Ireland without resorting to stereotype, is there something about the Irish—I mean the Irish-Irish—that is more given to storytelling and to wearing your heart on your sleeve than the English?
Caesar wrote about going to Hibernia, and he said that they just talked and drank all the time, so I suppose it isn’t connected to recent modern history. Perhaps the relationship to alcohol is connected to the climate. There’s also great desolation in Ireland, people who don’t speak from September to springtime because there’s nobody to talk to. Religion is another big part of it.

But is storytelling something to do with having a verbal culture not a written culture?
The culture in cottages that was finally caught by Synge is interesting. Yeats provoked Synge to go to the Aran Islands. Synge went and observed this strange translation of a Gaelic into English and made a sort of heightened self-conscious poetry out of it. But there was a sort of truth in it as well. People were speaking in a language that was self-referential, because they had so little stimulus. I’m not sure that they’re using the language for reality. They couldn’t use it to negotiate, because there was nothing to negotiate, so they had to use it for the imagination.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

This is an edited extract from Richard Eyre’s interview with Fiona Shaw. The full interview is published in the new paperback edition of Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People.

To order your copy of Talking Theatre at £9.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed.

Don’t forget to check back on the NHB blog TOMORROW and FRIDAY for more exclusive extracts from the book! Tomorrow’s post will feature ‘national institution’, playwright and actor Alan Bennett, explaining what it means to ‘follow your nose’ when writing…

Advertisements

Richard Eyre on TALKING THEATRE: Interviews with Theatre People

Richard EyreTo celebrate the new paperback edition of Richard Eyre’s Talking Theatre – his superlative account of how theatre is made, in the words of the very people who make it – we will be posting exclusive extracts from the book here on the NHB blog. Come back on Monday to find out what John Gielgud thought about working with Brando on Mankiewicz’s celebrated film of Julius Caesar. Then on Tuesday we’ll hear from Peter Brook about why theatre is so important to the English. Later in the week there will be posts from Fiona Shaw, Alan Bennett and Stephen Sondheim – all talking candidly about some of the most important productions and performances in the theatre of recent times. Here, as a prologue to next week’s special feature, Richard Eyre introduces the book, and explains why he thinks theatre remains essential and distinct from other forms of performance.

I started going to the theatre when I was eighteen, in the early sixties. The start of my theatregoing coincided with a period of extraordinary theatrical energy and invention. I saw the work of Joan Littlewood at Stratford East, the Royal Court in its most fertile years, the newly formed Royal Shakespeare Company under Peter Hall in Stratford, and the newly formed National Theatre under Laurence Olivier at the Old Vic; Oh! What a Lovely War and The Wars of the Roses; Scofield’s Lear and Olivier’s Othello; the young Maggie Smith, the young Albert Finney, the young Vanessa Redgrave, the young Judi Dench, the young Ian Holm, the young Ian McKellen, the even younger Michael Gambon; the older Richardson, Gielgud, Guinness, Ashcroft, even Edith Evans and Sybil Thorndike; the plays of Harold Pinter, John Osborne, Peter Shaffer, Arnold Wesker, Edward Bond, David Storey, Peter Nichols, Charles Wood and Tom Stoppard—with Kenneth Tynan presiding over it all as a mercurial judge and godfather.

What I liked about the theatre then and what I like about it now is its ‘theatreness’, the properties that make it distinct from any other medium—its use of time, of space, of light, of speech, of music, of movement, of storytelling. Theatre is intrinsically poetic, it thrives on metaphor—a room becomes a world and a group of characters becomes a whole society. It conscripts the imagination of the audience to transform the obvious unreality of costumed actors standing on a stage saying things they’ve said to each other many times into something that is both real and truthful. Theatre insists on the present tense—there’s a sense of occasion and of being part of a community in any theatre performance. We go into a theatre as individuals and we emerge as an audience. Above all, theatre can never dissolve its reliance on the scale of the human figure and the sound of the human voice.

Talking Theatre (paperback)

Talking Theatre (paperback, £9.99)

In 1997, shortly before I left the directorship of the National Theatre, I was asked by Andrea Miller (the producer) and Mark Thompson (then Controller of BBC 2) to write and present a six-part television series for the BBC and PBS on the history of twentieth-century British theatre. The series was christened Changing Stages and was broadcast as part of the BBC’s ‘Millennium Project’ in 2000. The programmes were composed of archive footage, pieces to camera, documentary film and, most importantly, interviews with people who had played a significant part in making and influencing the theatre of the previous half-century in Britain, with occasional glimpses across the Irish Sea and the Atlantic beyond. If there were omissions it wasn’t because there was a host of people who refused to be interviewed: almost all the people we asked agreed to talk to me on camera. The most notable refusal was from Marlon Brando, who sang down the phone from Los Angeles to the Glaswegian producer, Andrea Miller:

Just a wee deoch an doris, just a wee drop, that’s all.
Just a wee deoch an doris afore ye gang awa.
There’s a wee wifie waitin’ in a wee but an ben.
If you can say, ‘It’s a braw bricht moonlicht nicht’,
Then yer a’richt, ye ken.

While he was enthusiastic to sing and discuss the work of Harry Lauder and the plight of the American Indian, he told her that he would rather do anything in the world than talk about acting.

A friend of mine once rashly invited Paul Scofield to give a lecture on acting. He wrote this in response:

I have found that an actor’s work has life and interest only in its execution. It seems to wither away in discussion, and become emptily theoretical and insubstantial. It has no rules (except perhaps audibility). With every play and every playwright the actor starts from scratch, as if he or she knows nothing and proceeds to learn afresh every time—growing with the relationships of the characters and the insights of the writer. When the play has finished its run he’s empty until the next time. And it’s the emptiness which is, I find, apparent in any discussion of theatre work.

I hope Talking Theatre proves him wrong.

Don’t miss reading exclusive extracts from five of the interviews published in the book, publishing everyday next week!

To order your copy of Talking Theatre at £9.99 with free UK P&P click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout to ensure your discount is applied when the order is processed.