Rivka Jacobson in conversation with Fiona Shaw

Fiona Shaw in conversation with Rivka Jacobson

Harry Potter fans know her as Petunia Dursley. Viewers of the popular American TV series True Blood know her as the powerful necromancer Antonia /Marnie. To family and friends she is Fifi.

She is Fiona Shaw, a classic actress of immense energy and talent, as well as an accomplished opera director. Born Fiona Wilson, she changed her surname to Shaw when she learned there was another Fiona Wilson. No actor likes to be mixed up with another, particularly when dreams and aspirations are high. The surname Shaw, she explains, was drawn from George Bernard Shaw, the great playwright and benefactor of her drama school RADA. Portentously, her grandmother was also named Shaw.

Fiona Shaw is fluent and eloquent. Her natural warmth and demeanour suggest openness and a candid approach to people and to herself.

RJ: Early years – Philosophy and Drama

FS: I went to University first before I went to drama school, because my father was very much against my being an actress. I think in a way I’m grateful, because the struggle of going to University – and studying Philosophy – did mean that when it came to going to RADA I had a very good understanding of how to read very difficult texts.

I didn’t really feel my student years until I went to RADA in London, which was a big jump for me, because I was wearing tweed skirts and polo neck sweaters when all the other people in my class were wearing punk rocker garments and sticky-up hair and earrings in their nose, and I was so conservative looking. But as soon as we hit the Restoration period I suddenly took off.

Afterwards, my struggle in career was very little because I was lucky enough to win a series of awards at RADA, and that gave me a great start. No, it didn’t give me a ‘stellar’ start; I started off humbly in a production of Love Labour’s Lost in Bolton. But then I went to the National Theatre pretty quickly, and that was a wonderful start for a very young actress, to be at the National Theatre in a leading role in The Rivals (1983).

RJ: Hollywood’s call—a mistake not to answer?

FS: When you ask me ‘Is there any mistake I made?’, when I was 28 I did the film My Left Foot because Ireland was suddenly making a film – it had never really made a film before for a long time. I did that with Daniel Day Lewis. In the same year I was asked by Bob Rafelson to be in his film Mountains of the Moon. But I was so committed to the theatre – I was doing Taming of the Shrew for the RSC – that I didn’t dream of staying in America. I think of that moment when I could have had a big, huge international career, I opted to stay here. I’m not sure that’s a mistake, but that was my choice: I didn’t go to the movies. I stayed to do the theatre. And so, for the next few years, I did, I think, some of my best work. I did Hedda Gabler, The Good Person of Szechwan and Rosalind in As You Like It and Richard II. The next five years were very, very productive for me.

RJ: So you don’t regret not going to Hollywood?

FS: I don’t think you can ever regret what you don’t do – I mean, you don’t know. For a while they thought I was going to be Meryl Streep, who is somebody I’d admired immensely, because she’s really an amazing person, for the following reason: Not only is she a very good – really good actress, but she has a morality connected to everything she does so that she applies a sort of standard to her own work, and expects a standard from others, and is not a victim to her personality, She acts from the passivity of an excitement about life. And I think I do the same. I think it’s excitement about the vibrant joy of being alive that you’re bottling and producing on the stage.

RJ: Would you say that you feel more at ease on a theatre stage in front of live audience than in front of the camera?

FS: No. It’s a different thing, though. I mean, film, you feel really relaxed in, because they don’t want your energy. They don’t want the bottling of the high energy of living. They want the bottling of taking very small moments and expanding them. So in film you have to be very, very relaxed, and very still. Probably my energy is more suited to the theatre, because I’m very alive.

RJ: Is there any one role you really aspired to perform but couldn’t?

FS: There’s nobody stopping me performing, I’ve always done everything I’ve wanted. I’ve done every role I wanted to. I was very keen to do Hedda Gabler, and I hit a very good moment playing Hedda Gabler, because it was the same moment Mary Robinson had been made President of Ireland. She said ‘I moved the furniture a lot, I was a disturbed woman’. My mother used to move furniture when she was ill at ease. So I knew I was hitting the moment. Sometimes you perform things that really chime with the time you’re living in, and that’s a very lucky moment. I think young actors find it between about 27 and 33.

RJ: Do you mean that is the age an actor reaches the peak of his career?

FS: I think you’re somehow in your time, of your time. After that you’re commenting on your time, or you’re looking back – you don’t think you are, but you are. I think that’s the peak of your time.

RJ: Why do you say 33? It sounds like you’re still young at that age.

FS: I think Medea, which I did later, was one of the best things I’ve ever done. But Electra, Hedda Gabler, Richard II held huge meaning for the populations who saw them.

RJ: And for you as an actress?

FS: Yes, maybe because I was somehow learning. I was expanding myself, extending myself in them, and that does get harder as you get older, to find the thing that is beyond your reach. But The Waste Land was a bit like that. It was wonderful doing The Waste Land, all over the world, because the poem – somehow, it was like watching a film. I just spoke it, and I followed it. 

Shaw’s direction of Glyndebourne’s 2015 production of Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, was hailed by Rupert Christiansen of The Telegraph, as ‘piercingly intelligent, immaculately realised’ production.

Reviewing Fiona Shaw’s production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at the English National Opera in 2011, Christiansen says that it is “humane, intelligent and buzzing with energy”.

RJ: I wondered how directors like Shaw deal with seasoned actors, like Shaw.

FS:I don’t think directors ever direct you to action. The actor has to own the performance. If the director owns the performance, it never belongs to the actor, so it’s never natural. In fact, I’ve had great difficulty with opera performers, trying to get them to take responsibility for what they perform. So they say ‘Tell me where to be.’ I say ‘No, you tell me where you want to go and I’ll help you.’

The job of the director can be anything you wish it to be. Obviously you have to put on a show, but for me I want to see human behaviour explored and the scenes released in a surprising way so that I’m surprised by the outcome.

RJ: The first was three years ago, Riders of the Sea at the English National Opera. The success of this production led to an invitation to direct Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers at the Young Vic. Once again, it was a huge success.

FS: Really wonderful, because of course it was nearer what I like, which is taking a very complicated, poetical story and putting it in a small space. We had an ice clock, a huge grandfather clock that was melting all through the evening. We had a floor that cracked open, and in each act the floor cracked more. I like the fact that it’s different art forms meeting. You have music, you have visuals, you have staging, you have ice clocks, you have performances. There’s a lot to hold, but it begins to add to a very rich experience for the viewer.

RJ: Success begets success – another invitation to direct an opera, this time something from the classical repertoire, Mozart’s Figaro. I wondered if she had a clear idea of how she wanted the opera to translate under her direction –

FS: No, not at all. You mustn’t, because you must leave some things open. You have the situation – I mean, obviously I’d worked on the set, but I didn’t know it would have so many rooms. I kept on adding rooms in the rehearsal, ‘Let’s add another room, let’s add another room.’ So you keep on trying to see how far you can go depending on the ability of the group.

RJ: I wondered if Ms. Shaw has any musical training –

FS: I play the cello, but not very well. My mother is mad about music, so I was brought up with a lot of music; she sings and plays the piano a lot at home. And my brother is a good musician. But I hadn’t formal musical training, not at all.

RJ: I asked if she agrees that an opera role has greater demands on the singer than the case might be for an actor –

FS: You’re absolutely right. Mozart, of course, was very keen that the performance be a performance. People who write operas are writing an event to be a stage event, and therefore the people singing must also be in that situation. They can’t not be in the situation. Opera has a bad name, often, because the singers just stand there and sing, and the designers’ highly designed some decorative situation behind them. But I think opera is theatre too. As an actress, I don’t ever try to act it because I know how I would act it. But that’s different to how they would act it. So you must try and allow the person who is playing it to be – you know, Kate Valentine singing the Countess. She was a very different Countess to how I would be, so I must help her be her countess. And then you free them so that the audience are really looking at real people, really exploring a situation.

My job is to try and make the event as indelible on the watcher’s mind as it can be. So the more that they do, the more that they inhabit the world, the more interesting for the viewer, of course, because the more judgement you can make. As you watch someone behaving badly to somebody, or well to somebody, you can go, ‘Gosh, that was bad, that moment! Oh, that’s interesting!’ Every moment we’re making huge judgements because we have simian minds. If you don’t offer that judgement, you only get the feeling of the music. But that’s not what opera is. Opera is thought and feeling, and it’s trying to get them to think fast while singing slow. That is the talent.

And the characters are somehow a mixture of the character, but also the performers themselves. So if you have a dour performer, they will find it difficult to play a very light version of something. So you have to go with the dour, you have to go with the spirit of the person. And that’s what makes it very complicated. It’s not ‘Stand there, move there’, because one person’s gesture affects everything else. Everyone has to respond at all times to everyone else, or else you have a dead moment.

If I look at The Marriage of Figaro, I’m very interested in the Count and Countess, who apparently don’t like each other. But in fact, they seem to be addicted to each other. The music is beautiful, but what they say to each other is hostile. This contradiction is very exciting, so that they’re cross with each other but they also love each other, or something – but it’s not one thing or the other. If it was one thing or the other, it would be sentimental. But it’s not sentimental, it’s challenging, because people do have complicated feelings about each other. When they don’t sing, they kiss. I found that very exciting.

Advice to young actors

FS: Stay educated. Feed your own imagination, and then you have something interesting to bring. And practice, and work very hard. Rehearse very hard, much longer than you think. Be humble in the rehearsals, don’t expect anything to come quickly; it won’t. And then something wonderful happens.

The more you have to offer the part – the more energy, the more imagination, the more ideas – you know, it is in the end a dialogue of ideas. The better the ideas, the more interesting the evening for the audience.

RJ: What makes you laugh?

FS: My brother. I have a brother who mimics the whole family and that makes me laugh more than anything. I had a friend visiting from Paris last night and she was very funny. She made me laugh a lot about her life, because life is so funny. When people tell you the story of what they’ve been doing, it’s very funny.

RJ: What upsets you most?

FS: Loss. The loss of the dead, of course. The loss of friendship. The loss of what was beautiful and is gone. The things you thought would stay don’t, they’re gone – including the seasons, I mean, this is what life teaches us.

What else makes me sad? The inequalities of the world. I think betrayal makes me sad, because we could be so good to each other. Being human is a very complicated activity.

RJ: Do you live with regrets? 

FS: I probably regret everyday things. But I don’t live with regret, not at all. There’d be no point. I could live with regret, like anybody, but I don’t live with it, not at all. Really don’t, no no. I’m always making new resolutions, ‘From now on, I will always…’, you know. Of course you don’t. Because you’re yourself. You have to just accept who you are, and try and make yourself better every day, of course, try and be better. I don’t think you can change yourself so easily, but you can try. And you must try.

RJ: Are you a religious person?

FS: I’m not a practicing religious person, but I’m very, very involved with God because I was brought up a Catholic, and so I have a huge map of God in my mind, the Old Testament and the New Testament. And God continues to be a dialogue. I don’t think you can ever drop God. I mean, I don’t believe in God, I don’t believe in the personal God. I’ve been trying to adjust my relationship, but the good thing about being brought up with God as a child is you have a sense of eternity from very early on, and I have always lived with a sense of eternity. I do think moments are precious rather than objects.