I’d seen this before, in New York, at what should have been about a third of the way into its run, and turned out to be almost the final day of its run: a victim of negative publicity, I presume (rather than poor notices – as they were pretty uniformly excellent).
I went back for the first of my three further London visits (I know…but I am obsessed) with Creator Rebel Planner and Tall Planner in Whom I Am Well Pleased; then on my own; then, finally with Sardonic and Sad-Eyed Muse.
It was when reading the programmme that I was reminded that it was some twenty years since the remarkable partnership between Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner began with “Electra”, in the same venue (The Barbican), if not the same precise theatre – it was on in The Pit and “The Testament of Mary” was in the main theatre.
I remember that earlier performance with absolute clarity: the only description that begins to describe it is “mind-blowing”. Fiona Shaw, in a rag of a dress, her hair cropped short looked like a great, doomed bird; and she gave a performance of such staggering power, revealing such raw grief, that I can remember the pain in my heart and chest as I watched it. Reading an interview with Warner and Shaw much later, about that production’s rehearsal process, I was struck by how Fiona Shaw said that at first she devised little bits of business: cigarettes to roll, cups of water to drink, paper with messages written on, and how these were secreted about the stage. Later in the process, Warner removed them – and she said that this was because Electra HAD no little comforts, no props: she had nothing. Shaw remembered feeling desolate without her supports, deserted and alone with nothing to act as a crutch in that nightly journey into such a deep, dark place – and then, clearly, she converted those feelings into a performance that almost singed one with its grief. People queued all night to get a ticket – and were happy to do so. It remains one of the best things I have ever seen in forty years.
I wonder if there is something to be said about an opposition in creative partnerships (especially in film and theatre) that fascinates me: Catholic and Protestant, with their very different aesthetics working to create a brilliantly rich result that benefits from the extravagance and the focused stillness of the latter? Shaw was raised a Catholic, Warner a Quaker – and there is (I think) something perfect about the extravagant red, purple and gold performer being directed by the still, contemplative director. It’s why (I think) Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese made such an interesting partnership – but I’m in danger of losing my thread.
Watching Fiona Shaw again, that thought about the “Electra” rehearsal process stayed with me, and I must confess to having wished that Warner had exercised her prerogative to remove a few of the props again. There can be a tendency (for my taste) with Fiona Shaw to illustrate every thought with props – and with an actor of her calibre it doesn’t need it. While the performance was absolutely magnificent (and I know that certain critics have referred to it as a “career best”), I felt that it was at its very, very best when she had nothing – and the grief, like Electra’s, took her whole body over.
There are obvious answers to this criticism: the play is as much about iconography as it’s about anything else – so the props have an absolute right to be there to illustrate that aspect of the text. Also, Mary is in a home (albeit a temporary one) and much of her day is filled by domestic routine, with its props and paraphernalia: so, once again, the props have an absolute right to be there. Let me say again: she was magnificent. Her grief, her anger, her confusion – all of these things were pitch perfect, and won her on every occasion a richly deserved standing ovation -so it’s petty to carp about “what might have been” (especially as my suspicion may well turn out to have been incorrect…). And yet…
It’s also greedy, after so great a glut of Fiona Shaw to be thinking “What next?” – but I can’t help myself (which is, I suppose, as good a definition of greed as any other…).
I have also seen Simon Russell Beale in Sam Mendes’ production of “King Lear” four times recently – and, after their great comic partnership in “London Assurance” I am left in even greater need to see them together in Shakespeare – specifically in “Antony and Cleopatra”. To my mind, there hasn’t been a production of that perfect play to match Judi Dench and Antony Hopkins at The National Theatre a good twenty five years ago – but I think those two actors could do it.
I’ll write about “King Lear” at length elsewhere – but “The Testament of Mary” is the best thing I have seen this year: more nuanced, more immediate, more emotional than it was in New York, and both Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw showed themselves once again to be absolute masters of their craft, and (to my mind) peerless.

“Do you fancy coming?” I asked Old Friend at Work.

“To what?”

“Fiona Shaw doing “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.”

“OK. That sounds good – is it just her?”

“No, I think there’s a male dancer in it as well.”


And so it was that I went to the Old Vic Tunnels last night to see Ms. Shaw in the poem on my own – which is fine: there are relatively few people who I am happy to have at the theatre with me, as I can’t really be bothered with either the enforced post performance analysis or (more pertinently) ANY DISSENSION WHATSOEVER FROM MY OPINIONS.

Well: it was great. Not as great as “The Waste Land” – but I think that’s down to the poem, more than anything else (and at the time, the performance of “The Waste Land” at Wilton’s Music Hall was so original as to (probably) have acquired a sheen of brilliance that might be over and above the actual event). Fiona Shaw was – aptly – at her least theatrical and her most focused, and so it was a thrilling performance in a wonderfully evocative location: the smell of water and damp and the rumbling of the trains overhead adding a huge amount to the experience. She was absolutely on her game: no excess, no flourishes – I wonder if poetry, its meter and its bite makes it harder to take liberties that one might with another kind of text (even the parts of Shakespeare that are in poetry)? And – even better – given the nagging worry that Old Friend at Work had planted in my mind, the dancer was equally restrained and focused. Used sparingly and to great effect, rather than (as if thrilled by his mere presence the director had vowed to wring every last atom of meaning, reference and emotion out of him) over-using him, and thus ending up with one of those ghastly University performances wherein one performer (in a lone spotlight – always) earnestly intones “The Smiths” lyrics, whilst another (blindfolded, always) writhes on the floor as if having a fit and then, finally, and to elevate the whole sorry enterprise to the status of art, gets naked.

I don’t know that it will stay with me as “The Waste Land” has, but I was properly mesmerised throughout and will re-read the poem this weekend: which is probably as great a testament to the thing as one could expect.

Yes, much has happened since I wrote last – all of it good, I think.

There will be time for that in good time, but I must write now (as so often) of Fiona Shaw.

By way of gentle introduction to the celebration of that finest of actors, let me first take you (protesting and looking in a panicked fashion over your shoulder to see if anyone has witnessed your abduction) back to my school days. Worse than that, I am going to take you to Rugby training.

Rain seemed to be a constant, as was mud and (of course) our coach: a MASSIVE (or, as Eldest Son has recently discovered, to my chagrin: “mahoosive”) block of a man with an Easter Island face, shaved head and a tendency to see anything other than death as a below par reason for not training for the next game. Anyway, in spite of this decidely Fotherington-Thomas-sounding description, I loved Rugby – still do – and found the playing of that great game exhilarating and energising. What I could never get excited about was the training: the running with your knees as high as you could, star-jumps and press-ups that had fuck all to do with how the game was played. I could see the point of a couple of laps of the field to warm up, but most of it was utterly pointless – and nothing was more pointless than the piece of apparatus called “The Scrum Machine”. This was a piece of machinery that looked like a slatted wooden bed-base, swaddled in horsehair and rough cotton, mounted on springs and held by a metal framework. The scrum (including myself) wood scrum down, push heads through the gaps in the bed-base and push like hell in order to drive the thing back against its springs, replicating the effect of the opposing team’s scrum. It didn’t, of course: the opposing team’s scrum (being made of people) had a habit of moving in different directions, dipping up and down and pushing with unequal force, rather than standing its ground and being driven back stoically.

I was reminded of this fruitless, exhausting task when we went to see Fiona Shaw in Howard Barker’s “Scenes from an Execution” at the National Theatre last week.

Howard Barker was, when I was first a student, THE modish paperback to have – far more impressive than the standard (and SIGNIFICANTLY better, of course) Beckett/Barthes/Lodge alternatives that suggested that one was a little too ensnared by things such as thought, quality and artistry. PAH! Barker was IT, man. I thought it was shit then, and I think it’s little more than shit now.

I have to say that I was very nervous when the play started. A magnificent set by Hildegaard Bechtler was good news, but a nude male, arse in the air on a rocky outcrop was less easy-making: here was our first “Barker-esque” subversion – the artist (Shaw) is female, and the model is male. Oooh: challenging.

The first half was fuck awful: turgid and lifeless and only fitfully funny (and I see no reason not to level that as a criticism), with the ideas (and Barker’s admiration for them) proving to be too heavy for him to lift into drama. The second half, it must be said, was immeasurably better, with the narrative finding its rhythm and moving forward more convincingly, with the central theme of art and patronage coming into focus with less panting and straining than had been seen in the first half.

Fiona Shaw was (perhaps against the odds) utterly magnificent. I have only been massively embarrassed by Shaw once on stage – in ThePower.Book, the collaboration between Deborah Warner, Jeanette Winterstone and Saffron Burrowes, where the earnestness and energy of all those very talented women was so similar as to create something utterly still-born. Let me just add, as (depressingly), I fear I must, that this is not a comment on their gender: I have seen equally deadly pieces of theatre where the strutting male energy has been so one-noted as to rob the piece of any life too. That piece, like this, wrestled with ideas, with a deadening seriousness that suffocated all vitality – and as I sat watching “Scenes from an Execution” I thought “Oh no: it’s going to be ThePower.Book all over again – oh well, at least she won’t dance to Blondie. Probably.”

I was wrong: Shaw created a fantastically engaging character in Galactia. She was vain and self-assured, yet vulnerable; over-bearing and bullying, yet soft – quite something. The greatest piece was to observe this wilful rebel (whom one felt defined herself as an outsider as much out of a sense of expectation as out of a genuine desire to challenge) become part of the establishment, robbed of her power by the forces that professed to support and champion her. She was brilliant, and, when she took her bow, she was exhausted.

This is hardly surprising: Fiona Shaw is an actor who tends to give 100% or nothing, tearing up convention and expectation as she tackles roles from Medea to Hedda to Winnie to Katharina – so it’s hard to think back over the twenty-five years that I’ve been watching her to a performance when she hasn’t been absolutely exhausted by the end of the play. Maybe I’m “projecting”, as make-believe psychotherapists would say, but this time seemed different. She reminded me of how I felt, running at that great scrum machine: moving it back through sheer power and energy, but knowing that it would return to its original position, leaving me feeling as though – whatever I did – there was never going to be anything achieved.

Cleopatra next, please – Barker is just not good enough to deserve you – and Cleopatra is a part worth getting exhausted by.

Back Soon.

Well, I have fallen BADLY behind, haven’t I?

Part of the reason was that I failed to keep up with some basic virtual housekeeping and my domain name went up in smoke, but now I have sorted that out and shall be back in touch. Much has happened, nearly all of it very good, so I shall do a proper “round up” and then take it from there.

But now, I am off to the theatre, to see the magnificent Simon Russell Beale, directed by the brilliant Nicholas Hytner , in the decidedly patchy “Timon of Athens” – so that might well form the basis of my first “proper” post.

Well, it was kind of as expected, to be honest.

There was the carrot of extravagant praise, and then the stick of “Please try not to treat those people whom you think are idiots as if you think they are idiots”. I sort of nodded along with it, but as I was listening, I was plotting my extravagant revenge (the only person who could have done my internal monologue justice at the time was John Webster, if that helps you imagine the scale of the thing).

One of the things that I have to do is visit the people in the rest of the world with whom I work, so now (once the Summer holiday dates are finalised) I shall be planning a global road trip (as long as they’re places to which I’d like to go) with Old Friend at Work, who’s also been given the green light for a world tour at the company’s expense, taking in Istanbul, Singapore, Moscow and Buenos Aires. Could be worse, eh?

Well, after six years of ambling along here, punctuated only by four job offers from the same agency (who obviously thrive on rejection), it has been announced that I am to have my review. On Friday.

Now: I don’t WANT to have my review on Friday – and the reason for this is simple. I see-saw violently between craven, chuckling, moist-eyed delight at any and all praise; and a rich spectrum of emotion at anything even wearing the small pocket-handkerchief of criticism. These emotions are:-

  1. “Fine. I’ll leave then. I’ll just fucking GO!”
  2. Something akin to that teen romance classic “Well you can’t break up with me, because I’m breaking up with you” when I get MY objections to all and sundry in first, in order to render their disapproval meaningless.
  3. A Raffles air of “My dear chap, I couldn’t give the slightest testicle hair of a shit about the opinion of these intellectual midgets.” (to be twinned with a supercilious smirk that would make Maria von Trapp punch a baby.
  4. Hot-headed, red-faced, prickling rage of “No but that’s SOOOOOO unfair, right. That is just SOOOOOOOO not true and it is just rubbish, yeah? And, oh GOD! That is SO out-of-order, because do you know what, yeah? I WROTE THAT PRESENTATION BACK IN MAY!” that would shame an eleven year-old girl.
  5. Cold, shark-eyed vengeance on those who have criticised the way that I roll my eyes in front of junior clients.

Of course, in my mind, I have decided that when I enter The Room for the review, I shall be wordlessly nodded over to the guillotine, hastily erected in the corner for one day only (Fearless Leader sitting at its foot, knitting and cackling toothlessly), and will shuffle my head into place, not with any noble thoughts or words akin to “It is a far, far better thing…” so much as “But I DID feed back on the creative recommendation for Russia before the deadline. This is SO unfair…”

If I am still employed/here on Friday, I will, of course, present the unlovely truth for your enlightenment and disdain.