Posts Tagged ‘Fiona Shaw’

I know that many – perhaps even most – people believe that the truly great plays demonstrate their greatness, in part, by proving themselves to be infinitely open to interpretation and presentation.

Along side this belief there is also the much-repeated claim made by actors (genuinely meant, I am sure) that they feel that they never did – never COULD – get totally to grips with the character of Lear, Hedda, Iago – whomever.

These two things taken together make it almost blasphemous to talk about a definitive performance in one of those roles (let alone the more complex and wide-ranging idea of a “definitive production”)…and yet…

Of course these things are matter of taste, and they are locked in time (even if one were to admit its possibility, a definitive “Othello” of the 1950s is going to be very different to one of this decade – not least because of the natural skin tone of the actor playing the eponymous hero), but that said, I think I have seen quite a few “definitive” productions of the great plays (and thus with “definitive” performances at their heart) – and I think (without modesty) that I have seen enough and no enough to be able to make that judgement. I’m thinking of “the classics” here – rather than modern plays where the production has been mind-blowing (and hard to imagine an improvement being made: such as Denise Gough in “People, Places and Things” or Mark Rylance in “Jerusalem”).

These are not in date order, and I don’t know how they’d hold up today: but I would guess “pretty well”…

Fiona Shaw in Deborah Warner’s “Hedda Gabler” – still the best night (nine nights, in fact) that I have ever spent in a theatre.

Antony Hopkins and Judi Dench in Peter Hall’s “Antony and Cleopatra”

Ian Holm in Richard Eyre’s “King Lear”

Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in Trevor Nunn’s “Macbeth”

Adrian Lester in Nicholas Hytner’s “Othello”

Mark Strong in Ivo van Hove’s “A View From the Bridge”

Fiona Shaw in Deborah Warner’s “Medea”

Andrew Scott in Robert Icke’s “Hamlet”

As I write this, “Hamlet” is still on at The Gielgud Theatre in London. I saw it for the first time in the Almeida, and then the second time with my children at The Gielgud – and I’ve got tickets for two more nights before it closes in a month’s time. It is absolutely extraordinary.

Andrew Scott’s Hamlet makes the play – and the character – feel newly minted (which I would have never thought possible). He is conversational, clear and accessible, never once striking a false note; and managing to find wit, humour and passion in even the most well-trod of passages. There isn’t one cliche, there isn’t one moment that feels manufactured: this is the first time that I have seen the leaps in emotion executed with such clarity and conviction – it really is a monumental performance. This Hamlet is so grief-stricken because he is so passionate: you feel that he has one layer of skin less than anyone else – he is so vulnerable to what goes on around him, to the endless betrayals that he faces and the lies that he is told that his death felt like a release that he was yearning for. The “fall of a sparrow” section had me in pieces: this was someone looking forward to death as a way out of a tormented life. Mind-blowing.

The direction is a masterpiece of clarity and creativity. I’ve never seen the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father presented in so chilling and brilliant a way. I’ve never seen Elsinore feel so watched and watchful (even in other productions when that was clearly a core part of the interpretation: Nicholas Hytner’s great production with Rory Kinnear in the lead was awash with FBI types with earpieces and walkie-talkies – but somehow I became immune to it: here, the touch is far lighter and far more significant). I have never seen such a strong and affecting Ophelia as Jessica Brown Findlay, whose mad scenes were handled with such control and pathos that there wasn’t a single embarrassed titter throughout (and if that doesn’t sound like the highest praise imaginable, I assure you that it is): this was the first time that I thought Hamlet and Ophelia really, really loved each other. The final scene (well cut and sharply staged) ends in a coup-de-theatre that delivers a punch to the heart.

It is absolutely once in a lifetime, dust-free, fuss-free stuff: and it blew me (and my children) away. If you can get to see it, I would urge you to see it. If you only go to the theatre once a year, make it this. It is so, so good and I know that I will never forget it.

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Look: I’m not going to start making rash claims about regular updates. I may, or may not, start doing this again “properly”: but what I CAN commit to is a swift and utterly non-comprehensive update on some of the things that have happened in my life since my last post, which was a LONG time ago.

  1. All my children continue to be superb. I shall say nothing more about them: they are the centre of my world, but that does not make for diverting updates.
  2. My workplace has moved from the wildly convenient Chelsea to the hideously inconvenient Shoreditch. I am the only person in the world unconvinced by East London: but there it is.
  3. I have been considered for redundancy twice in the last six months. On neither occasion did the redundancy transpire, but it is an utter hurricane of piss when it’s going on.
  4. Old Friend at Work DID get made redundant. This has affected my enjoyment of being at work negatively by approximately 86%. She is far happier and strolled into another job almost the second that she left here:s o there is that – were I less self-involved I would see this as an unqualified good news story.
  5. I have gone out with: two actresses (one famous – so famous that I had to sign a form saying that I wouldn’t post about her on social media, which was weird – and one not famous, but absolutely stone cold mad); a journalist (who decided she wanted a baby – and as I have done all the baby-making I want to do, we parted ways very amicably); a teacher and a fellow advertising professional.
  6. I have bought a new rug, largely on the basis of Old Friend at Work’s frank assessment of the decision, which was: “If you don’t buy it, you’re a cunt”.
  7. Seen a lot of excellent theatre, much of it with the children. I took Eldest Son to see the almost-impossible-to-get-a-ticket to Benedict Cumberbatch “Hamlet”; and (whilst he professed to find it excellent, and I think really did enjoy seeing it); when I suggested, earlier this year – that all four of us might go to see fellow “Sherlock” alumnus Andrew Scott in “Hamlet”, I got the earnest reply “I think I’m probably OK for “Hamlet” for about twenty years or so.”. We’re all going in July. I’ve already seen it once, and it was phenomenal – better than Cumberbatch, in my opinion (but I think a lot of that was down to the director, Robert Icke, whose work I admire very much).
  8. Had a number of people I work with leave and be replaced. This has not been painless, as those that I lost (not that they died, it just felt like that) were quite a bit jauntier than their successors. The current batch seem not to have the same quality of being a bit odd – which I think is a pre-requisite for being a good Planner. One of them has a first name that I find so objectionable that I have had to give him a new one, which he has accepted without a murmur of complaint.
  9. Various bits of fuckery from the Ex-Wife, which have served – as ever – to remind how very fortunate I am not to be married to the adulterous old witch any longer.
  10. Been introduced to – and liked – the following:-
    1. Fever Tree Angostura Bitters Tonic Water.
    2. Beetroot stems used as a salad “leaf”.
    3. Pistachios in previously unimagined quantity and manifestations.
    4. Freeze-dried raspberries.
    5. Sanetra Sourdough from Gail’s.
    6. Baguette from Le Pain Quotidien.
    7. Sartorial aftershave from Penhaligon’s
    8. A Karcher pressure washer, which I ache to use, but have now run out of appropriate surfaces.
    9. The novels of Elizabeth Strout.
    10. Veep
  11. Had a sabbatical, during which I went on a watercolour painting course and wrote six episodes of a TV sitcom, which is brilliant in parts and turgid beyond belief in others.
  12. Ten things about which I have become certain:-
    1. Sean Penn is an actor who absolutely deserves to be talked of alongside DeNiro and Brando (and some way ahead of Pacino).
    2. Flawed as he undoubtedly was and is (and aren’t we all?) Tony Blair is the only politician whom I can imagine marshaling a course out of this mess: everyone else reminds me of a sixth form debating society, or a university first year meeting of the Socialist Workers’ Party.
    3. I can’t be fucked with WhatsApp.
    4. Office politics are a waste of time, and people who indulge in them are – without exception – wankers.
    5. Funny people are nearly always clever.
    6. Cooking from scratch relaxes me and tastes immeasurably better than anything I can buy – apart from bread, at which I have no talent.
    7. Olivia Colman.
    8. People are nicer in the North of England, but London is too brilliant to leave.
    9. No man who cycles to work needs to wear Lycra to do it. Ever.
    10. Brexit is a catastrophic decision.
  13. Ten things about which I remain unconvinced:-
    1. Cross-gender casting. I’ve seen it work (Fiona Shaw as Richard II, Glenda Jackson as King Lear, Tamsin Greig as Malvolia) and I’ve see it fail (Vanessa Redgrave as Prospero, Kathryn Hunter as King Lear, Harriet Walter in the last two years’ worth of experiments) – but this assumption that it makes no difference just isn’t true: there needs to be a justification that makes sense.
    2. Quinoa.
    3. A Gin and Tonic that costs £18.
    4. Jeremy Corbyn as the saviour of the Left.
    5. Cold-press coffee.
    6. The slew of TV programmes where “a cohesive plot” is seen as a bourgeois, reactionary indulgence: I don’t mean that everything should be linear and require no investment in terms of time or interpretation, but there have been a few things on TV recently (“Marcella”, “Missing”) where the contortions of the plot appear to have left the programme makers themselves absolutely lost.
    7. The following descriptors in restaurants: “foraged”, “heritage”, “spume”.
    8. Millennials.
    9. iCloud security.
    10. Wales.

I’m sure you will agree with me when I write: “That’s quite enough of that”.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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See this as an open letter, if you like. It needs saying in an open forum and that’s as near as I can get to one in our DigiWiki2.0 world. I’ve got something that needs saying and that needs to be heard and it is this: “You are testing my patience, Fiona Shaw.”.

I was OK with the “True Blood” news. In fact, I was pleased for you: you deserve the rewards that this should bring you, both financial and profile-related. You did exceptional work in “John Gabriel Borkman”, what with Ibsen being made for you in the manner of a pair of fine gloves – but you have (thus far) refused to bring it to London. OK, fine – I can live with that.

What I CANNOT live with is the news that your return to the London stage is as a director of opera. And yet, what do I see in The Sunday Times this weekend, but an advert for “The Marriage of Figaro” directed by you. Now look: I cannot deny that you did a terrific job on your last ENO outing, but that’s beside the point. That production of “Antony and Cleopatra”, directed by Deborah Warner isn’t going to stage itself, you know. You are the perfect age for it now, and you haven’t done a big Shakespearean role in decades, literally. Do YOU think that’s good enough? I think if you really think about your behaviour, you’ll realise that it’s not on – and it’s not just this, there’s lots more besides. You need to get “Medea” filmed. Likewise, I would suggest “Happy Days”. Brecht is not terrific on film, so I shall let you off  “Mother Courage”, but then there are the other projects that I have mentioned to you before, including Volumnia, and (I would suggest) Mrs Alving.

So please: think about what you’re doing, get the direction off your chest and then get back ON the stage. Yes?

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My first emotion was exhilaration.

Virtual Friend and Theatre Twin alerted me to the fact that Fiona Shaw was going to be appearing alongside Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman in Ibsen’s “John Gabriel Borkman”. She is something of a theatre insider and so this knowledge was shared way before it became public knowledge – so my excitement was very real, tempered only by the desire to get on and book some tickets. “Where would it play?”, I wondered. A cast like that has got Almeida, West End or National Theatre possibilities – but which? Could it be that the brilliant Nick Hytner was going to use this production to follow the flawless Paul Schofield, Eileen Atkins and Vanessa Redgrave “Borkman” of some years previous (a production I can still remember, almost minute by minute – can you even imagine how brilliant it was: well CAN YOU?)? WHERE?


And then New York.


This was going to be difficult: I had to get to see it. It was Fiona Shaw in Ibsen (and her “Hedda Gabler” is still the greatest thing I have ever seen in a theatre) – and the rest of the cast weren’t exactly slouches either. It was designed by Tom Pye, whose brilliant work on “Medea” and “Happy Days” had been so impressive, Finally, Virtual Friend and Theatre Twin got herself off to Ireland and gorged on it. Ireland would have been cheaper and easier – so I went to New York to see it.

Now, I am a Fiona Shaw enthusiast – but I am not a blind disciple. I, for example, found her performance in “Black Dahlia” (loved by many) to be so embarrassing that I could scarcely keep my eyes open – so I am capable of seeing where she has strayed from brave to ludicrous. That said, this performance was miraculous. It was up there with Hedda and Medea, largely because her danger zone (letting rip in quivering tones and going the FUCK FOR IT) was so well reined in that the audience could feel the pressure in her. And when she finally did let rip, it was like a glacier exploding: it was absolutely spellbinding, and most crucial of all, it felt like the result of years lived in torment and quiet fury, not like the outburst born of a couple of hours of theatrical adrenaline.

Lindsay Duncan was also magnificent. A much warmer presence than Shaw, and with a voluptuous quality that has served her throughout her career and is as much a mark of her interpretation as it is of her physical presence, they were magnificently paired. It’s always good to see two actors absolutely matched, but with contrasting qualities and styles (think of Brando and Leigh in “A Streetcar Named Desire”) and with this script it was very heaven.

I have to confess that the disappointment for me was Rickman. Maybe it’s because I saw Schofield in the role (and I truly can’t imagine it being done better), but I also think that Rickman was too slight a character to scale the part and to crash down into its depths: it felt as though he was picking round the edges of the part a little, rather than immersing himself in it. It is a mountain of a part and perhaps it was simply too much but (on the night that I saw it, at least) he was subdued, rather than destroyed; miffed, rather than devastated – though I should add that plenty of people disagree with me as violently as it’s possible to do without falling over.

It was a trip worth taking in every way – and I cannot but hope (though Virtual Friend and Theatre Twin thinks it highly unlikely) that there may be a London transfer at some point this year. I would gladly go again, and again, and again.

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