Portrait of the artist as a non-man

Fiona Shaw, "the next Vanessa Redgrave,"discusses her adventures in a most dangerous profession.

Published April 6, 1996 12:22PM (EST)

Irish-born actress Fiona Shaw is one of the most thoughtful, controversial and exhilarating performers in Britain today, widely heralded (to her dismay) as "the next Vanessa Redgrave." With her constant collaborator, director Deborah Warner (the two women have earned the nickname "The Terrible Twins"), she has most recently ignited venomous criticism and equally rapturous praise by playing Richard II, the sorrowful English king deposed by his childhood friend and cousin Henry Bolingbroke and later murdered. Shaw was frankly consternated by the resulting outcry in the British press over casting a woman as the king. To her and to Warner, casting across gender was a risky stroke of inspiration intended to add a new dimension to the homosexual undertones between Richard and Bolingbroke.

Wickedly ironic, voluble and intense offstage, the 36-year-old former philosophy student is wholly unpredictable onstage, routinely skating on the edge of a theatrical cliff. In "The Taming of the Shrew," she wielded a pair of scissors like an incendiary assassin, chopping off chunks of her own hair. As "Electra," she became a woman possessed, tearing across the stage on the verge of madness.

A fixture with the Royal Shakespeare Company and London's National Theatre, Shaw has won three Olivier awards (equivalent to Broadway's Tony Awards) for best actress. Her BBC film of "The Waste Land," a dramatic rendition of the T.S. Eliot epic poem directed by Warner, was a tour de force, with the actress conjuring up a bleak gallery of characters lost in a realm of spiritual blight.

All is not doom, gloom and self-seriousness, however, in a film career that has cast Shaw in "Three Men and a Little Lady," and in the eminently forgettable movie of the video game "Super Mario Brothers." She has also appeared in "My Left Foot," "Jane Eyre" and the underappreciated "Mountains of the Moon," in which she portrayed the free-spirited wife of the great 19th-century English explorer Sir Richard Burton.

We sat down recently with Shaw at her Bastille-area hotel in Paris, where she was finishing a run of "Richard II." As we soon discovered, wind up the actress on subjects metaphysical, moral and psychological and the results will make your head spin.

How did you first come up with the idea to play "Richard II?"

It first came up when I was playing "Electra" and someone suggested I do "Hamlet." I had no wish to do "Hamlet" because the gender is crucial to the nature of that play in a way that it is not in "Richard II." King Richard is not really a man, he is a god.

You think Richard II is a god?

I think he thinks he's a god. It's one of the most heightened of Shakespeare's histories and lends itself to a stroke of casting that would break the play open. Hitherto, it has been revealed by men playing the role using their feminine energy. But they use up so much of their male energy doing that. If you cast a woman in the role, none of her energy is taken up reaching for the feminine side. Odd things have occurred because of it. It was done as an experiment.

I knew we were onto something. As (the English director) Peter Brook says, you sniff an idea, you don't really cogitate it. If it lives with you long enough, it's worth pursuing. And this Richard has lingered for about three or four years so finally we took it up. We were terrified because we didn't know what we were getting into. I certainly had no intention of playing a man. So I just play the character, I play the lines. The way I look at it is that I am a non-man playing somebody who perceives himself to be a non-man.

You mean because he sees himself as a god, a demi-god or at least a king given his power by God?

Yes, he's sacred. The others think he's a god too. The medieval world view was that the king was one down from God. Richard was a very, very great exponent of the divine right of kings.

What was the nature of the experiment you were trying to explore?

Where the play often falls short of itself is the relationship between Bolingbroke and Richard. Richard gives his crown away to the person he loves most in the world. He also then has to hate him most. His cousin loves him more than anyone else in the world, but takes the crown and has to kill him. These are the contradictions that are incredibly enriching in one's emotional landscape. If two men played this part, it would be reduced to just a homosexual story, which is not what the play is. By my playing it, you can't name it. It's not homosexual. How can it be homosexual? I'm a woman.

The fact that you're playing it neutralizes the feminine aspect of Richard?

It doesn't neutralize it, it heightens something. It confuses in a way that the mind needs to be confused because morality then gets thrown in the air -- which is what should happen in a play, isn't it?

Does he really want to be king or does he toy with the idea of throwing his identity away?

It's a bit like Christ. You have to lose your life to gain your soul. But you don't know that. But of course the best thing Richard does is to give away the crown because he discovers what it is to be human by doing so. It is also the most painful thing he does. He doesn't intend to do it. The play works on endless levels. Otherwise, it would be just a narrative. There's no doubt Richard doesn't want to give away his crown. He's forced to. But like a thief, he may want to be caught. It's subconscious, isn't it?

The crown is in a way your heart. He gives away his heart to the person who is most dangerous to him. He abuses the thing he should have taken most care of. We all do that at some point in our lives. We should look after our hearts, but we usually give it to the person who does us most damage, then we spend a long time trying to get it back. I'm not reducing it to that either. But that's why the play is very hard to get hold of.

<BAre there other male roles in Shakespeare plays that you might perform?

No, I would never do it again. Once you've done it, it's done. This one falls into that delicate category of being feasible, of being worth finding something out, rather than failing at being Hamlet because you're not a man. You can't play those scenes with Ophelia or with your mother. They're about sons and lovers and sons and mothers. To our immense delight, this experiment succeeded. But it means putting your head on the block for a minute and not knowing whether it will.

How do you choose the roles you play?

Usually it's in reaction to the previous play. Once you've done one style, you leave it for a while. After "Electra," I did a Brecht, which is a good antidote. Then I did "Hedda Gabler" followed by a modern play by Sophie Treadwell.

You have a notion of some sort of psychic pendulum swinging back and forth?

I wouldn't say there is any notion of that. Theater dates very quickly. You're always trying to catch the writer or the theme or the nature of a play that resonates at that time. This "Richard II" would have been of no meaning ten years ago, only a feminist meaning. It would have been of a very small significance. Its significance in the '90s is more resonant because we've deconstructed all categories so more than one meaning can come from it.

I would say the next imminent hot writers are often the writers from the decade before you were born. So for me, it would be the 1950s writers who would interest me. Every generation is obsessed with the decade before they were born. I'm quite interested in doing Ionesco at the moment. Also, an area that interests me -- and it will probably take years to state what I mean -- is the period of the rise of democracy, with Tom Paine, which is around the turn of the 18th century into the 19th. That period is very interesting because we are genuinely coming to an end of it.

You mean the end of democracy?

The end of the period that invented democracy. That was the beginning of the modern world as we've known it and it really is coming to an end. The word democracy has no meaning. Duty has gone. Only rights remain.

Duty to what?

Duty to everything-- family, country, state, neighbor, the word, kin. This whole tribal loyalty seems to have gone.

How do you work together with Deborah Warner in interpreting your roles?

She doesn't interfere with your playing. She notes what you play and fixes it. In "Electra," I had made it more hysterical and she was a bit cross about it. Tragedy has to be connected to sanity. Tragedy has no interest if it verges into lunacy. There's nothing tragic about the lunatic in the end. The sane watcher doesn't have to identify with it. The playing of "Electra" was on a tightrope between sanity and insanity.

Is there a particular chemistry with Warner you don't find elsewhere? What does she bring to you?

I can be as brave as a lion and go further than I would dare go with anyone else because I trust her totally. Her taste is impeccable.

Can you think of any examples?

"Electra." I could never have done that for anyone else. It would have been wild unless she was monitoring it. Her great ability is that she watches the performance and notes each beat of it. She notices everything. She notes that you were nervous at one moment and then will say there's no need to be nervous there. She gives us a book of notes every few days. Being that watched means she knows what you're thinking. Most directors come every few months and say a little less that and a little more of that. She gives you notes on your thoughts. She watches with immense affection.

Did you study theater while growing up in County Cork?

There was no professional theater in Cork, but still I did a lot of performing. A lot of Irish people perform. They perform in drawing rooms. They sing songs and they play piano.

You studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. What was that like?

What I liked about RADA was that it was absolutely anti-intellectual. It was about how do you release moments of truth, and what is the relationship between the audience and the actor. It's fantastically subterranean, terribly powerful. It's like love.

How do you mean?

The energy released by it is enormous and it becomes quite addictive, the power between the audience and the actor.

Is it more difficult to get that feeling in film?

It's certainly more difficult to be fueled by it in film. People who are good at film have a relationship with the camera. Sometimes they can signal their spiritual best to the camera in a way the naked eye cannot see.

I read that you wanted to remake the face of theater. How would you do that?

I facetiously said it to a man from Newsweek, in complete jest. To my horror, he printed it coldly, without the irony I intended. Theater is dangerously open to repetition. It's exciting when you hit on a new way. I can't talk about this without appearing to blow on my trumpet. Doing "Electra" was a whole new way of acting. It was a very dangerous thing to do.


Physically and mentally very dangerous. I was physically wrecked from it -- lame, thin, ill. You're psychically playing with illness, starvation and burning up enormous intellectual energy. It didn't do me any good, that. It did my soul good, but I don't think it did my body any good.

This Richard is very dangerous for my career. Not only playing the opposite gender, but playing in an area where you're not in control. I don't know anything about gods. I can't use my history, as a person, to inform the role. It's playing a part without any guy ropes. That's quite hard. But that's new and so it's exciting for me and the audience. It's building Everest and climbing it all the time and changing its shape.

Are there any times where you would like to sit back and not question the consequences all the time?

Well, we're heightening the experiences now because we're talking about them. I mainly have a nice time in my life.

What do you do for fun?

I mainly drink wine and eat out a lot. We have a fabulous time. The point is we're only playing. You can get very self-important about it, but the point is it's play.

I take the theater seriously in that I loathe it, I'm bored by it. I find it incredibly tedious, hate that it murders itself with its own conservative pomposity.

What do you mean when you say you loathe theater?

I loathe bad theater and most theatre is very bad because it's repetitious, unexciting and, dangerously, it is sometimes praised for those things. It's praised for fulfilling the expectations of the audience when it should surpass the expectations of the audience.

Have you enjoyed the films you've made?

I've enjoyed it and I would like to make more films because it allows me this terrible time I need to find out what it is I want to do.

How do you mean?

Yesterday marked the 100th time I played Richard II. I'd have made a film of "Richard II" in about one-tenth of the time. I must do some film because I can't keep on doing plays at this rate or I'd die.

Are you looking for movie roles?

I would love them, yes. The nice thing about movie roles is that someone else has done all the worrying. I had lots of qualms about doing "Three Men and a Little Lady," only to find that it caused more delight to more children in the world than all my worried projects put together.

What were your qualms?

I suppose because it was the most politically incorrect film ever done, wasn't it? But it was harmless because it declares its hand. It doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is. Acting doesn't have to be threadbare misery all the time.

What films should Hollywood be making?

I have no idea. I can hardly decide what plays I should be in. But it's sad that it's such a struggle for good films. If you refuse to have tragedy in order to make people feel good, you actually do them out of their right to feel bad. That's a terribly simplistic explanation because tragedy doesn't do that, but it does cleanse. There is a great relief in experiencing the worst vicariously. And by endlessly sanitizing our feelings, we actually feed a disgruntled nation. I think America becomes more disgruntled by going to the movies and having an endlessly good time at them.

And not actually going through the purging of tragedy?

Absolutely. It's a pity to turn our back on that very important ritual which is tragedy. It's a life-saver, a soul-saver. And I'm not a great exponent of tragedy. I just think that things should be allowed to run their course, and not turned into a Disney ride.

By Richard Covington

Richard Covington covers cultural subjects and the arts from Paris.

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