Issue Number: 116
Matt Wolf meets the celebrated Irish actress whose latest stage role lands her squarely in the world of art.
Your character in Howard Barker’s play at the National Theatre Scenes from an Execution is Galactia, who was modelled on the painter Artemisia Gentileschi. What appealed to you about the role?
I love painting and over the past 10 years or so I’ve painted a lot – incredibly badly but enough to know that the act of painting for me is just one of life’s great pleasures, so that resonated for me. And it’s fantastic to find a play that has stood the test of time. When we started just looking at it, I was astonished and delighted.
Fiona Shaw at her home in Primrose Hill, London. Photo © Eamonn McCabe.
Did you see Glenda Jackson as Galactia, when the play debuted at the Almeida Theatre in 1990?
I did see it all those years ago, and I remember little about it except the force of Glenda and the severity that she was always able to carry.
How important is a knowledge of the Italian Baroque?
I’m a tourist in it. I think it’s important to be aware that Howard Barker has just taken the sketch of Gentileschi; I don’t think he’s investigating her life directly. He hasn’t entirely dealt with her, because she was raped, as you may know, and that’s not in the play at all.
So knowledge of the topic isn’t crucial for audiences?
What may be more interesting is to investigate the history of art history. I mean, isn’t it amazing that we didn’t learn about her in school? Where was she on that list of painters?
The role seems of a piece with so many of the strong women you have played over time, from Electra and Medea to Brecht’s Mother Courage and Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days
I actually don’t experience those characters as strong women because what interests me are people where there’s a huge problem and the person isn’t up to the problem. So it’s never the triumphalism of the character that interests me: when I played Medea, I really did think this character was absolutely cornered and in love and was always troubled by the fact that she was victim to being in love.
Scenes from an Execution has been billed by some as a comedy
That’s not what I feel. Howard has written a play about lies and darkness and certainly about politics and art, and Galactia is far from being a heroine of her cause; I would put the play nearer tragedy, actually.
You must love the eclecticism of your career, from Harry Potter and True Blood to Beckett, Shakespeare, Barker and on to directing opera
And I’ve just recently been memorising Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner for two performances in Greece in the theatre in Epidaurus; Phyllida Lloyd is directing, and it’s 43 minutes long. The fact is, I have a lot of energy, and I do think I have an interesting time.
Your father was an eye doctor: do you think that influenced your own ways of seeing?
That’s interesting: my father died last year aged 89 but he had always wanted to do a book about eye malfunctions in paintings. He could see astigmatism in a subject or glaucoma or a detached retina. I think there’s a connection between medicine and acting: medicine is a service industry but you are dealing very intimately with other people and they’re dealing with you.
What about painting versus acting?
As often as not painting is about repair: it’s endlessly about overpainting in my case so I’ll think, ‘Oh I did it wrong’, and rehearsing is a bit like that, too. Acting, like painting, seems to me to be very private, at least the preparation for it is, though it often might not seem so because you do it in a group. I think the two are complementary.
Whom would you like to paint you?
Victoria Russell has done a big painting of me that’s in the National Portrait Gallery, and she’s a wonderful painter. I would also have loved to have been painted by Jasper Johns because I would have been transformed into patterns; it wouldn’t just be a picture of me.
Which figure in a famous painting would you be?
I’d like to be in a Cranach painting about paradise. When I was very young, I used to think a lot about Adam and Eve and their world and those strange landscapes, so yes, I’d like to be a character in paradise.
What is the art world’s best kept secret?
The Musée de Cluny in Paris.
Do you have a favourite place to see art?
That’s hard to say because I mark my lovely life of going around the world by whatever exhibition I go and see in whatever city I’m
in. I think all galleries, really, are cathedrals of understanding.
Do you have any regrets?
Have you got all day? I regret not being more awake in my late 20s. I just did what was in front of my eyes and never had any overview.
I spent four years at the RSC pretty well acting every night, and I’m not sure I wouldn’t have some of that time back.
What is your greatest fear?
Richard II’s line: ‘I wasted time and now doth time waste me.’
What is your favourite colour?
Anything, once it’s green. I think we are green; I think when I die, I will be green.