Sunday 15 December 2019

Fiona Shaw is earning rave reviews for playing God’s mother

Fiona Shaw is earning rave reviews for playing God's mother in the West End. But we shouldn't be surprised ... she has been Ireland's most accomplished actor for years

Fiona Shaw in 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix'
Fiona Shaw in 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix'
Fiona Shaw
Fiona Shaw

Edel Coffey

There are not many actors who could take on the role of a spirit medium in the HBO series True Blood, and also excel at performing a theatre monologue while encased in a mound of dirt (Beckett's Happy Days). Cork-born actress Fiona Shaw, however, is unique amongst her peers. She is a bit of a go-to woman for monologues.

Her performance of TS Eliot's The Waste Land, both in the stage dramatisation of the epic poem, and later in the iPad app of Eliot's masterpiece, reflect both her intellect and versatility as an actress.

She manages to maintain consistent critical acclaim, while also turning up in crowd-pleasing films and cosy TV dramas (Agatha Christie's Marple). Along with Olivier awards and a CBE, Shaw has packed in potboilers like playing the sexually-frustrated headmistress character in Three Men and A Little Lady (and it's testament to her talent that she managed to be very good in that film). Not many actresses would get away with that. Nor would many have the breadth of ability to direct an opera or two and star in the Harry Potter franchise.

Last month, Shaw was among the Irish guests honoured during President Michael D Higgins's state visit to Britain. She attended the queen's banquet in Windsor, the Guild Hall, and read poetry at the Ceiluradh event at the Royal Albert Hall, before showing the president's wife, Sabina Higgins, a former actress, around RADA.

With these sort of credentials, it doesn't really come as much of a surprise that Shaw is earning rave reviews for her performance in Colm Toibin's The Testament Of Mary at the Barbican in London. Really, when one is as accomplished as Fiona, playing the mother of God is probably a bit of a doddle. The play has been resurrected after it closed on Broadway last year after just 43 performances and less glowing reviews.

Despite her mix of Hollywood roles and critical acclaim, at 55 Shaw retains an elusive trait for successful actors – anonymity. She has maintained a life outside celebrity, even though her friendships with women have often been the subject of tabloid interest.

Born in Cork in 1958, Shaw's father was an eye surgeon and her mother held a degree in physics. Shaw studied Philosophy in UCC before going to RADA. She is a classical actress in an age where they don't even seem to properly exist anymore, or are at least a dying breed. Her natural theatre peers are older – Vanessa Redgrave, Dame Judi Dench. Among Shaw's generation, she has no contemporaries who straddle the stage and screen as successfully as she does.

She probably first came to Irish viewers' attention in films like My Left Foot and The Butcher Boy. She was the twinkling-eyed doctor with whom Christy Brown fell in love, and in The Butcher Boy she was a uptight and bitter busybody who eventually got her comeuppance.

Shaw's collaboration with the director Deborah Warner has been crucial to her career. The pair have worked together over the past 30 years on some of the greatest works of theatre, from Ibsen's Hedda Gabler to Sophocles' Electra (for which Shaw won an Olivier award) and they even put on a cross-dressing Richard II. But it was Shaw's role in the Warner-directed Electra in 1989 that was a turning point for her.

The role came soon after her youngest brother, Peter, died in a car accident. She has said that the play had a sort of healing quality for her at that time: "I suddenly recognised that the matter of the play, of a sister mourning her dead brother, was something I understood, and that helped me do the rest of it."

Likewise, she drew on the memory of that pain for her role as a mother mourning the death of her son in The Testament Of Mary, also directed by Warner.

She told New York Magazine: "When my brother was killed, I saw him. It's a well-known pattern. Somebody rolls across the street, and you think, 'It's Peter!' And he doesn't exist, of course. There's nothing eerie about it, and my mother says that when she saw Peter, she suddenly questioned the Resurrection."

For all of her refined craft, Shaw seems to be as unstarry as they come. Regularly photographed strolling around London, where she lives, in tweeds and denims, she doesn't engage in the celebrity game. And she's proof you don't have to with her haul of awards and pick of some of the most coveted roles, combined with the fact that she could walk down Grafton Street unbothered. But perhaps that says more about celebrity culture and the 'talent' we revere than it does about Shaw's attitudes.

She's clearly a thinker but shirks any suggestion she is an intellectual. In an interview with The New Statesman, she said: "You've got the wrong person. I'm not an intellectual; I'm loquacious. I love talking to intellectuals, but my participation is straw-sucking."

We think the lady doth protest too much.

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