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The NS Interview: Fiona Shaw

Where is home for you? Is it still Ireland?
I live in Primrose Hill. I've lived there on and off for a long time. I couldn't say that home was Ireland. I should say that; I should be there more often. My father is very old now, so I go home as often as possible. But I live alone in Primrose Hill, and I go to and fro wherever I need to be.

Do you love to travel?
I do love to be in more than one place. There's a relationship with Los Angeles, but I also love to go anywhere else. I have a very untypical life.

You're starring in Mother Courage and Her Children. Do you see it as an anti-war play?
It isn't an anti-war play: it sort of says that war is the state of affairs, and there are moments of peace within war. That's very challenging, I think, for an audience sitting in London. Five hundred yards from this theatre is the place that is declaring war. The play is entertainment, fundamentally, but I feel that it's about war because war is a heightened way of being.

People are always proclaiming the death or the rebirth of political theatre. What's your view?
I couldn't say that phrase has been used once in our experience of this play. It's got none of the earnestness associated with political theatre. It's high classical, poetical theatre, thrilling with the roots of music hall and what we would now call populist theatre. The phrase "political theatre" has lost its meaning in the strictest sense, but I hope the audience has a wonderful time thinking about the issues.

How are you finding this, after Happy Days?
I wanted very much to do something, having done a Beckett sitting in a mound, with a lot of people. I was glad to get out of the mound.

Recently you directed an opera, Riders to the Sea. Did you enjoy the departure from acting?
I've spent an enormous amount of time in rehearsals in the past 20 years, and part-producing the work I've been part of, so directing is not a million miles to jump. With the opera, I was quite keen to do something outside my realm. It's very good for any artist to throw themselves into the unknown. I'm going to do another opera, actually, in the spring.

If you weren't in the arts, what would you be?
I would have been a philosophy teacher, pro­bably no more than that. I read philosophy at university. All my family were doctors, but I probably wasn't heading towards that.

You're credited with an intellectual approach. How do you see the role of the intellectual?
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. Human experience is wide, and geographically very wide: you can go anywhere in the world. But some people really know the depth of it.

Who are your greatest influences?
I have worked with a lot of directors, and all of them have been fantastic because you learn different things. Peter Stein has been a big influence on me - I learned from him about doing a thing and not sideswiping at it. So if the script says, put the pen down, just put the pen down - don't think of another way of doing it. Just put the pen down and see what that teaches you.

There are people I haven't worked with, like Robert Lepage, who are enormous influences, who show why the theatre goes on being an
incandescent form. Then there are my more permanent collaborators. The feeling is that I have worked a lot with Deborah [Warner].

I have, but I've worked with an enormous amount of directors. Working again with somebody, you have a developed sense of not worrying. I know she always spots the things that are missing, and that they can be fixed later, and that gives you the confidence to stay lost for longer. Her values and aesthetics are fantastic.

Last year, you wrote that you had had a year full of death. How do you cope with grief?
God, I really have to think about what I'm saying. It's really hard. I think there is a seam of sorrow beneath most of our delights. I do accept that, but I'm always affronted and shocked by it. The problem with grief is that the object of it isn't there. But I have had very few griefs - I've had a very privileged, easy life.

Is there a plan?
Being in the arts, making something, it's the most fantastic privilege to be in an unknown territory. There is no plan about how anything is going to come out at the end when you start it. You have a hunch, you go towards it, it comes towards you and finally things meet. But it's always unknown. Terrifying, actually.

Are we all doomed?
You know, in my twenties, I hoped we were all doomed. It seemed more glamorous. And in my thirties I definitely thought we were all doomed. In my forties I panicked that only I was doomed. And now I really have turned. Lately, I've been in an incredibly positive frame of mind. And that's the only frame of mind worth having, because we are all doomed.

"Mother Courage" is at the National Theatre until 8 December

Defining moments

1958 Born in County Cork, Ireland
1979 After a philosophy BA, joins Rada
1982 Joins the National Theatre. Three years later joins the RSC
1989 Plays Eileen Cole in My Left Foot. Stars in Persuasion (1995) and Jane Eyre (1996)
1990 First of three Laurence Olivier Awards
1997 Awarded honorary doctorate by Ireland's National University, first of two
2001 Awarded CBE
2008 Directs the opera Riders to the Sea

Read the extended interview.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times