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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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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain