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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 French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.