With her next two projects ranging from TS Eliot to the Kerry Babies scandal, Fiona Shaw continues her eclectic path through acting, writes Padraic Killeen


THIS Sunday, at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Irish poet Paul Muldoon will deliver a commemorative lecture on TS Eliot’s contribution to literature. Presented by the TS Eliot Estate in association with the Abbey, the event is planned as the first of five annual lectures, and the setting is an apt one, as it was on the Abbey stage that Eliot himself delivered a lecture in honour of WB Yeats in 1940.

Following Muldoon’s tribute on Sunday night, the audience can look forward to a musical performance of Schubert’s ‘Quintet for Strings in C Major’, followed by a live delivery by Fiona Shaw of Eliot’s most iconic work, ‘The Wasteland’. The latter is a thrilling prospect as Shaw’s performance in a celebrated production of ‘The Wasteland’ in the late 1990s was one of the Irish actor’s greatest successes. One of a number of shows that established her at the very vanguard of international theatre, the original production toured venues throughout the world, including performances in Dublin and Shaw’s hometown of Cork.

In revisiting ‘The Wasteland’, Shaw is at pains to point out that Sunday’s ‘performance’ will not be a reprisal of the 1990s show, however. “This is just a belts-and-braces rendering of it,” she insists. Nevertheless, it won’t be a mere reading either. Shaw has been rehearsing the poem for the past four weeks in order to ‘re-find’ it.

“Of course, in re-finding it, I realise that the history of the world has changed since I first learnt it,” she says. “So the images in the poem have changed too. There’s a reference to ‘falling towers’ in one of the lines. I don’t think there’s an ear that could hear that line now without seeing the Twin Towers falling.”

 Fiona Shaw and Fionnuala Flaherty in Out of Innocence.
Fiona Shaw and Fionnuala Flaherty in Out of Innocence.

Indeed, Eliot’s vision in ‘The Wasteland’ is one that continues to speak to us. The poem — a tissue of evocative fragments woven together from everyday speech, historical references, and copious literary allusions – has the power to speak for all time, being a meditation on time itself and the strange detritus of human experience.

Eliot published ‘The Wasteland’ in 1922, at a time when the world was recovering from the carnage of World War I and the poet himself was recovering from a personal breakdown. It would soon become regarded as one of the pillars of literary modernism, as influential as James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, published the same year.

“The poem is really a series of voices,” says Shaw “At the beginning, with the opening line ‘April is the cruellest month’, I always think of the mother of a friend of mine in Cork. Her mum would say things like that. I connect a lot of the voices to Ireland and I set a lot of it in Ireland.”

A performer of Shaw’s calibre can surely have great fun with the different personalities that crop up in the poem, I say.

“You can,” she says enthusiastically. “There’s a bit in it, ‘Weialala leia‘, which ostensibly is the Rhinemaiden’s song in Wagner’s Ring cycle, but I make it my mother. So I’ve cast people I know, as it were. There’s a line ‘I go south in the Winter’, and that’s my late friend Herbert Ross who was completely the kind of person who would say ‘I go south in the winter’. So I have great fun with it. The audience doesn’t need to know it, but I climb the cliff-face of the poem standing on people I know.”

Exuberant and witty, Shaw has a delightfully giddy conversation style, but in between the laughter it is remarkable how many incisive observations she makes about Eliot’s poem. ‘The Wasteland’ points out that “we’re all the same,” she says. “And, in that sense, the poem is an act of compassion.”

“When you read The Wasteland you think ‘I could write this poem,” she says at another point. “You think, ‘if I could just gather together everything that I’ve read and heard…’ But, of course, Eliot’s genius is in the welding. It’s got architecture to it.”

Structurally, ‘The Wasteland’ is steeped in the brokenness and dejection of Europe in the wake of World War I, and, as such, it can be perceived as a bleak critique of its historical moment, And yet there’s a strange affirmation and peacefulness woven into the poem too.

“It’s full of life,” agrees Shaw. “The Wasteland says ‘this is all there is, but the richness of what there is, that’s bliss’. I don’t know if you feel this, but it’s why I don’t want to die. The longer I’m in the world the more I like it. I’m just looking out the window at my garden and the seasons are changing and the trees are turning again, and you think, ‘Gosh, I’d forgotten how gorgeous Autumn is. And how many more of these gorgeous Autumns will I have?’”

Following her Wasteland duties on Sunday, Shaw had hoped to be back in Ireland a week later for the premiere of a new film, Out of Innocence, at the Cork Film Festival. However, her recent casting in an American film starring Kristen Stewart and Chloe Sevigny may mean that she will be in the US instead.

The Irish film, directed by Danny Hiller, is a fictional treatment of the infamous Kerry Babies scandal that rocked Ireland in 1984 when two dead babies were discovered in different areas of Co Kerry, prompting ferocious media and societal pressure on the mother of one of the babies, a much criticised police investigation, and a subsequent tribunal.

“I think Danny was very brave to make that film,” says Shaw. “It’s high time it was made. It needed to be made. To many people watching it, it will feel like the middle ages but it really isn’t that long ago.”

Shaw was a young girl at the time and can recall all too vividly an Irish society under the oppressive sway of institutionalised Catholicism.

“Oh, I remember. We assumed that the family were in some way duplicitous and mad. But the film really shows that they were just bullied.”

Despite its drawbacks, however, Shaw says growing up with Catholicism had some benefits.

“When I went to RADA first I had a huge advantage. Because I had been brought up Catholic I had a great sense of extremes, of Heaven and Hell — which is very good for the theatre. The people who were secular had a much more dulled feeling of possibility when it comes to human nature. So in that way Ireland and Catholicism has been very interesting for our imaginations... But the other side of it is that it’s unbelievable that people were so punch-drink with not knowing.”

Having lived in London for the last three decades, she is much more positive about Ireland she sees today on her regular forays home. “It really is a wonderful country now,” she says. “Because it’s a young population full of educated people, and spirituality will return in some other form, I think.”

The T.S. Eliot Lectures, with Paul Muldoon and Fiona Shaw, takes place in the Abbey Theatre this Sunday

Out of Innocence shows at Triskel Christchurch on Sunday, November 13, as part of Cork Film Festival


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