Rising to Epidaurus challenge

Early in 2000, people on the street would recognize her as «Miss Dursley,» from her role as the unpleasant Aunt Petunia of the early Harry Potter films. The character suited Fiona Shaw, an actress often referred to as «the next Vanessa Redgrave,» to a tee. But, then again, there seems to be no role that doesn’t fit this tall and slim actress like a glove. About a decade ago, Shaw took on the title role of William Shakespeare’s «Richard II,» which sparked both harsh criticism and accolades for the actress. Born in Cork, Ireland, Shaw, an award-winning actress in theater with vast experience in the classics and numerous unanticipated roles in film, will perform at the Ancient Epidaurus Theater this Friday and Saturday. She will interpret the role of Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s «Happy Days.» This particular production is something of a challenge. There are a number of concerns, including whether this play, one written for indoor theater, can be successfully transposed to a sizable open-air venue such as the Ancient Epidaurus Theater. British theatrical director Deborah Warner, a respected artist and close associate of Shaw’s, is at the project’s helm. «Happy Days» impressed critics at the British National Theater when the play was staged there last January. «Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw, with great leaps of the imagination, created an epic out of a small play,» wrote the Guardian in a review. Shaw spoke to Kathimerini ahead of her arrival in Greece, several days before the two Epidaurus shows, for the necessary preparations. She offered a clear opinion about the play’s venue in the ancient outdoor theater. In an article of yours for the Guardian, on the occasion of this production, you wrote that you took inspiration for your role of Winnie from the women of our times. How would you describe the Winnie of our era? Would she be relevant in the 21st century with the same umbrella and necklace? You’re right… In Beckett’s description, she is a special type of woman of the 60s. Of course, people continue to use umbrellas for the sun and wear hats, perhaps not as small as the ones worn by Winnie, but they’re hats nevertheless. For the performance, I wear a sun hat, which is perfect for Greece, I think. But, returning to the play, Beckett is not interested in what Winnie looks like on the outside, but, rather, the anatomy of human thought. In one way, the character is not a purely feminine dimension. It carries many of Samuel Beckett’s traits. His panic attacks, phobias and feelings. Beckett channeled his existential fears into this lovable woman, who’s very charming and clever. My prototype on which I shaped Winnie is based on a woman I know – very liberal and dynamic. I could almost see her speaking the words of Winnie. Anybody can find themselves in this position. It is not gender, social class, or whatever else, that positions us in this world, but the way memory functions, as approached and explored by Beckett. I’m not trying to analyze the play, but I think the thing that audiences enjoy about «Happy Days» is this woman’s optimism despite the oddities. Beckett offers numerous analytical stage instructions for his plays. Do you feel confined or does it provide you with a greater understanding of your roles? I must say that they are very good instructions, humorous. I took them off the page so that I couldn’t see them. No, I didn’t feel trapped. In all of Beckett’s plays, the instructions seem like they’ve been written by an alien… You’ve also played Medea, Electra, and other heroines of ancient Greek tragedies. Medea is full of rage, Winnie is full of silence and pause. Do you consider them both to be tragic heroines? I would consider them to be sisters, as I consider Beckett to be a brother of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus. I think Beckett took the next big step in theatrical language. He chose a female face, the universe’s most susceptible figure, or a woman, who is far more susceptible than men as she is burdened by domestic issues, the weight of marriage, as well as the emotional load. Medea is full of rage, but before she filled with rage she carried joy, love and hope. She changed her position on things after her feelings were misused. As for Winnie’s case, nothing went awry, but nothing ever went well either. «Happy Days» is considered to be a play that was custom-made for indoor theaters. How are you dealing with Epidaurus? How has the prospect of the open-air theater affected the reading of this play? I think that the play, too, grows, under the open-air circumstances. It seems more epic. You can tell the story of the down-and-out Winnie more effectively inside a big venue. The eyes of the audience focus on the top of this hill, where Winnie is placed. I’m more than happy about my appearance at Epidaurus, a theater that combines the human element with epic quality in the most perfect of ways. Epidaurus allows us to provide the play with epic breath. So we can expand it. «Harry Potter:» The product of a big company or important literary work? You tell me. I don’t know. Nothing, however, can be attributed entirely to the marketing work. I think we’re now talking about something phenomenal. Disney, too, relied heavily on marketing, but knocked the stories flat. In «Harry Potter,» I see the love shown by children all over the world. I think they’ve found what they were looking for in this book: A world that knows very well how complicated it is to be young. With Harry Potter, children have rediscovered the joy of reading, and I think that’s important. The bad thing about the films being made is that they determine the experience and offer an interpretation of the book, which limits the imagination. How do you perceive the avant-garde in theater today? I don’t know what it is. There are things I admire, but I cannot define avant-garde. At times, directors pressure the shape of a play which results in it being distorted. It’s different to include new-aesthetic elements in a production. In theater, you’re always working in the present. I don’t know what experimentation is when every bit of a performance is an experiment. Each of your projects needs to be different. You need to try new things.