An interview with Fiona Shaw

Screen shot 2014-01-30 at 3.46.08 PMLast night I felt like I had been caught in a bubble of sea foam and transported into a nautical dream as I watched the enthalling Fiona Shaw perform The Rime of the Ancient Mariner at the endearingly nostalgic Bouffes du Nord theater. I was so inspired that I asked Ms Shaw for an interview.

The actress and the show’s director Phyllida Lloyd (famous for Mamma Mia!) came up with the idea to perform this poem while sitting in the director’s cluttered kitchen. They were both coming out of a very hectic period and want to work on a small little project they could perform in a home, with friends. Already famous for interpreting TS Elliot’s The Waste Land for film and stage, Ms Shaw was on familiar ground with poetry, and like The Waste Land, this project grew into something much larger than they had ever imagined. It is now a Production that demands tremendous preparation as it travels the globe.

I floated to the vibrations of Ms Shaw’s mesmerizing voice last night, with familiar verses of this long forgotten (by me) poem bringing me back to land every now and again; “water, water, everywhere… all things great and small…” reminding that we were in Paris.

Walking into Ms Shaw’s spartan dressing room, I was struck by her eyes, exuding a soft warmth you could almost touch. She is at home while far from home and is quick to welcome others into her sphere with an easy smile and firm grip. Dressed in relaxing clothes for the hours of rehearsal ahead, two pairs of canvas sneakers abandoned on the floor, she offered me a seat.

I explained that I would be asking her how Paris stimulated her 5 senses, starting with my personal interpretation of touch; her favorite thing to do. “Perform” she replied before I had even finished my sentence. I suspect that this is what she loves to do where ever she lands, but in Paris she particularly loves the audience and how they are so attuned to the performance, even able to respond to the comic moments the horrific Greek tragedy, Medea. And one of the highlights of her entire career, for reasons she can not even identify today, was performing Richard II at Bobigny.

Her favorite flavour? While the reply took a little longer, she is very confident that it is the wine.

Discussing her vision of Paris, the actress closed her eyes, sat straight up and took us both to the Ile Saint Louis where the streets show visitors the Paris of another era with time worn paving stones scrubbed smooth.

Not far away, standing on the Pont Neuf, the fragrance of the Seine is her Paris, with the same smells that the nun’s would breath in centuries ago, as they passed by the Conciergerie. It is the smell of history and it is the history of this place that makes the city work for Ms Shaw.

The sound of Paris is the sound of the pavement, the low layers of cars whisking by, heels clacking, feet scuffling. And it is the church bells on Sunday, a different sound than the sound of church bells in her native Ireland, a blue sound that rings through the uniquely blue skies of Paris.



The Bard

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I have a thing for Shakespeare. I’ve had it since I was about 9 years old and realized that I’d wormed my way through all the books in the (very tiny) young adult book section of our neighborhood library. After all Romeo and Juliette were only 14 when their story unfolded, so how “mature” could the stories be. Not at all, really. Two teens off themselves because they’re too impatient to check for a pulse. Boy, did that annoy me! But I was smitten, completely taken with the language.

Screen shot 2013-11-15 at 5.02.17 PMLiving in Paris you’d think I’d miss it, but I was always the first mom to volunteer when the girls’ classes would got to London for an afternoon performance at The Globe. Oddly, most parents are not thrilled at the aspect of herding 100 rambunctious teens to a frigid train station at 7am, hustling them through border patrol, and then keeping them in line as they are given 2 hours of free time just a few kilometers from Top Shop and around the corner from a pub. And that’s before the show even started. Its exhausting work, but I did it twice, in then name of the Bard.

Which is why I was thrilled when Cara Black told me that her friend Johanna Bartholomew was putting on an English language production of The Temptest right here in Paris. No trains. No teens. And I could go with my favorite partner in soirées Out and About in Paris.

I am always delightfully surprised when I attend a live performance in Paris. I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed and this time my luck held out. A professional cast of 5 hailing from England, Australia, Canada and France led us in this Brave New World. Joanna was incredible, casting magic across the stage as the Sprite Ariel while Nicholas Calderbank’s poise was perfect for Prospero. The surprising actor Dario Costa would go from the sick and twisted Caliban to the elegant Prince of Naples with a quick twist of his lips. Director Rona Waddington kept the stage bare and the cast to a minimum allowing the audience to really concentrate on the performances and the play. Because the play’s the thing.

Screen shot 2013-11-15 at 5.02.34 PMThe performance is held in an atmospheric, pocket sized theater nestled under the vaulted stone ceilings in the basement of a centuries old building; Théâtre de Nesle  in the 6th arrondissement.  Tickets are 20€, with two for the price of one. Performances run Wed-Sat at 19h30 until Dec 28 and over all the evening is considerably more enjoyable than anything to be experienced in getting thee to a nunnery.

A Royal Opera

Opera by (electric) candlelight

I’m a writer. I love a good story. The stories in operas are not good; Mimi wasting away of consumption in a Paris garret, Norma climbing the funeral pyre, Carmen’s ranting ex… the ending is always the same. She dies tragically.

Violetta dies tragically (photo courtesy of the Opéra de Versailles)

And to my ears, these gloomy tales us are told by hysterical screechers, their voices grating on my nerves like dry erase on a white board. I spend most of the show wishing they’d stop singing so I could hear the music! There have been some performances I have truly enjoyed, but more for the moment; seeing an outdoor performance of The Magic Flute with the Château de Sceaux as a backdrop (at last, a happy ending… although that high F6 drove me mad for days), or watching Carmen at Christmas, cuddled-up with Mr French over a steaming mug of hot chocolate (spoiler alert; she dies tragically). Someone once told me that it was a question of maturity and that I’d learn to love it when I was older which has only left me dreading the fit of depression I’ll fall into if I ever do start liking opera…

The King's Loge

So it was an incredible act of selflessness when I chose to give Mr French tickets to see La Traviata (you know the ending) at the Royal Opera House of Versailles for Christmas. The Royal Opera House was inaugurated in 1770 as part of the wedding celebrations for Louis XIV and his charming little Austrian, Marie-Antoinette. The Opera house was closed for restoration in 2007 and Mr French has had a hard time getting tickets since its re-opening in 2009. In walks moi. I was ready to make the ultimate sacrifice and attend an opera, even if it meant taking the risk of actually liking it and spiraling into a fit of depression as I ponder my mortality.

Only a few souls were left haunting the château

The sacrifice was large when you consider the sumptuous beauty of the setting; royal seats designed for a king, exquisite chandeliers and ornately painted wood. And we had the entire palace to ourselves, with just 1000 other, well-dressed guests. Versailles at its best. I can’t say that I was suffering.

The show was spectacular, and even if I don’t yet love opera, I do love the music and I could appreciate that the soprano, Nathalie Manfrino, was truly fantastic. The purity of her voice moved even me during her final aria. But I’ll be honest; the best part was spending the two intermissions haunting the wings, watching the sunset over the deserted gardens, and entering the King’s loge, feeling like a princesse as I sat in the royal seats.

MORE INFO/ Opéra Royal de Versailles

Party’s over

As I mentioned earlier, E’s primary gift for 18th birthday was a night at the Opera Garnier. I came up with brilliant idea last month when Mr French and I were invited to the opera house to see Orphée and Eurydice by the choreographer Pina Bausch.

The opera house was designed by Charles Garnier in the 1860’s when Haussmann was tearing up the town. At the inauguration Empress Eugenie cried, “What style is that? That’s not a style…. Its not Greek, Louis XV, or even Louis XVI.” Garnier promptly retorted, “Its Napoleon III! And you’re complaining?” While I appreciate the architecture, it is the ceiling within the opera house that really melts my butter. The chandelier is simply magnificent. All 7-8 tons of it sits as the perfect tiara to the masterpiece painted by Marc Chagall in 1964. I could stare at that painting for hours… the dancers, the Eiffel Tower and all those rich, warm tones. Above it all, invisible to our eyes, is a dance studio for rehearsals. Delicious!.

Bausch at the Garnier was transcendent, it was abundantly clear that an electric energy had enraptured the audience and the performers in the moment. After the show, there was a poignant silence before the audience came back to earth and burst into exuberant applause, including past President of France, Valéry Giscard-d’Estaign, who was sitting a few rows behind me Yes, the past President of the Republic was behind me. Wow, what more can a girl say than Wow? Following the event there was a cocktail in the Grand Foyer, with its eloquent balcony that runs along the façade of the opera house, the dancers drifted in glowing and waif-like. I didn’t need any champagne, I was drunk from the magnificence of it all.

That night, at home, E expressed her desire to see a ballet the opera some day. The timing was right, Robbins/EK was performing during her birthday. I booked the loges this time, the nostalgically romantic, red brocade lined rooms with coat racks and couches that seat an intimate group of six. The doors only open with a key, giving you the impression of stepping back in time before entering the booth, which immediately transported us to the 19th century. Stretching out our necks, to view the audience, we almost believed we’d spot some feather-trimmed, diamond-encrusted aristocracy. We were eventually brought back to the 21st century as the Robbins piece began; it was light, classical and perfect for the spring. EK was something different altogether, a bit dark, and occasionally morbid, but laugh aloud funny throughout, right in step with our birthday celebration.

Bats in the bellfry, Oh, so Phantom.

Palais Garnier

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