Stage legend Fiona Shaw parses Euripides, Beckett

By Nora Sorena Casey

Actress Fiona Shaw is probably most widely known to general audiences for playing the nasty Aunt Petunia character in the Harry Potter film franchise. This week, however, the critically acclaimed and classically trained Irish actress will coach a select group of U of C students as she hosts acting workshops on campus as part of the Artspeaks Fellows Program, which brings headline artists to campus annually.

Shaw conducted a master class with University Theater (UT) students on Sunday. On Monday night, at an invite-only event called “Medea & Friends or Electra & Enemies,” Shaw performed and discussed excerpts from a wide span of theater history. On Tuesday, Shaw will take part in a seminar workshop of Euripides’s Medea and related works.

“If anywhere there’s an answer to ‘What’s so interesting about Medea?’ surely it was manifest in this woman’s performance on stage,” said Thomas Bartscherer, a doctoral candidate in the Committee on Social Thought and a visiting assistant professor from Bard College, in his introduction of Shaw on Monday night’s performance.

Shaw said that her understanding of theater performance was grounded most significantly in Greek tragedy, the works of Shakespeare, and the plays of Samuel Beckett. Accordingly, Monday’s presentation featured selections from Electra, Medea, As You Like It, and Happy Days, among others.

“Shakespeare: A bit like the internet, he was just something wonderful that came along,” said Shaw, who offered lectures, personal anecdotes, and pithy remarks about working with these pieces throughout the night. On Beckett: “The revenge of the Irish was to use English better than the English themselves.” On Jason and Medea: “For a while, they were Tom Cruise and that Katie woman.”

Greek tragedy cannot be approached through ritual method, said Shaw. In an elaborate metaphor, she likened the process of confronting Greek tragedy to an anecdote about how David Mamot once went hunting kangaroos with Australian Aboriginals by running them down in a Jeep.

The performance in the third floor theater of the Reynolds Club was fully attended and was followed by a reception and a question-and-answer session.

“There is no way to describe what it’s like to see 14 students engaged in conversation with somebody like Ms. Shaw,” said Heidi Coleman, director of University Theater, reflecting on the master class. “It’s deeply moving as an educator to see, and it’s an amazing experience for any student.”

A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Shaw was nominated for a Tony Award for playing the lead role of Medea in Euripides’s tragedy and was awarded the Laurence Olivier Theater Award in 1990 and 1994. She has performed roles in numerous Shakespeare works and in the film versions of Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina, and Persuasion.

David Levin, an associate professor in Germanic studies and chair on the committee on theater and performance studies, will be moderating today’s workshop.

The Artspeaks Fellows Program attempts to synthesize theory and practice in the arts and introduce students to professionals from the field. Past Artspeaks Fellows have included theater director Anne Bogart; pianist and composer Uri Caine; film-maker Atom Egoyan; author Neil Gaiman, who wrote the recent Beowulf movie and the English script of Princess Mononoke; and actor James Schamus, who appeared in Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.