Fiona Shaw, Emerging From a Mountain of Words

In "Happy Days," opening Friday at the Kennedy Center, Fiona Shaw tackles a role that keeps her immobilized in a mound of earth -- and nearly buried beneath Samuel Beckett's challenging prose. (Kokkinias + Polychronakis)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 18, 2007

It's a peculiar kind of ordeal for an actress of wide-ranging gifts to be tethered ineluctably to one spot. And so, yes, hardship was all that Fiona Shaw was able to feel in the early rehearsals of "Happy Days," Samuel Beckett's wildly challenging monologue for a middle-aged woman stuck in a mound of earth.

The staging limitations in playing Winnie, who disgorges torrents of words as the ground slowly seems to be swallowing her up, present one vast level of difficulty. The words themselves offer yet another.

"It was the most awful, terrible . . ." Shaw is saying by phone from London, her excited voice trailing off. She's recalling the process before heading to Washington for a week of Kennedy Center performances of "Happy Days," which begin Friday, in the U.S. debut of the National Theatre of Great Britain production.

"The lines keep repeating. There was no imagination being applied; you just were doing what's written. I sat in between tables with mounds of sandbags. It's a head-cocker. In a morning, I could [get through] half a page. It really is a killer."

Shaw, 49, is surely familiar to legions of moviegoers as Aunt Petunia, the reluctant guardian to her late sister's son, a magical rebel of a boy by the name of Harry Potter. (She's also made screen appearances in films as dissimilar as "My Left Foot" and "Three Men and a Little Lady.") But her natural habitat is the stage, the environment for the work that has defined her as one of the most vibrant and resourceful actresses of her generation.

From Shakespeare to Brecht to T.S. Eliot, the Irish-born Shaw has shown a knack for harnessing the visceral power of classic texts. Her recitation of Eliot's "The Waste Land" is regarded as a landmark in the genre of solo performance. And anyone who caught her 2002 turn at the Kennedy Center in the title role of "Medea" is aware of the rhetorical arsenal at her disposal. The moment of Medea's horrific revenge on husband Jason -- the murder of their sons -- came so close to the bone that shrieks could be heard in the Terrace Theater.

Now Shaw is coming back to the Terrace. And as with "Medea" and many other projects, her director is her frequent collaborator Deborah Warner -- who had come close to nixing the visit of "Happy Days" to the Kennedy Center. In point of fact, the engagement was off for a while, because Warner had concluded that the Terrace could not accommodate the massive set that had been in place for the play in the National's considerably larger Lyttelton Theatre.

"Deborah is very meticulous and has this vision that she wants to maintain," says Alicia Adams, the Kennedy Center's vice president of international programming and dance. The problem, Adams explains, was that the set was constructed out of fabricated rocks -- the landscape in which Winnie must be imprisoned. "The question was how expansive that rock formation could be. It had to be smaller [for the Terrace], but Deborah still wanted people to come and be able to see the earth and the sky and the world up there."

A compromise eventually put the show back on the center's schedule -- what it boiled down to, apparently, was fewer rocks. In some ways, though, the effort to make the set fit its temporary new environment mirrored Shaw's own initial struggle to reconcile all the technical demands of the role.

To relieve the tension in the London rehearsals last winter, Shaw resorted to badminton. (She seems to be big on useful distraction: During "Medea," Adams remembers, Shaw kept the boys portraying her sons occupied -- and quiet -- backstage by challenging them to listen for the different word she would emphasize on the stage each night.) But it wasn't until a day when she was reading up on Beckett that she found her first real entree: The prayers Winnie recites, she discovered, were prayers that Beckett himself had frequently spoken.

"Happy Days" is a chronicle of the routine of the eternally hopeful Winnie's bizarrely sedentary life. (We get occasional glimpses of a man, Willie, who can hear her but rarely acknowledges her.) For Shaw, finding out that Beckett felt something about these prayers gave the words depth. "At that moment, I realized that these are emotionally filled phrases, not some cynical mathematical game. I began to realize it was a massive edit of something emotionally verbose."

The discovery opened her to looking for other connections. "I'm trained in Shakespeare," Shaw says. "The thing that Shakespeare does is take the morass of the interior life that is unnamable and always find an external metaphor for it. I'm similar. I have to find something that is concrete."

What she found was a woman at a dinner party, a woman in publishing, whose energy and glamour suddenly put her in touch with the sociable aspects of Winnie she had not considered. And that helped inspire her to look for the humor in the part, the musicality in Beckett's speeches.

"It's not operatic and it's certainly not naturalistic speech," she says. "But the great thing is that it woos you into the present. It makes you want to hear what Winnie says next. That has to do with energy."

Shaw is keenly aware of how much energy a part like Winnie consumes. Working the mouth while glued to one spot, however, is no substitute for a session on a treadmill.

"I lost weight playing Medea," Shaw says, laughing, "and I gained a lot playing Winnie."

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