Angie Smith: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I'm Angie Smith, Theatre and Dance producer at the Barbican and this is our final episode of Inspired, a series where we ask an artist to invite someone who's influenced to their creative lives to share the stories behind their connection. Bringing this first series of conversation to a close, we have Dickie Beau and Fiona Shaw. Over the last decade, Dickie Beau has developed a reputation as a pioneer of queer performance emerging from the drag tradition of lip synching, using archive recordings and original interviews.
Dickie's unique performances have seen him channel the likes of Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and most recently Hamlet in 2019's award winning Re-Member Me. In 2014, Dickie won the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award, which supports the development of emerging practitioners engaging in bold, challenging and innovative performance. He created Camera Lucida, which was performed at the Barbican. It was also through this award that he was first introduced to Fiona Shaw.
Fiona Shaw is one of the most recognised actors of her generation, known for her extensive work in the theatre, including Julius Caesar and The Testament of Mary at the Barbican, Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and Brecht's Mother Courage. You'll also recognise her from film and TV, including Harry Potter, Killing Eve and Fleabag.
So let's listen in to Dickie and Fiona, a perfect way to end a series celebrating the connections between artists, and those who inspire them.
Dickie Beau: So now we're in Zoom.
Fiona Shaw: So are we starting?
DB: I think it's now's as good a time as any, isn't it?
FS: Yeah. I mean, it's completely inhibited.
DB: It is inhibiting, I find it inhibiting. So if we're starting, what should we start with? Should we start with establishing a little bit of context?
DB: So it would have been about 2014.
FS: Yes, I think you're probably accurate. And I probably wouldn't remember.
DB: Well, that was the year that I won the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award
FS: And they wrote to me, and they said, Would I meet this young man? Because you had nominated me, which, of course, was the biggest honour of my life. [laughter]
FS: You came for dinner, and I was just blown away. I thought, What am I going to teach you? You knew everything and way ahead of me.
DB: Well, I don't know. It sounds like a little bit of an exaggeration. But why did you say yes to that? Because I mean, presumably hadn't heard ofme from Adam. And I just think it was quite... I was surprised. I thought you were a longshot. I thought, Okay, let's aim high. Let's ask Fiona Shaw to be my mentor.
FS: What did you want?
DB: I remember, you actually asked me that question. When you went to in your dressing room at the Barbican, and said, What do you want from me? [laughter]
FS: I think it's because, I felt that I knew a lot about the classical theatre, I mean, on because I spent 30 years working in it and understood how it works - not how the theatre works. Each play is like a new, you know, the Himalayas rising again in front of you, but just that I knew how to deal with language and how it functions. And sometimes that's useful to somebody. But when we met, it became very clear that - your interest were not really in that sort of thing. So there is a kind of boring lecture I can give you on how language works and how the iambic works and how it breaks and how it works in reverse. And all of those things, I suppose, was the only knowledge, inverted commas, that I thought I was carrying. But I think you wanted something else.
DB: Yeah, I think now, it might have been, in a way superficial even because I seem to remember Romily, who ran the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award had sort of said, you know, think of who would you, you know, like to be to be like, you know, who who would who's sort of career, whose life do you kind of think you'd like to, sort of, move towards. And I was like, oh well - Fiona Shaw.
FS: And just what did you perceive that to be? You know, what was the picture there?
DB: Well, I think it was about the ability to move between fields. You know what I mean. And also there was, I mean, I knew that you were... because I've done a lot of solo shows. And this in the in the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award, I was going to be devising and directing, really for the first time properly - and you directed. I just felt that there were enough parallels in that way, you know, and my desire was to be able to do that to move across disciplines and be able to do a solo show, but then be able to act in somebody else's thing, and then be able to direct something.
FS: Yeah. But you know, as you ask the question on a more serious level, I'm sure what you meant was not somebody assured in those areas, because I think I can see why I had an enviable CV because I have done a lot of things. And I gave up I think we discussed this, I gave up everything to do it. I gave up my life in order to have my life. So, I mean, when I look back now and think of how my years were portioned out, I was always, you know, rehearsing one thing whilst finishing something else. And that was the life of a theatre artists. And because I was sometimes in operas and work with Deborah Warner, who directed opera, as I understood, in essence, the again, the sort of rules, really the, the rules about how to approach the thing, never the solution. I mean so, in a funny way, even though we met, there's nothing I can teach you, except to say, this is impossible, and you'll find this is impossible. And this is impossible. But I think the key to that is to not be frightened of it being impossible. I think that's the thing I've learned is this thing is impossible, you'll never be able to do it. Except that you do know, you need a bottle of water and a rucksack. Okay, I've got the rucksack and the bottle of water. I think it's really that so I guess shy and inhibited. In fact, of course, I probably do know quite a lot how to answer questions. And trust.
When I met you, I felt when you said you were devising is because I hadn't really ever devised things. I've done things on my own, I'd really reacted to things and try to make them new, like The Wasteland, you take you take a boring old poem, and you try and just try and stay with it until something occurs where it meets where we are now. But you were devising things, I would have been terrified of that. But I liked and I understood that you were going to walk into, likely into a maelstrom of hailstones isn't it, you think I'm gonna walk out there and get I know how to do this, I'm gonna do it. And the desire to do it is half the desire, not half the achievement, this desire is a huge part of getting you out to do it.
DB: Yeah, I don't know where that desire comes from. But, you know, I think one of the things that I learned from you probably quite quickly was to try and have a sense of humour, you know, I mean, to try and have a lightness around the thing, you know, because at the time, it felt a bit like this, everything's riding on this, everything's riding on this piece of theatre that I'm going to try to make, and, it quite quickly became apparent, you know, that no, everything's not riding on this. This is just, this is just an experiment.
FS: Some things are riding on it. I mean, you're right about, you know, of course, it matters when you're laying out your pack of cards, and you really hope an ace of spades comes out, you know, of course, but failure or the thing that is a disaster, or a grand failure is also very much part of it. And what does matter is that I think you did this in spades, you'd already made a mark, by winning that prize, you know, somebody had already noticed something about you. I mean, that's the the only justification for prizes is that they just remind the person that maybe they do have something,
DB: That's a nice thing to say, yeah.
FS: They just say, I think you got something there and you think I don't, but you don't have to then produce works of genius from then on, but you do, you have to move away from banality, it probably is the thing to say - be brave.
DB: And I think that I was quite brave in that show. And I definitely did not create a work of genius, you know, it was in some ways, you know, I just remember seeing so many nonplussed faces coming out of that theatre after that show. And not to say that some people didn't you know that some people liked it. But it was definitely...
FS: But in its essence, did it take you to where you got to with your Hamlet show? I mean, in essence, you were on the same, you found a thing, a bauble, a rubik cube, a fulcrum on which to turn... I think that's what it is.
DB: And also, I think that because there was so much up in my head, when I was making Camera Lucida, actually, you know, I learned to go the other way. So that by the time I was making the Hamlet show, I was much more just in an intuitive flow. And in some ways, I feel like the Hamlet show was more effortlessly clever, you know what I mean, if that's what if that's the sort of value that you want to put on things. Not that it really matter if it was that it was clever even.
FS: Well it was clever, but part of it was that it was engaging. It was terribly engaging, and we didn't know where it was going. The cleverness which I agree you should be suspicious about. It's not about wrapping it up rather about how you open it out. I think that's what was clever about it was that we began to see Hamlet, not just as the icon, but we began to see the fragments of Hamlet to the 20th century, up to the people that we know were famous Hamlets and, and a sense of humour flowing through it. Tell us about the premise of it - tell us the premise of it just to...
DB: Well, I'll try and be as succinct as I can... The first idea given to me by a cabaret performer called Dusty Limits was that I should do a human Hamlet mixtape, so that I should take great recordings of Hamlet, like Richard Burton and Olivier and Gielgud and mash them up, chop them up, and then channel them through the body in an epic lip sync row, do the whole play and play all the parts. And every great person that's ever played any of those parts comes through me. And I thought actually that's a good idea. And it just so happened at the same time, I had a meeting at the National Theatre studio, during that conversation with the project producer there called Matthew Poxon. He's not there anymore but he we started talking about Hamlets, and I started thinking about whose voices might be interesting. And we talked about Daniel Day Lewis and I was wondering, because I knew there was a recording, I was thinking, like, you know, because of the legend of the circumstances of him leaving Richard Eyre's production of Hamlet at the National, whether it be ethical to to use his voice, you know what I mean, in the ghost scene, even though I thought it would be theatrically interesting, and all this kind of thing.
And then Matthew said, Yes, yeah, no. Interesting. You know, it's a shame, though, isn't it? That that story about Daniel Day Lewis has eclipsed the story of Ian Charleson, you know, and I'm slightly ashamed to say that I said, I said, what story of Ian Charleson. And so he told me that in Charleson, you know, took over from Daniel Day Lewis, while he was dying of AIDS, you know, and I became obsessed. And I thought, well, in my human Hamlet mixtape, I want to build up to Ian Charleson's Hamlet, but then I discovered that there's no recording. So that can't be done. I met up with Martin Sherman, the playwright, and I told him, oh, I've become obsessed with Ian Charleson's Hamlet and I don't know what to do with this show idea now, you know, and he's like, Oh, well, if you if you're interested in Ian Charleson's Hamlet, you should talk to Ian McKellen. You should talk to Richard Eyre, you should talk to Sean Mathias. And then I realised that I needed to stop auditioning Hamlets, recordings of Hamlet to channel in my mixtape, and instead start recording memories of people who were there. I thought of it as a theatrical eulogy actually.
FS: The sort of lost Hamlet - that Ian Charleson had been a sort of lost Hamlet, and a dead Hamlet. Which is, I mean, dead prematurely Hamlet. Yeah. But that you you found in that, a new move to be lip synching people who were talking about the dead Hamlet, and who are people. They're not people in an artistic I mean, they are artistic, but they're not speaking poetry. They're speaking their own memory of watching that Hamlet. That's a whole new vein, isn't it? Because now you can do people, ordinary people.
DB: That's right. Yeah. And it was different in that there, you know, there will let the live those people. Yeah. And previously, most of the shows that I've done involve people whose... voices of people who have died. And I think that created a new and interesting part
FS: Yeah, so the play changed from being what you thought. I just think this is very interesting for anyone making something. You think it's about John Gielgud, and Laurence Olivier, and everything playing Hamlet. And you could do that really well. And then you sort of throw that good idea out, because as Peter Brooks says, there's always a better idea behind a good idea.
DB: But it all came together. Because two weeks before the first performance at the Almeida I got my second interview with Richard Eyre. Because the first interview I'd met, do you remember I texted you after I'd done this, I went to visit him, and he, he gave me his time, and he gave me a lovely interview. And at the end of the interview, I realised I pressed pause instead of record. And so I got a second interview with him. But it was only two weeks before we did it at the Almedia. And it was from him, describing how he got into theatre through going to see Hamlet, that I've navigated a way of bringing failing together.
FS: Of framing the thing?
DB: Yeah, of framing the thing.
FS: I mean, I was there the night that Ian McKellan was there and he was in... He was flabbergasted to see his voice being enacted by you whilst he was watching and of course, that was almost an added benefit for me and the rest of the audience that night - we saw Ian McKellen watching you doing Ian McKellen doing Hamlet! [laughter] The framing was just, you know, wonderful, wonderful. And because that's part of what the arts are, and they just open up.
DB: That's the first time, I just realised, that was the first time that there must have been anybody who I was lip synching the voice of saw it being done.
FS: But they're often dead.
DB: That's right! They tended to be - exactly.
FS: Now, tell me why you - what, what got you from maybe being an actor? I mean, but you are as well now, and very much so. But how you started? Why lip synching?
DB: Well, nobody was giving me any work as an actor to begin with.
FS: And why was that?
DB: Well, because I think, because I was a little bit strange. You're nodding!
FS: No, I'm nodding because I'm just thinking, no, I can see that you might be as a bit strange. You're not at all strange - you're an absolutely engaging, delightful person. But you're not, you're not of the mode. No, you're not a type. It's amazing how the industry or the profession seems to like types much more than it likes people who could be many types.
DB: Well, because you're not a type are you?
FS: No and I've suffered for it!
DB: Right. I mean I felt like I suffered for it, I was quite resentful actually in my 20s, I think, or at least afraid. That would never find it.
FS: Yeah. I mean, I keep meeting people who say, you know, we wrote that TV series for you. But of course, they always cast an English actress. Not they wouldn't in the end. They didn't cast me, even though the thing might have been written for me. These things are stones in that path, but they're not stones in your path.
DB: I think not now... yeah I think not now. I think there comes a point doesn't know where? Yeah, so I mean, it's not that I turned my back on acting exactly. Or maybe it is. I sort of got taken under the wing of a drag queen from San Francisco. And in my mid to late 20s. They described themselves as a lip synching drag artist, you know, which I was quite snobby about to be frank. You know, I didn't think that the word artist and lip synching, I didn't really understand how... I understood lip synching to be about you know, lip synching to Kylie Minogue in a nightclub and not necessarily having any depth. But then I went to see this performer, Suppository Spelling, and they had made some, I thought, really clever choices that they'd done the editing of sound themselves. And they were virtuosic in the way that they performed. So it was really the illusion that the voice was being channelled by their body was compelling. And, and I thought, wow, this is a thing, this is really a thing. And then I didn't do it immediately. They did get me dragged up, you know, for nightclubs. And you know, I did a bit of nightclub performance and things. And then, for an experimental performance nine, I decided to return to these tapes of Judy Garland, you know, making notes for a memoir that was never written, which I'd heard and thought at the time, or there's a show in these tapes. And so I returned to those tapes. And having had that experience, that exposure to lip synching as a, as a performance modality, I couldn't conceive of making a performance in relation to the tapes without using Judy Garland's voice. And so I edited some into a sort of three act, theatrical vignette for a cabaret, which I almost didn't do, because I thought, nobody's going to be interested in this it's too long. It's crazy. It's awful, I'm not gonna do it. And then one of my friends persuaded me just to throw caution to the wind and be brave, and which I'm glad I did. Because it did land. And then I got asked to do everywhere. From that, I just thought, Oh, this lip synching thing has actually got legs, then I just kept finding ways of exercising those legs. From that I started to, to get developed a really, well, a methodology, I suppose, you know, or at least a rationale and artistic rationale that was embedded in really the whole history of human image making.
Going back to the caves, you know, as well as Greek theatre and, and since then, I found that it doesn't, that it may not run out of legs, because there are always going to be ways, ther are always going to be - depending on the content of the of the audio - there are going to be ways of activating it.
FS: But the inspirational thing, the trick of the lip syncing, which is a trick as it was in a in a drag, and cabaret moment, is fun to do. And it conjures the person. The real... you took the trick of it, and you turned it into a kind of poetic investigation of the person or something, because I would not be particularly interested in seeing Judy Garland lip synched. But that's not what you showed us.
DB: Yeah, and it sounds like the worst thing in the world does know Judy Garland lip sync in a way!
FS: Well, it sounds fetishistic or that you're kind of hooked on Judy Garland, but in fact, you were able to take that the icon, and you're doing something far more intense, because you're actually zoning in on the breath, the phrasing, the sound, the tenor of that person. And seeing why, in some way, it was so significant to a generation. You tell me, I mean, something happened, you elevated the lip sync into an investigation is what I would say you were doing?
DB: Well, I think that the thing that it constantly does is it creates this condition of an of a present absence, you know, which is what a dead body does, you know, and which is what those early Neolithic masks did. They make present the idea of somebody who is not here, the paradox of, you know - it makes present the idea of the person who is not here at the same time as it makes present the fact that they're not there. And that sort of paradoxical condition is, I don't know very... charged, you know, it's got crackle.
FS: We're in the presence of that person, even though the alienation of the person lip synching them is keeping you aware that you're not - they're not there.
FS: It's not a million miles, I do the absolute opposite in a way, when I did Hedda Gabler or The Wasteland, I think what we're trying to do is make it as if it was just written that second. So that, that second, and then it comes out of the people. It's not the writer, because there's a big, big love of the 'Writer's Theatre' in the Royal Court and in, and in a lot of the theatre, the writers theatre and people, if you speak the writers words, you're serving the writer. And I just never felt that maybe because I didn't feel particularly bonded to these. And I don't know when you feel bonded to Judy Garland, but I felt, if I could just get back into the thing itself and make it present. It'll feel like a new play. And the other aspect that I want to say that it takes a lot of humility, you have to really be, you can't say, Well, I think it goes like this. Or I think it goes at that because the Judy Garland thing, you have to get exactly who she is. And if you there's a line that you're not getting right, you just have to stay on it all day to get it right. And it's similar with what I did, unless it's truly absorbable by me, and I can express it and make you hear it. There's no point in going on.
DB: And is that a technical thing? Do you think?
FS: No. I mean, if we're talking about inspiration, it's it is saying that inspiration is perspiration, you know, it's about believing you can get to that perfection point. It's certainly in what you do, it has perfection, you either you either achieve it, and at the moment you achieved your lip synching with that, with that voice, the magic occurs, because otherwise, we're going to be watching carefully to see the fault.
DB: Yeah, and they happen.
FS: And they maybe they happen, but they don't happen enough that people turn away. They're absolutely astounded that they're able to see something before their eyes is something that is not there. And I think something, if I take a poem, if I take The Wasteland, and I think I was trying to make the audience not lose their concentration once on what was being said in the poem. Not once not, not, I think you've got a time this is finishing, and I'm gonna have an Indian takeaway, but that they will go [gasp], you know, My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, Bad. Bad tonight. Stay with me speak to me. I want to stay with you, speak to you! That you kind of steal the mind of the audience. And that, you know, it's not talent. I mean, I'm sure there's initial talent which started us both off at the age of five, but it's really about having the patience to say it, to be honest, in that space. If it nowhere else in your life, you have to be entirely honest. And say, I, if I fail on this, it's I failed you.
DB: You said something about grabbing the minds of the audience. Right. Which made me think of possession. You know, and, I mean, as far as talent is concerned, you know, I sort of feel like, there's no such thing as talent, in a way I feel like there's just a particular form of concentration, you know, in any given circumstance. And if you get the concentration, right, for that circumstance, then it appears to be talent. Or gets interpreted as talent. Because The Wasteland, I mean, it's, it's quite, I mean, it's it's an ambitious thing, isn't it? to want to do that with The Wasteland, because it's just challenging text to animate in a way that nobody's going to drift off at any point. You know what I mean? So it does take a remarkable tenacity.
FS: Yeah. Because you see, you know, it's a great test it I wouldn't spend my time doing this on a text I didn't think was a great text. And by great it means that if you throw it against the wall, exploded, meanings will come off it but you have to find out how to explode it. You can't ... it doesn't mean you've got to rewrite it or or stand it in the ground or pour paint on it, you have to just test it. And one day it shines in, in the cave of, of testing, it begins to reply. And it's what I used to do, even with Shakespeare, which is to try and find a plumb line, try and find one line, that means something to a lot didn't mean much to me, you know, I was from Ireland and doing Shakespeare in England, you know. And, you know - 'Herein I see thou lov’st me not with the full weight that I love thee. If my uncle, thy banished father...' You know, these are the first lines I spoke with the RSC, they were all thy father, thy uncle, but we all have uncles, we all have fathers, and you just slowly suddenly hear a word that you really understand. There was a line that Celia had in As You Like It, and she said, 'And now go sleep'. And the audience used to laugh. It's because I understood why she said that at that second. But from that point, I could work backwards and find out the way in which the rationale of that character lays itself down in a sort of hard disk - in my mind. It doesn't, you know, you might be playing the same part and find a completely different line resonated for you, and you found it laid down for your mind.
DB: So the way in, then is, if I'm hearing you, right, is that you get heart a personal heart connection?
DB: Is that right?
FS: It is, and I think, so we may be bumping into bigger things here. But the systems with which you do this, see, I think what's happened a little bit in this country is that there's a training of actors. And then if you do it that way, and you do the lines, and as the subsidy as the theatre has shrunk, you have to do it all within three weeks and come up with a with something at the end of three or four weeks. I don't think you can do it three or four weeks, I think it takes months. And I and that's where you know, the feeling of failure, a few things going on, I felt terrible, I went off my did this. You can take as much time on your own to do it as you need. And I think that's terribly important, but it's completely at odds with the system of rehearsing.
DB: Do you think - this is a slight digression, but do you think that Shakespeare is, in general, more interesting to do than to watch?
FS: That's a terrible thing to say.
FS: I think that certainly I think that I've learned everything about how the English language functions from Shakespeare because he and the language was so fused. I mean, God knows what went on in his soul or heart or brain. But he understood it, whether intellectually or not intellectually, that rhythm is the key to the unconscious. So he was able to write characters that had different rhythms to each other, even if they were all speaking blank for us. I mean, it is utter genius. He was able to take ordinary speech, turn it into poetry, that sounded like ordinary speech. It's a sort of Houdini gift. But within that there are reasons you know, now you can take what he says and you can unpick it and work out. And you know why he says tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow... You know, how did he put tomorrow, tomorrow tomorrow and make it sound as if it's like a death knell in your stomach. He just knew he didn't use that same trick in any other play. He used different tricks. I'm using the word trick shallowly. But why does he know that the witches and Macbeth you know begin the play not on the iambi pentameter of de dum de dum de dum de dum dum dum, dum dee dum dee dum dee. When shall we three meet again, in Thunder, Lightning, or in Rain? When the Hurley-burley's done, when the Battle's lost and won...And that hitting of a beat on the wrong beat is much more about music than anything else, captures the audience because they're thinking what what happened to dee dum dee dum dee dum! They're not even thinking that but in their limbic cells, they think they go What? What? So he could catch you on the hip, which is really what I think you're talking about when we talk about possessing audiences. When you know that that's what's going on, you can harness it. I would be now if I were playing a witch in Macbeth, I would really play into the fact that it's the word 'When shall we three meet again', that matters is the word of when. And I do a lot of work on the word 'when'.
FS: You know, I would I be thinking about when a lot because that's the word or the fact that in that speech, Macbeth is the one word that doesn't scan. Now, it might sound technical, but it's bloody useful if you're trying to harness 1000 people. Much harder in translated texts, things like Mother Courage, or you know, or Hedda Gabler, where you're dealing with a translator between you and the thing itself. That's the thing that the person wrote from the day one.
DB: And in that case, because I mean, there's a general sense isn't there one should be one should be, you know that the text of Shakespear should be trusted, you know not to need to be tampered with.
FS: I don't feel that now. I mean, I completely agree that the rules of it its purity is is purity, its totality is a fantastic mountain range ahead of you and you climb it and try and perfect your climb of it. But I absolutely... it also got so embedded in the culture, that it's just thrilling when somebody else throws another line in there and goes, God, this is horrible for some of your, you know, I hate you. And it slightly screws up the text, but it acknowledges that three of the world, you know has new curses, for instance.
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FS: Another aspect of what you do which is not the far past, like I don't remember Marilyn Monroe, but I do remember Ian Charleson. Now of course you're not speaking to me necessarily in your show or my age group. But the near the recent history is very interesting to you, recent history - just gone just gone.
DB: And really in a way it's for anybody who's been lost. I mean, it's not only about Ian Charlseon. It's about Ian Charleson and all the people who died of AIDS. And all the people who've died.
FS: So death death is always part of I think this process I think it is, I think death is...Death and childhood. Is childhood part of your acts of creation or not particularly? Playfulness. I suppose playfulness as children. Of all the plays, I've done, you know, the Richard II's and the things, but the things like Medea, but the things that really linger with me now even 30 years later, I think like Hedda Gabler and Electra and they were both about childhood. But it may be that when I made them, I didn't know that. I didn't think that at all. And Electra is a young daughter whose father has been murdered by you know, her mother, which thankfully that wasn't happening in my family. However, she thinks her brother Orestes is, you know, not coming back to avenge his mother's death. And she's furious with the brother, upset that the brother isn't going back. And then she hears the brother's dead, and she has this huge speech. Well, now my brother had died two years earlier, and suddenly acting and acting not just playing a part that I could kind of get out of myself and be in a part, but acting when I knew that my brother was dead. And believing the brother was dead, of course, to me was the most significant part of the play to act. And then she hears the brother's alive and she was kind of mad because she's decided the brother's dead. I mean, that's terrible to hear somebody is dead, and then that they're alive. And that that kind of crux was huge for me because her grief at hearing brother's death gave me permission to have a grief about my brother's death. My brother was not Orestes in any way. And I just think that subconsciously I was probably or, or inspirationally, my poor dead brother was inspiring me to be better than I would have been had he not died. But later in Hedda Gabler where Hedda Gabler dies at the end of the play, and she commits suicide, her death didn't particularly interest me. But it did. It's the last 24 hours of her life. But living married in a house with a man called Tesman, who she didn't want to be married to. And she made a mistake of saying yes to and she made a mistake of saying she'd like that house, the mistake and tripping into the tragedy of your life. You know, making mistakes. Moving furniture about. It as entirely about my upbringing. I didn't know that at the time either. But my mother used to move furniture around the house. Because my mother was ill at ease. We lived in a rather big house, she still lives in it. And and she used to move furniture because we had moved from a place called Cove to Cork and my mother was ill at ease about that move. So I think unconsciously but I think I was working out something. But those Hedda does die. I digress - but there's death and childhood. I think they're the two things that have had you know, if you say them to boldly they sound pretentious, and academic or intellectual. It isn't like that at all. But maybe they're the only subjects worth going into.
DB: Well, childhood as an ideal as a category, as a social category is a Victorian invention, isn't it? As we know it, like homosexuality.
FS: It's an ongoing feeling, isn't it? It's about life from the moment you are conscious to now it doesn't really matter whether it stops. When I say childhood, I, of course, did a seismic thing of I left where I was from, at the age of 21. Once I finished university and came to London, and really started my life again, I went to drama school, and then went into the profession and didn't go back to act in Ireland for 10 years. So the way I literally put into a wall just wondering whether that has any bearing on this inspiration,
DB: Oh, I'm sure...
FS: The dirt of it, the mud of it.
DB: Yeah, well, I knew that I was a queer child, you know what I mean, I was precociously aware of the world. And I knew that I was. I knew that I was a misfit.
FS: Don't say that. Well, you a girl, were you girlish?
DB: So, yes, I was I mean, well, in some ways, you know. So yeah, the whole question of gender and same sex interest were inflated to some extent. And that's how I read the world. You know what I mean? And yes I do distinctly remember being about six or seven and going to bed at night and dreaming, like praying that I would wake up as a little girl or a little princess in the morning. Yeah. Because I thought that without that would that would correct the issue? I thought there'd been some great big cosmic error.
FS: You should do a show about that. You should do a show about that. Because there's nothing about you, the man I know, and really enjoy talking to because you're terribly open. You're very much yourself. And what I really enjoy about you is that I don't feel you're at odds with yourself. I'm much more at odds with myself, let less so now. I'm 62 years of age! But I, you know, so I was actually more fluent on the stage. And I was in life, and I've always felt a bit just a bit awkward. And but you are so much yourself, the person of you is very present. But I think it's fascinating that you did not feel that at the age of five.
DB: Oh, no. Oh, no, no, yeah. No, it was very clear that, that the way that I was, or the way that I felt I was, the way that I understood myself to be was not okay. In the wider culture, which changed course, by the time I got to adolescence, I was thinking, I don't think I actually am a woman trapped in a man's body or something like that. I think I am going to be a gay man. I had absolutely no, no sense of where I was going to be placed in the culture. And I thought that I was going to have to live a lie in my life, you know, to mean that somehow, or somehow do away with myself, somehow disappear. And I was a quite serious child in that sense.
FS: Well, now you're very near Judy Garland, aren't you. I mean, in a funny way,
DB: Well they had to pretend to be something that they weren't in there from an early age in one way or another. I mean, Marilyn Monroe had just survived for orphanages and Judy Garland had to survive showbusiness. So yeah, I think being involved in theatre is a way of reclaiming a playground for oneself.
FS: I think that's very true.
DB: Do you have that?
FS: Yeah. I feel, I mean, now I'm less desirous of needing to go to that place really much less and much more integrated my life at 60. I'm embarrassed. But I used to love it. I love the rehearsal room, I felt completely at one with the rehearsal room. And it's not about getting out of your head. Or if anything, you're tuning inside into something to the essence of who you are actually, I felt really. When I was on the stage, I remember being in Mother Courage and somebody singing a song and standing by my cart, and the Olivier Stage theatre full of people and feeling entirely relaxed and enjoying looking at the girl singing the song, like the audience are, and feeling entirely at one with the audience. I didn't feel how to produce, it's a big show, I had to produce a lot of other things - I had to sing a lot of songs and dance around. But just the profound relaxation of feeling belonging to humanity. But otherwise, not entirely that so so interesting.
DB: It's a way of getting right into the middle of the bed, isn't it by going up on stage?
FS: You know, people who don't go on stage don't feel that they think - what! You know, it is only performance, you feel that, you know, it's if it's like airhostess is like flying, you know, some people don't like flying!
DB: I'm interested in the gender thing, actually. And from your point of view, you know what I mean? You talked about the Greeks, you know, the relationship of women and in Greek culture, I'm because I'm intrigued that something seems to have happened in the culture, it seems to me since the the time of you know, those early Neolithic cultures. I've read, I'm no expert, were really goddess worshipping cultures. The archaeological evidence in Crete is that, you know, women were the priestesses and the, the leaders in a way of, of the culture and revered in a particular way that since the Greeks, and before the Greeks, they haven't been, I just wondered what...
FS: Well, I was brought up with three boys, three brothers, and so I was quite a tomboy in some ways myself, sort of sort of not really. I was also the only girl with my mother and you know, I had Richard Chamberlain on tape doing Hamlet in my bedroom and I was learning how to be - I might have been you! I was learning Richard Chamberlain's Hamlet.
DB: Have you ever wanted to play Hamlet?
FS: I have been asked to play Hamlet but I never, Richard II was my Hamlet. I didn't think I needed to do Hamlet after that. But you know, Ian McKellan's about to do Hamlet so maybe I've got a few years left! But I have a vague feeling of not really enjoying the limitations of what it would be to be 'just a girl'. I think I did feel that. So I think I was always interested in texts, I was interested in Yeats poetry - none of this was conscious, but I just was interested in Yeats poetry. Because it was really powerful. 'An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick...' You know, there I was aged 14 going 'An aged man is but a paltry thing!' But for me the gender was neither here nor there. But I went to university and I played the usual university plays, the 60s plays, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds - all those things. And then I went to drama school, again, was always behind at drama school, at RADA, because I'd never seen a Shakespeare play! I'd never been to the Royal Shakespeare Company, I'd never... we didn't have school plays in Ireland, we didn't have much, but we had no theatrical... I don't know why I was interested in it - I just loved the language, I think. And then I went to the RSC and it became very clear in the RSC. It was about time, it was 1984, or 5. So the second wave of feminism had hit America, probably gone through but finally, finally it hit Stratford-upon-Avon. I was living in a house with my friend Sue who was studying theology at Kings and they were quite onto feminism. Which was not a word that I'd been brought up with, I'd read philosophy, I'd read Simone de Beauvoir, but it didn't hit. But I then really got hold of feminism. I thought it was the most fabulous thing - that actually, there had been a wrong done. Betty Friedman, I read all of that stuff. The theological writers, about God - God the father - about the ancient goddesses, but it was that I saw that maybe there was options to not necessarily have to be the female type that the culture was... And that was very exciting. So when I went to the RSC, there were plays like Troilus and Cressida, where a man says 'She is achieved' and the word achieved is a male word, about achieving a woman. You would never see a woman achieving a man! She is achieved, she is the passive voice. And we were full of these kind of arguments, we'd be up all night discussing all of that. And in As You Like It, I played Celia with Juliet Stephenson who played Rosamond, we played a very feminist, two girls, very balshy, and we enjoyed playing it. And the girls in the audience loved it. So we hit that kind of time. And we invited all these women - there were no women directors at that time in the RSC - we invited everyone who was director in England to come to Stratford for a meeting. You know, we did all those things. And I'm very proud that we did.
DB: Have you read 'The Chalice and The Blade'?
DB: It's just a book that talks about the history of those goddess cultures and the difference between the dominator cultures that we are sort of, that basically run the world now, and partnership cultures of bygone age.
FS: I don't know it it ever was - I don't know. I mean, I read 'The White Goddess' and I had a great evening once with Ted Hughes, who was obsessed with the White Goddess, saying that she always turns up in every poem. That the White Goddess, who always presents herself either as a virgin, a mother or a crone. She always turns up. And I have begun to think that Killing Eve works because you do have those three women - you have a young virgin who is a nightmare, you have a mother figure who's not a mother and you have the crone - who's me! You know, all of those motifs are true. But I wonder, if it was ever the case. I mean, Helene Cixous is very interesting about this, when we were part of that feminist world, I was doing Electra and she says, 'Both genders have a little bias towards their own gender'. Which is such an honest thing to say. So if you're a man, you'll probably put on plays about men. Because it's kind of what you're interested in! She also said that Clytemnestra, at the end of the Orestia, in the last play, Orestes is getting very sick. He kills his mother in the Electra play, but he then gets very sick, he feels poisoned from probably having done that. And finally down comes Athena, the female god but not from a mother, from her father's rib - she's a female who is not maternal. She comes down and says we will stop this. From now on we will invent formal punishments that are not - you kill me and I'll kill your brother and if you kill my brother I'll kill you. So the law was invented. So the Greeks invented the thing called Western Law and Helen Cixous said, the problem is that Clytemnestra her death was never avenged. Which is why, she said, 94% of deaths are men killing women. Orestes is always killing his mother.
FS: I found that chilling. That there's a permission in society, subconsciously, for men to kill women. There isn't of course by law, but the law is inadequate. And then with a matriarchal society, that probably wouldn't be the case.
DB: And the narratives that we tell ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves are so important for reversing that dynamic.
FS: Yes. The way in which boys are brought up to see women, you know girls, at a very early age is disjointed. And has been since Orestes killed his mother.
DB: But then by the time we get to the writing of the Holy Bible, that idea, you know that Mary - she's not a saint is she? She's relegated, she's demoted - the Virgin birth is demoted by the time we get to the invention of Christianity. FS: She sort of took over from the goddesses, didn't she. She did take over. She became the goddess - but she had to have no goddess power.
DB: Yeah, she's not allowed to be a deity.
FS: No. But I loved, I played Testament of Mary at the Barbican which Toni Racklin very kindly produced for us some years ago and it was great fun playing that. because I played a woman who was absolutely, who gave birth to her son, that was absolutely conceived with her husband, Joseph. It was the secular version. And it is as it were, tampered later by the apostles who needed to fake the story to suit their theology. But it was great fun playing, because the audience had a Biblical story in their head and then they meet this very ordinary woman who has had her son - who she finds a pain in the arse and he's a very arrogant young man - that was just marvelous. Because it was actually just a very gentle lampoon on the nature of mothers and arrogance yet brilliant sons. And there is was, like a sort of sacrilege. The Virgin hardly speaks, she speaks once you know. And she says 'Would you mind changing the water...' She says about two things in the whole... In all the Gospel she hardly ever speaks. In some of the Gospel she doesn't speak at all. So she is very toned down. And it's hard to believe that that, as a story, wasn't edited and edited. So by the third century, she was gone. But you know, women - and men - have every chance to rebalance this. I mean, I think the Black Lives Matter, which is literally 40 years after it began, but is exploding and suddenly change happens very slowly and then very fast.
DB: It does, and I think there's a relationship between both predicaments. And I think it's got to do with language which is the really challenging notion, for all of us. Which is that somewhere along the way, because language is performative, because the idea of ownership is performative, it's not tangible, it's not made of wood. And you know, the idea of saying I own this piece of land is the same as saying I own that cloud.
FS: Yeah. It would free the perpetrators to just face it and allow it all to be revealed. So we are on a moment of finer rebalance, but whether language will again reshape it so there's another oppression but we disguise our faults. Yeah. That's the problem with language - which is where we're brought up to believe in it, and enjoy it, and Shakespeare being the great user of language, but there are many cultures, not least, the Black cultures in America, who are very suspicious of white language. Or the Asians who are very suspicious of white language. Or the historians who seem to have taken language and decided what history was using that language. We now see that language is just nonsense. So, that's been also an interesting thing about language theatre. I think. Do we believe the truths, the more fluently they are spoken, do we believe them more, or is the patois, the street language of people, much more honest?
FS: I think I've just gone out of my depth...! I'm swimming out to sea! DB: Language has two functions, doesn't it, or at least it seems to me. Maybe I'm thinking about terms in an idealised, a convenient way for myself - that it has the power to connect or it has the power to separate, doesn't it. And they are the choices, you can build a defence around this farm, and say these crops are mind. Put your arm around this woman and say this wife is mine. You know...
FS: Or you can be silent.
DB: Come and sit beside me, and let's share this sunset. There are lots of different ways.
FS: It's a tool. It's an amoral tool. But we don't like to think that. We like to think it's the tool or morality, but it isn't. It can tell you the truth or a lie. And to tell the truth or a lie are exactly the same. You see, Iago, his fluency in lying is just as good...that's the terrible truth, you don't notice the lie. You don't say 'I didn't take the cookie from the cookie jar!' and signal your lie! You say 'I didn't take any cookies' and people believe you. And silence too of course, Peter Brook used to say, 'The great silence is the silence just before a play opens because it is not the silence of the grave, it is the silence of expectation'. And that moment is fantastic, because it's the moment when the truth is about to be revealed - or isn't! So when the curtain opens in a play and it's not very good, you think, ah shit. But the silence is true. Because it's the silence of expectation. It's not the silence of a truth or a falsity. And think about silence, in families, it's full of hiding and secrets. But silence is also a way of not needing to say anything to the person on the bench, looking at the sunset. FS: What's your biggest moment of inspiration? What do you think was your pinnacle moment? Or a moment you had on stage or a moment you feel some leap happened?
DB: I mean it's funny, when I have a moment of inspiration, where I feel like I have been open enough to receive one of those sparkling electric insights, you know, or creative lightbulbs - I spontaneously take a deeper breath. [Inhales] In the same way as when someone tells me terrible news. You know, I take a deeper breath. Or somebody tells me something that's true for them that I recognise as being true for me. [Inhales] So, I think there are lots of those moments. I keep thinking, it's a scene that comes up indirectly again and again through the course of what we're talking about, as we meander, this feeling of embodiment, you know. Because images, the word 'image' is from imago meaning ghost. Images happen in the body, they don't happen in the mind. We catch them. When an image really lands in the body it can send shivers down your spine. And they transport you conversationally. Not only through language but that they have a fluidity in the culture. And theatre is a great cauldron for that - the theatre is like an imaginarium. It's got a fluidity. I often feel like, when we're on the stage and we're being watched, we're the witnesses, in a way. And we're sharing what we've seen.
FS: That's an interesting thing, I think.
DB: Do you know what I mean?
DB: I mean, when I first started it was about showing off, for sure. But now I don't think of it in that way. It's not really my motive. It's transformed. It's gone 180degrees.
FS: For me, the word inspiration comes into it, 'the moment of' because inspiration can take ages and ages to get into it, as we said earlier. As it should. But some students were asking me what was my happiest moment in theatre, my greatest moment. And one of them was I played Beckett's Happy Days in Epidaurus in Greece. And I was buried up to my neck, as is the character in Happy Days, and the amphitheatre in Epidaurus has 11,000 people, there was about 9,000 on that night. And I'm up to my neck buried, no microphone, and you're just speaking. And in the tree, there was a bird, it was the only other sound, it was complete silence, it was a hot night. And I'm speaking... It's written in Greek, of course, on the side for the Greeks to enjoy, laughing. And behind that amphitheatre, way in the distance, is the mountains in which the fires were lit that said that the Trojan War was over. And I have played both Clytemnestra and Electra - and as I looked at the audience and thought, gosh, if I take off all their jeans and tshirts and put them in togas, I am 400 years BC. And the bird is singing and it's silent, and they are silent. And I am, a kind of ghost, it's the opposite of showing off, actually. I am watching the fact that I am, in this moment of eternity, it felt. I wasn't a member of a family... And it was just the most heady thing. But of course, you can't seek that. I wasn't going to go, one day I will be alone on the Epidaurus stage! It wasn't that. It was just one it occurred, it was an acculmination of my entire life, in some way.
DB: [Inhales] Wow. Well as you said, 'the moment of eternity' there, I found myself taking a spontaneously deeper breath. [laughs]
FS: Some moments you, you reach a point where it ceases to be about the delivering the moment in the show, or making the audience happy, or showing off or any of those things. It becomes something else.
DB: The technique of lipsynching, in a way, I think of - this probably sounds insane - but it's almost like a spiritual practice in that sense. Because you have to be present, and of course to be present is to open the portal, to the possibility of some kind of comprehension which is not cerebral but is somatic of the eternal. You know what I mean? Which is a grand ambition. I'm not going to get there by thinking about the past, I'm not going to get there thinking about the future. And in terms of doing a successful lipsyncing, but I think it applies to all performers, I think it's true for acting in a play. You know, and it's true probably for writing, it's true probably for painting. But in terms of lipsyncing, I don't want to be tripping too far ahead, you can't be. I don't want to be falling too far behind, I don't want to be preempting or mourning the mistake. I just want to be hovering. And there is a quality of the concentraion which kind of erases some part of my personality.
DB: And I do get out of the way.
FS: And you want to be freed of your own personality?
FS: You want to be freed of it.
DB: Oh yeah. Yes. It's an incumberance.
FS: You see that's very significant is it. That actually, these personalities cling to us like little barnacles, they're just what we are, our mannerisms, the way we speak and then suddenly, you can be freed of it. And it doesn't mean anything about self hatred. It's just purely a very nice state for us priveleged performers. It's a way of elevating without leaving the ground.
AS: That was Dickie Beau and Fiona Shaw. And that's it for this series of Inspired on Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. Stay subscribed to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts, for more weekly episodes exploring the Barbican programme and archive. And if you've enjoyed this series, please consider supporting the Barbican by texting BARBICAN followed by the amount you'd like to donate, for example Barbican 5, to 70085.