Tender Is The Night: Olwen Fouéré Interview

Posted February 4, 2014 in Theatre Features

DDF apr-may-24 – Desktop

Words: Róisín Agnew

A disgruntled actor once told me that actresses turn into one of two things that rhyme – one of them is “witches.” Not the crooked nosed, broom wielding type, but the kind that possesses clairvoyance, wisdom and a scarcely comprehensible strength of body and mind. In this regard, Olwen Fouéré is the druid witch of Irish theatre par excellence. Her recent show riverrun, a theatrical reimagining of the last chapter of Finnegans Wake, caused a sensation last year, with critics and audiences alike falling over themselves in their praise. Box office employees at Dublin Theatre Festival told TD that not even Eve Hewson could get tickets. Olwen, more than most performers of her generation, stands out as being a multi-disciplinary artist whose work is a cross-pollination of performance art, fine art, film, dance and theatre. Most will know her defined features and striking white hair from her Dublin Airport portrait taken by celebrated photographer Kevin Abosch. But to theatre crowds she is something of a theatrical phenomenon to behold. Hailing from the West to Breton parents, she has never lost that outsider quality that adds both depth and a certain steeliness to her performances. Up for an Irish Times Theatre Award this year, she now returns to The Project alongside Owen Roe in Selina Cartmell’s A Tender Thing. Written by Nick Hytner’s right hand man Ben Powers, it’s a piece-meal of Shakespeare’ Romeo and Juliet that reconceives the star-crossed lovers in their twilight years. Think Michael Haneke’s Amour but in verse. We met Olwen on a rainy Friday night in the Westbury. Exhausted after rehearsals and craving a glass of white wine, she bought us our expensive glass of sparkling water and let us in on her mystic wisdom.

Can we start by talking about riverrun?

It went wild in Dublin. It was a great feeling to know that it was so ‘wanted’. I haven’t been able to get out of it as it’s going to London to The Shed in The National. It’s one of those extraordinary pieces that I don’t quite know how I know it.

You were described as having dealt with Finnegans Wake like a magpie, stealing all its best bits, how did you first tackle it?

Well it started in Australia – we were touring Terminus and we got asked to do readings for Bloomsday. I agreed to do one on condition I could also read a bit of Finnegans Wake. And so I picked the last page of Finnegans Wake where the river disappears into the ocean – that’s where the piece was born. I started from the last page and worked my way backwards. It was a very organic process of working, selecting and editing and it became clear it was the voice of the river. The river starts speaking in the last ten pages with “Soft morning city,” and then I started moving backwards, sort of like the dawn of time, and then you get into the flow.

What worked in this piece that got people to enjoy what’s generally considered so obscure and impenetrable?

I think it was mainly my passion for it. It started with an impulse and feeling – the powerful energy that was behind it, that’s kind of what guided me. And then it’s sort of through difficulties that you make a breakthrough – I decided I needed to structure it a little bit and so it fell very naturally into seven sections. So I needed something for these transitions. From the very first public reading the final show – though it’s never really final – it was a good year and a half. There were loads of people coming in and out. I worked extremely closely with Alma Kelliher the sound designer and composer. And Jen Coppinger came in and helped me create a team. I guess I had a trust in it and also I never had it on my mind that people might not get it. I knew that if people were going to want to go with it, they would have to surrender any need for linear narrative. It’s funny because often people of a more cerebral bent found it more difficult. And then really unexpected people really went for it. People got it particularly on a musical level, the flow of it.

You describe the performance and process as a jazz improv – you have a loose musical score that you can come back to but you don’t need to strictly rely on it

The text remained the same from the first show. I developed the staging with Kelly Hughes, the co-director who was actually the last person to join the team. We really worked well together, she knew how to see the piece from my eyes but she also had a real sense of rigour. So we constructed a sort of ‘physical score’. But then we realised if we clung onto certain things it would start to not work. So we decided we’d have a few markers, like branches to cling onto, but then let it move freely. So it retained this intuitive sense to it. I feel I learnt a lot about creation doing it really. When you hit the vein of something it’s really about not letting anything get in its way. It almost feels like it’s got nothing to do with me.

You had come from The Rites of Spring and Petrushka when you were working on riverrun. You’ve been working with Michael Keegan Dolan of Fabulous Beast for quite some time – what brings you together and how has Michael influenced your way of making theatre?

Michael is so inspiring! I love his energy. I know my work with him is bound to have had an effect on me. I never had any formal training but I have an antenna for what appeals and works for me. So I actually approached him first. At the time of Giselle I knew he was looking for actors to work with and we met a few times but in the end it didn’t work out and we stayed in touch. Then out of the blue I contacted him and he was about to contact me because he’d started working on The Bull. I don’t know if I work like him now, but certainly what I like about his work is the total immersion. You’re down in their headquarters in Longford and yoga starts at 7.30 in the morning and I love the physical discipline, I’ve always had a discipline of some form. The form and seeing how it fed into the work was really unbelievably rewarding. There’s always training involved with every company, but with this one it’s really very deep.  And the working relationship you develop is not a ‘buddy-buddy’ thing, it’s something else, it’s based on the work basically. The kind of working environment he creates is the most unique I have ever worked in. It’s very disciplined and at the same time it’s fearless. There’s none of that “oh will the audience get that”, none at all, it’s all about tapping into a source.

That discipline you’re speaking of I associate with your own style and mode of performance, its rigour.

My work has always been body based. I wouldn’t call myself a dancer or anything – I’ve two left feet when it comes to choreography. But I suppose I understand things physically and it goes back to my childhood in the West and having a very strong relationship with nature – your body and the environment around it, the sea for instance. I think that informs how you approach the world.

How do you deal with nudity on stage?

How many pictures of Saint Sebastian have we seen! It’s not such a big deal. I have done nudity a couple of times, usually very fleetingly. A lot of the time I find nudity very distracting. Unless it’s well chosen you’re there thinking, “Oh well it would’ve been better without it,“ without having the audience members sort of cocking their heads, looking at things going “oh yeah, mine’s different. [Laughs]

Since the 1980’s you’ve been working across fine art, installations, and film. More than most Irish actors you are an artist and not strictly an actor. How did your interdisciplinary interests come about?

I started working in other disciplines in 1980 with James Coleman. I always knew that theatre would only give me so much, it’s one medium. And also there’s only so much you can do in theatre. The way theatre can be framed sometimes can be quite limiting, the idea of an audience can be limiting. But I feel that the interdisciplinary thing has been exploded quite a bit now, far more than when I was starting off. Then you see in London, I feel it’s even more compartmentalized and there’re various strata. But now what I like is that more and more people are doing it. I remember I used to hear myself being called either ‘weird’ or ‘off-the-wall’ and now I don’t get that anymore which is great! Although after my work with Alice Maher on Cassandra: Fragments of a Playscript people did come up to me and say “very, very weird!” – it’s nice to know I can still do it.

What do film and fine art give you that theatre does not?

I’ve always been interested in film, and being an actor in film, but it’s like theatre it has to be the right one, the right people. I was always interested in being a film-maker in some capacity myself, but all the stresses of raising funds puts me off. Then I met Kevin Abosch by chance to do the airport portrait thing and we stayed in touch. Anne Enright had written this piece years and years ago around the character of Cassandra, but it rested there and it was always ‘the beginning of something’. Then Alice Maher asked Anne to do something for her retrospective, Becoming and Anne thought this was the chance. And eventually Kevin got involved and we shot this film as he had wanted to, just the two of us in a room in Earlsfort Terrace, which is where I wanted to work. I set myself a series of dogma-like restrictions, which are freeing in their own way. For me it was a great opportunity to make a film and figure out how I would make it.  And it was the most affirming thing – you feel you can stand up and be counted for – it’s more you as a fully-fledged artist. And for instance all the stuff I did with James Coleman was a total reinforcement of my belief that you’ve got to follow that inner voice whether you think anybody is going to get it or not. I remember before my first solo show I was thinking, “God, people are so going to hate this, but at least I believe in it!” and you’ve got to go there for this. These things are testers. I did a piece by a French artist for the Venice Biennale last year, a film about the theatre of memory. We had one camera person and one sound person and these reams of text that I had to learn the night before in this really archaic language. It was really tough but what I always say is “strength in adversity”.

I feel like that’s one of your mantras.

Maybe the difficulty is making it easier. I’ve always felt there’s no freedom without limitation. That’s why early on I liked Beckett as a playwright – I felt I understood this world, where maybe all you have is your mouth – there are no more decisions for you to make!

You did a piece on Antonin Artaud’s very weird trip to Ireland – his last journey when he went missing and ended up being deported back to France. What angle did you have on this story?

I was fascinated by this journey – that one of the seminal figures from 20th century theatre came to Ireland and had such a strange connection with it. He went missing and when they found him no one knew who he was. Eventually they found his papers and they ended up deporting him as a ‘destitute and undesirable alien’. He ended up coming to Ireland in the first place to do research. His letter of introduction said he’d come to do research into ‘a very ancient ritual.’ In French it said “I’ve looked for it in Mexico but it is no longer there among living people, so I must go to Ireland to where John Millington Synge lives” – he got that wrong, but he meant the Aaran Islands. When I first saw them, the letters were archived under JM Synge, because that was the only reference they had for them. Anyway in one of the letters he wrote when he was put in prison – he was disembarked in a straightjacket – he described his visit he’d come with a stick or staff that he thought belonged to Saint Patrick, almost as though he was going to fix things here. But then he lost it! I love the idea that this connection to a very ancient source is lost somewhere out there.

Some of your latest film work includes a part in This Must Be The Place. What did you make of Paolo Sorrentino and Sean Penn?

Sean Penn was amazing. He’s not one of those people who just sits there, people do sometimes just turn off, but he was really there. As a person he’s lovely but also troubled. I think the year he came here he had just divorced Robyn Wright and he’d turned 50. An actor friend of mine who was with the same agent as Robyn Wright told me it was really heavy. You can see the trouble but that’s also what makes him brilliant. It’s funny we were asked to send in our CVs for Cannes, so I saw his CV – his is a tiny bit about himself as a Hollywood actor and all the rest is about his humanitarian work. That’s what makes him good, his value system seems to still be intact. Paolo Sorrentino is an amazing film-maker, such a wonderful talent, it was just the right moment and the right people.

You’re currently in A Tender Thing opposite Owen Roe and directed by Selina Cartmell. You’ve worked with both before so it’s quite an intimate rehearsal space. Where are we for A Tender Thing?

It could be any couple living now, but all the language is Shakespearean, a lot of it from Romeo and Juliet. But I have some of Mercutio’s lines, some of the Nurse’s speeches, it’s hard to identify where some of them come from – the whole text has been rejigged. The Sonnets and a few lines from other Shakespearean plays are in there too. It takes as its source Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed lovers, a couple who are fated to be together, eternal love. It takes that idea and puts it with this couple who are getting very old and are possibly about to be separated by age or death. It’s now but it’s also a slightly old-fashioned environment – they’re not of this generation. And it’s just the two of them on stage, they’re in their own home and without giving it away, there is a development that presents a massive choice for them not dissimilar from the one Romeo and Juliet have to make. The play is referenced but it’s not Romeo and Juliet, you cast that history aside in that there are no Capulets and Montagues, there is no one else.

You’ve worked with Owen Roe many times. You’re both respectively up for Best Actress and Best Actor in The Irish Times Theatre Awards.

Yeh we’ve worked together a good few times. First time we played opposite each other was in Marina Carr’s The Mai. We were sort of great lovers in that too, fighty, but great lovers. We also did Titus Andronicus together with Selina – Owen was Titus and I was Tamora. It was a really beautiful piece of work. We also did Catastrophe in The Barbican with The Gate.  We’ve been cast as counterpoints a few times.

So the fact that you often play counterparts was part of the reason you were cast opposite each other?

I’ve known her since early on in her career, I was in her early shows and she did a piece for my company Operation Theatre. But I think it’s her individual relationship with both of us that made her cast us together. She knows both of us very well – it doesn’t mean we don’t go at each other when we’re in the rehearsal room.

It’s not a linear world

People could interpret it in a few different ways when they read the text first. My interpretation of time in it was very different to Selina’s. I had a very strong response – I always trust something when I read it the first time and I feel something rise within me, within the body. And I think her approach to it is more linear than mine. Ultimately the piece is like a moment in time. It starts with a moment, then it rewinds, and then it ends on the conclusion of that moment.

You’re drawn to physically demanding roles. Is this a physical piece?

We’re working towards simplicity – it’s a physical piece but it’s got to be simple because the language does a lot of it. We’re discovering more and more that the audience has to have the space to project their own meaning onto it. Selina has a great ability to shift back and forth between forms.

The text itself is written by The National’s associate director Ben Power – what sort of text were you presented with? What was the impulse behind it do you imagine?

I think what he did with the text is incredibly clever really. And it comes from a very deep place I sense. I think he must’ve gone with some personal experience a built a play around that. But again, it’s so delicate; you could distort it with the wrong interpretation. My impression is that it comes from something he saw with his parents. It’s not an easy piece. Because it’s so open to interpretation it’s hard for it to be cohesive as a bigger theatre piece, but we’re getting there.


A Tender Thing runs at The Project Theatre until Saturday 15th February. Tickets can be found here.


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