The Last September (in the Month of May)
FIONA SHAW and DEBORAH WARNER transfer their stage partnership to the screen. David Finkle reports.
According to Shaw, when the two first worked together, on a London production of Woyzeck, "We didn't get on at all." She amends that to: "We got on fine, but as soon as it was over, I didn't see her for six years."
Never mind. When next they encountered each other, it was for a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Electra. Recalls Shaw, "When we worked on it together, we both took off in a way neither of us had experienced. And the rest, as they might say, is history. Only it isn't history. It's current events, since Shaw and Warner have just extended their teamwork to the movies. That's right: Shaw is in the cast of the first film Warner has directed, and so are Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Jane Birkin, and Lambert Wilson. The film is novelist John Banville's adaptation of The Last September, Elizabeth Bowen's somewhat autobiographical novel about the end of the Anglo-Irish influence in Ireland earlier in the 20th century.
Shaw and Warner are happy to brag about the movie--although not at the same time. Since professional obligations keep them apart so often, Shaw is talking at the Time, a smart little Times Square hotel. Warner has her complementary say over the phone a week or so later. Both women speak with what seems to be a shared brand of bristling intelligence.
Shaw, tall and loping, apologizes for being a few minutes late. After praising Manhattan--which she enjoyed up close during a morning run in Cental Park--she lists a few of the works on which she and Warner have joined forces. There's that Electra, and following it such spectrum-covering pieces as a videotaped Hedda Gabler (which many call the finest they've ever seen), the renowned 37-minute adaptation of T. S. Eliot's Waste Land, and the Royal National Theatre's spiffy Richard II, in which Shaw played the ill-fated King about four years back.
Chatting about what had bonded her and Warner, Shaw says, "I loved the amount of detailed notes and the patience and paring away that this director had, and I think she liked my willingness to make an extremist [Electra] literate--trying not to shun the extremist but to play it; not to exaggerate it but to go as far as the thing was going." For her part, Warner says that Shaw "is an incredibly important part of my working life. She is the best actress of her generation. Why [the professional partnership] works is we allow each other to be brave." In The Last September, Shaw--in close-ups, all searching, wounded eyes--plays Marda Norton, a self-doubting Anglo-Englishwoman. "She's a bit like Hedda Gabler," the actress says, "one of those characters who is both too intelligent for where they're living and too lazy to become educated. It's a kind of terrifying lady who lunches." Not that Shaw was able to have her usual detailed exchanges with Warner--the director was shouldering so many responsibilities during filming, says Shaw, "I never saw her."
Incidentally, it was Shaw who paved the way for Warner to direct The Last September. While shooting The Butcher Boy two years ago, the Irish actress was asked by producer-director Neil Jordan whether she thought Warner might consider doing a movie. Shaw said it was likely. A year later, when Jordan was looking for someone to helm his next production, he got in touch with Warner.
Though The Last September is Warner's first film, she was generally unintimidated by the challenge after having recorded her productions of Hedda Gabler and The Waste Land. She says she responded to Bowen's work because she believes that "story" is the sine qua non of any movie, and The Last September has story. Set in 1920, the film traces the dying out of a particular class of land owners as seen through the eyes of a young girl who (in Banville's somewhat free adaptation) gets involved tragically with an IRA soldier. "There were many last Septembers all over Europe," Warner observes of the period. Asserts Shaw, "I think it's a film that nails the association between Russia and Ireland--that there is another Chekhovian land much nearer London."
Warner did have one big concern: Coming from the stage, she was worried about the lack of rehearsal time. With what she considered an ensemble piece, she wondered, "What can I do to achieve the desired effect of bringing everybody together?" Her solution was to house the cast in Annesbrook, a hotel that greatly resembled the Last September estate Bowen had modeled on her family home, Bowen's Court.
At meals, Warner placed Michael Gambon at the head of the table and Maggie Smith opposite him--as was stipulated of their characters in Bowen's novel and in Banville's screenplay. "It was like one long improvisation," Shaw reports. "We cried laughing. I was playing Miss Jean Brodie [in the National Theatre's revival of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie], and I was living in the same house with the original Miss Jean Brodie, having to put up with her saying [she slips into a perfect Maggie Smith impersonation], 'When are you off to London?' It was the most eccentric three weeks. I can't tell you!"
Asked about the difference between stage and films, Warner says, "There are no similarities. They are entirely different." In theater, she says, "The audience affects what they're watching." Agrees Shaw, "The theater is like a boxing match. Every night you have to go on and slug a series of targets exactly right. Film is like archery: It's just one target a day."