The Cork-born actor Fiona Shaw is busy wrapping up odds and ends at home in London, including some work connected to her role as Petunia Dursley in the Harry Potter films, before hopping on a flight for Washington, DC.
Shaw is the artist-in-residence for Ireland 100, a festival celebrating a century of Irish arts and culture at the John F Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in the US capital, which opens today and runs until June 5th.
She is directing the festival’s opening performance on May 17th, which will “present a taster” of the Irish artists performing over the three-week festival, the centrepiece of the US commemorative celebrations for the 1916 Easter Rising.
Performers including choreographer and dancer Colin Dunne, pianist Barry Douglas, soprano Tara Erraught, fiddler Liz Knowles and actors from the Abbey Theatre who, along with the National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Irish conductor David Brophy, will perform for an audience of more than 2,000.
“It will be lovely to present some of our young talent to an American audience and to have some of our established talents too,” says Shaw. For the Olivier Award-winning actor, the festival is an opportunity not just to celebrate the works of the Rising-era Irish literary giants, the renaissance of Irish literature and the past century of artistic and cultural achievement.
“Ireland is this island in the middle looking with an eye to the west and an eye to the east and an eye really to the future. The second century doesn’t have to be assurance of our identity but really an exploration of our identity,” she says.
The festival, which will comprise 50 performances and 500 participants, is packed with performances that display the “fantastic rigour” of the contemporary Irish arts scene and “a country reaching its adulthood,” she adds.
“It is not just tradition that we are holding on to but actually us flexing our muscles on other people’s music, other people’s literature and it makes us speak to a wider audience than to ourselves. I think that is a very strong sign of a country.”
She sees the festival as an opportunity to explore where the Irish arts can venture in the next 100 years. “We can look and see what more do we want to do, what else do we want to say, how do we stretch our limbs and see where we are, other than a reassurance that we have shuffled off an oppressor.”
Among the events at the Kennedy Centre are the Abbey Theatre's production of The Plough and the Stars, Olwen Fouéré's Riverrun, a performance by Irish group The Gloaming, and panel discussions with writers Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright and Colum McCann and poets Eavan Boland and Paula Meehan.
For the Irish Ambassador to the US, Anne Anderson, the aim of the festival is in keeping with her wider goal in her role in Washington: to marry the traditional with the contemporary in presenting a modern Ireland to an American audience.
Anderson wanted the Kennedy Centre as the venue because of its status as a premier venue for the performing arts in the country and because it is “the living memorial to John F Kennedy, the Irish-American president”.
“To me the single thing that sums it up best is this interplay between the traditional and the cutting edge, which is exactly what we wanted. This is to showcase contemporary Irish arts,” says Anderson.
The government first floated the idea of the Irish festival with the Kennedy Centre three years ago. The last such festival to be held there was in 2000, when Jean Kennedy Smith, sister of John F Kennedy, was ambassador to Ireland. The Rising commemorations offered an opportunity and coincide with the run-up to another centenary, JFK’s 100th birthday in May 2017.
The festival comes just weeks after some in the arts community in Ireland voiced concerns about the new Government’s perceived relegation of the arts, after it was bunched with the ambitious portfolios of Regional Development and Rural Affairs, along with Gaeltacht Affairs again, and once more under the guidance of Heather Humphreys.
Fresh from forming the minority Government that created that portfolio, Taoiseach Enda Kennedy will be joined by the American vice-president, Joe Biden, in the audience for the opening performance of the festival on May 17th.
Alicia Adams, the Kennedy Centre's vice-president for international programming and dance, says many performances are almost sold out, reflecting the pull of Irish-related performances as seen in its past staging of Beckett's Happy Days, starring Shaw, and plays by Galway's Druid Theatre.
“There is an appetite for this kind of work from Irish authors. Irish literature is some of the best in the world with its use of language,” she says.
Shaw believes the Irish tradition of performing and entertaining means audiences can get into the imagination of the performer, and that this is what makes Irish performances so popular with overseas audiences. Irish writers such as Yeats and Heaney also have a “universal consciousness” that appeals to all.
“The Irish have something for free. They have a kind of charm, but the charm is because they are people who have a sense of humour about suffering,” she says. “Really, a lot of artistic endeavour is trying to find the crack between formality and chaos or informality, and the Irish do seem to have in general the ability to welcome people . . . A lot of Irish performers seem to have that in spades.”