'The isle is full of noises'


The Irish actor and director Fiona Shaw accompanied to the Galápagos in 2007 her friend the artist Dorothy Cross, who she has known since childhood. This was the first visit to the Islands on what was to become the Gulbenkian Galápagos Artists' Residency Programme. In this final essay she muses on her visit and the lasting impact it made.

She adds: 'The visit has influenced all the work I have done since: my production of Ralph Vaughan Williams' chamber opera Riders to the Sea, for which Dorothy was designer, but also the Henze opera, Elegy for Young Lovers, and the Figaro, all undoable now for me without the fatal terror of animal balance and atavism in the spine of the making of these music works.'

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.

'The Tempest' (1610-11), Act 3, Scene 2,
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

It is now a few years later, but every week or so I get emails about the Galápagos and the little shifts that happen in event and scientific exploration. I knew so little about them when I first went, but now see those islands in my mind as if I own them. Maybe this is because I gave myself entirely to that trip. As an actor I have toured the world but always with the hard shell of a play around me. On this trip my aim was to be merely a prompt to Dorothy, using poetic quotation where appropriate, thereby gaining for myself the freedom to take in everything I saw, to hear everything she said, to watch her work, despite her protestations that she does not really know where the work comes from.

My sketch memory is of little incidents: the cliché of seeing Lonesome George the giant tortoise mounting the unsuitable female and the sound like crockery breaking as, with his hard-shelled belly, he climbed onto her hard back. I remember the mockingbird getting trapped, whacking its wings against the glass like a captured princess in our pre-fab cell, where in the heat in the afternoon we would sit in the shade of the room facing each other, using quotations from Shakespeare's The Tempest to formalise what was otherwise a delightful garrulous conversation.

Metaphor abounded. For me, Dorothy was in some way also a rare animal of the Galápagos, an artist plying her trade, filming iguanas as they turned from their salamander selves to land beasts; talking to the moth researcher Lázaro, who was her favourite, and identifying herself as a moth; Dorothy, the champion swimmer diving with sea-lions that came up to our masks and mimicked our hopeless water-treading. I remember us going on a census count of the sea lions, landing on red-rock beaches. I learnt that new insect life was appearing on the Galápagos, having followed the lights of ships that arrived with the gawping masses, making it the 'destination of a lifetime' as we flirt with its death time.

I remember a man like the Ancient Mariner telling us the only way to save the Galápagos is to stop Now. Everything! The population, the children being born to young mothers, the pelicans who have become over-friendly with the fishmonger and hang around the market like ageing relatives, sitting in a corner waiting to grab whatever is fed to them. I remember the long walks up and down to the Charles Darwin Research Station at night, past the dried vegetation that miraculously grows on this cooled volcanic rock. I suppose I hoped that the Galápagos would reveal something huge to me, apart from the pleasure of being in part the subject of some of Dorothy's photographs, of taking the time to talk about our lives as much as about the state of nature and the archipelago. We share zoologist brothers who, in turn, share sisters who are artists. They are friends and here we were treading in their dream world. Our strange symmetry!

And I remember near the end of my time taking many photographs in the graveyard where the story of human intrusion began. Apart from the well-known tales of giant turtles lying on their backs in ships to be eaten by explorers, there was a more recent arrival, in the 19th century, of Germans, who married and died and whose graves, by virtue of rarity, make their extinct lives seem more important. Through all of these incidents, I felt a stasis about the Galápagos, a lack of flow, a paralysis that for a while I had put down to my own state of mind, but now that I look back, it is as if its energy is not there to attract us but to repel. It makes one sad to be there, that the inevitable and imminent extinction of this delicate balance seems to be unstoppable, as we humans have NEVER been able to leave well alone.

And when I look back I am sorry to read that so many have visited since. I am also sorry that I was one of them because I know that it is unnatural to focus on a problem and turn our backs on it, because we are the problem. We are the problem because our wider world is so unbalanced that the poor humans of Ecuador have every claim on those Islands for them to survive as they invent a tourist industry that is actually catastrophic to the Islands' survival. I suppose it is also unnatural for us to love something and leave it, but that is exactly what we should do. People may have to be part of the Galápagos' future, but if that is the case, then it stops being Prospero's island. It stops being the Ancient Mariner's sea. Like all its visitors I am honoured and grateful to have seen it. Art is riven with contradiction. My thoughts are informed by my visit, but the oblivious eye of a blue-footed booby tells us to stay away…

Fiona Shaw's best-known performances for the theatre include roles in Footfalls and Happy Days, both by Samuel Beckett (staged in 1994 and 2007 respectively), Richard II by William Shakespeare (1995), Euripides' Medea (2003) and Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht (2009). She has received both London Critics' Awards and Olivier Awards for her performances. Her television and film credits include Persuasion (1994), The Waste Land (1995), Gormenghast (1999), My Left Foot (1988), Anna Karenina (1996) and the series of Harry Potter films. Since 2008 she has regularly directed productions for English National Opera. Shaw is Honorary Professor of Drama at Trinity College, Dublin.



Riders to the Sea (1927), an opera by Ralph Vaughan Williams based on the play by J.M. Synge, for English National Opera. Fiona Shaw's production opened at The Coliseum, London, on 27 November 2008

Elegy for Young Lovers
(1961) by Hans Werner Henze, for English National Opera. Shaw's production opened at The Coliseum on 17 February 2010

Shaw's production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro (1786) for English National Opera opened at The Coliseum on 5 October 2011