My best teacher;Interview;Fiona Shaw;Parting shots

26th June 1998 at 01:00
My mother did a bit of science teaching, but although I was never her pupil, being around her was an important lesson. Like Jean Brodie, whom I am currently playing at the National Theatre, my mother had an excited disposition towards the world, and I am very grateful to her for passing on that delight in enquiry.

I was taught by nuns until the age of nine, then my mother took me out of that restricted world and sent me to Scoil Mhuire (Mary's School), in a quiet street in Cork, about 100 yards from the house in which my father practised medicine.

It was a small, private day school in a 19th-century house; our classrooms had been sitting rooms 50 years earlier and school felt like an extension of home life. There were about 100 girls, presided over by two headmistresses who were as religious as nuns.

After the nuns, all the teachers at Scoil Mhuire seemed glamorous, and two English teachers in particular had a great influence on me. The first was Emily Fitzgibbon, a warm and visionary woman. I was keen on drama and poetry and was thrilled that she let us read aloud from plays.

I loved the power of words. Something occurred when I read Antonio in The Merchant of Venice that made things more alive than any maths theorem ever could. Drama was not part of the culture in Cork, either in school or outside. Plays were a grabbed moment between 10am and 10.40am and I can't believe how far the world has moved on in the way it introduces schoolchildren to drama.

My first acting experience came through weekly private drama lessons with Abby Scott, a great character and a tremendous influence on my career.

Mrs Fitzgibbon left to have children but she later went into higher education and was my tutor at Cork University. She is now artistic director of Graffiti Theatre, a youth theatre company in Cork.

Mrs Fitzgibbon was eventually replaced by the marvellous Madeleine O'Rourke: a tall, elegant, black swan of a woman, with long arms and dark clothes. She was the opposite of the conventional idea of a good teacher in that she had an aura of complete unconcern about us. She didn't talk like the other teachers, didn't look like them and couldn't be reduced to rubble with ribaldry or any of the other methods children use to demean their teachers.

There was a sense of utter mystery about her that was a magnet for pre-adolescent obsession. We were her supplicants, so there was great joy if you could make her laugh. That may have stirred the performance element in me.

When I was about 13, we were doing Hamlet and she talked about the possibility of incest between Hamlet and Gertrude. Incest in Ireland was an immense taboo at that time and when I told my parents what we had been discussing they had a complete fit.

Miss O'Rourke taught us that plays, even though there were exams about them, were places where all human feeling lay. As well as being protective, good teachers teach you not to be afraid, and I think Miss O'Rourke did just that by exposing us to areas in literature that were way beyond our experience.

For a while after Hamlet, I and my friends, Ger Linehan, who sat on my left, and Gene Collins, who sat on my right, were all in thrall to the dark side of Shakespeare - though Miss O'Rourke might scoff and say "Your essays were none too great for all that". She would write notes at the end of essays in the most magnificent handwriting, whereas the other teachers just gave us marks. That was a marvellous thing to do, showing that she was treating our thoughts with respect.

She was fantastically well read and I remember thinking "Miss O'Rourke is 28 and I will never have read as much as she has when I'm that old" - and I hadn't. I wasn't swotty, but somehow one wanted to work in order to enter the world of which she was master. Like Jean Brodie, she was very interested in Italy and later taught Italian at university. When she left Scoil mhuire I was about 16 and remember feeling hugely bereft.

Fiona Shaw, 37, won the Olivier and London Critics Best Actress awards in 1990, and the Olivier and Evening Standard awards in 1993. She plays the title role in 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' which opened yesterday at the Lyttleton Theatre. She was talking to Daniel Rosenthal

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