chapter  15
14 Pages

Vanessa Redgrave: John F. Deeney


Born on 30 January 1937, Vanessa Redgrave’s entry into this world was transformed, almost immediately, into a piece of theatre. Her father, the actor Michael Redgrave, was playing Laertes to Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet at the Old Vic Theatre in London. News of the birth had reached the theatre before the end of the performance. Following the curtain call Olivier turned to the audience and declared, ‘Ladies and gentleman, tonight a great actress has been born, Laertes has a daughter’ (Redgrave 1991: 1). Olivier’s quick-witted theatricalisation of the newborn infant would prove to foretell only part of the story. In a career that has spanned more than fifty years, Vanessa Redgrave would not only emerge as one of the most accomplished, versatile and celebrated British actors of the period, but alongside the development of her acting career has been a deep, continuous and frequently high-profile and controversial commitment to a range of political and humanitarian causes. This chapter does not seek to establish a trouble-free reciprocal relationship between ‘actor’ and ‘activist’. Rather, this discussion will focus on how Redgrave’s acting practice demonstrates particular forms of engagement with Shakespeare’s texts that are enlightened by particular methodological approaches, and through which her own sense of agency and political sensibility has been allowed to reveal itself. Vanessa Redgrave’s inclusion in this companion seems entirely fitting. Her

performance as Rosalind in As You Like It for the newly-formed Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in 1961 would come to be regarded as a defining theatrical moment, not only in terms of embodying an invigorating sense of modernity in Shakespearian performance, but also in ways that resonated strongly with the ‘freedoms’ demanded by embryonic forms of political and cultural radicalism. Redgrave’s most recent Shakespearian venture, in 2000, was of comparable significance in its endeavour to challenge both theatrical and critical histories; as Prospero in The Tempest at the newly reconstructed Globe Theatre in London, she sought less to conquer one of the great male Shakespearian roles, but redefine the character’s very function within the play. However, during the intervening forty years Redgrave’s engagement with Shakespeare in the theatre has fluctuated considerably. There was, for example, a break of ten years, from the early 1960s, before she played Viola in Twelfth Night, Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth in quick succession. More than a decade would then elapse before she offered new incarnations of Cleopatra and Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew, the latter she had previously played at the RSC in 1961. Yet another

decade would pass by before Redgrave returned to Shakespeare, again to the role of Cleopatra, but this time in three productions which she also directed. It may be tempting to explain this pattern in terms of the unpredictable modus operandi of the acting profession and the comparatively limited opportunities afforded women players. Indeed, Redgrave’s autobiography details extensively the juggling demands of work, motherhood and financial security. To many readers she will be most familiar as a film and television actor, not least perhaps as a supporting player in Hollywood blockbusters such as Mission Impossible (1996) and Deep Impact (1998). A survey of her Shakespearian résumé also reveals significant absences; Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Isabella in Measure for Measure, Lear’s daughters and Portia in The Merchant of Venice, all well within her reach, are just some of the roles that have been passed by. Equally, and this is of particular significance, since the early 1960s Redgrave has not performed in any Shakespeare at the RSC and has yet to be engaged for such a purpose by the British National Theatre (NT), although she has made appearances in Euripides, Ibsen and Chekhov for both companies. This uncoupling from the RSC and NT has also meant that Redgrave did not collaborate with some of the leading post-war British directors of Shakespeare. She worked with Peter Hall and Tyrone Guthrie at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in the late 1950s, but was persistently missing from the cast lists of directors such as Peter Book, John Barton, Trevor Nunn and Terry Hands. One can only speculate if Redgrave was the solo architect of such absences, or whether her presence on various political platforms, including an attempt in the 1970s to politicise the actors’ union Equity, negatively affected her employability. What remains clear is that, as her career has progressed, Redgrave has proved highly resourceful in forging the means through which she and like-minded individuals could interrogate the challenges and possibilities that Shakespeare’s texts present for the modern actor. This has not only meant sidestepping mainstream theatre institutions such as the RSC and NT, but also their embedded working practices. This has made possible what she regards as a cornerstone to her acting practice – the ability ‘to play a part more than once’ (Ibid: 95). We can see this most particularly in her numerous returns to the role of Cleopatra. What, to the outsider, may appear as an obsession is for Redgrave a steadfast demand on the imaginative and intellectual resources of both the actor and her audience. There is no doubt that Redgrave’s emergence as a professional actor in 1958 was

profoundly shaped by the theatrical dynasty into which she was born. Her father Michael Redgrave made a huge impression on British theatre and film during the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Initially regarded as something of a matinee idol, Michael Redgrave would spend much of the early 1950s working at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford, playing leading roles such as Antony, Hamlet and King Lear. Accompanied to Stratford during school holidays by her mother, the actor Rachel Kempson, and siblings Corin and Lynn, both of whom would also follow in their parents’ footsteps, Vanessa Redgrave’s formative and frequent encounters with Shakespeare in both rehearsal and performance represented a unique opportunity, not least to develop a critical eye. Her recollections of this period are fascinating in the way that she continuously distinguishes the actor’s work within a production’s mise en scène; she writes of her father’s performance as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (1953) in

terms of its success in overcoming the implied ‘anti-Semitism’ of the production (Ibid: 43). As we shall see in more detail later, Redgrave’s concerns here do not simply represent a form of political critique, they endeavour to champion an ethical mutual responsibility between actor and director, text and context. Acting was not Redgrave’s first choice of profession. During her childhood and

teens she attended the Ballet Rambert School in London, but her original wish to become a ballerina was thwarted by accelerated teenage growth that took her to a peak height of almost six foot. Michael Redgrave had originally steered his daughter into ballet training, and although Redgrave was now intent on entering drama school, her father thought she would have a more successful career in the theatre if she trained for musical comedy (Ibid: 52). She was determined to put her unfashionable physique to the test, and in 1955 succeeded in gaining a place at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Although she makes little direct reference to her encounters with Shakespeare at drama school, the training regime that was provided clearly presented a predicament:

Speech therapy was one of the courses provided…We did hours of consonant and vowel practice with [a] bone prop between our teeth. I found concentrating entirely on technique limiting. Weeks spent listening to sounds and correcting them, with no work on a scene or a situation from a play, on subject or character, made students nervous. My own voice strangled with self-consciousness…The mime classes were still of the old school, ‘pretend you have a tea-cup and saucer in your hand’…

(Ibid: 53)

The dilemma was not so much ‘technique’ in and of itself, but the means by which technical training might facilitate the fuller development of her acting practice. It is instructive here to compare her observations on drama school to the rigours of ballet training:

I became aware of the significance of physical movement and physical space, of extension and relations of bodies in space. Aware also of tempo, and that while music may have a certain regular beat, the form of the movement will sometimes take a different, longer tempo than the beat that sustained it. While in my daily life I was round-shouldered and stooping, so much taller than my friends and self-conscious about my height, in class I stretched upwards and ceased to think about myself.