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Corin Redgrave, 1939-2010 | reviews, news & interviews

Corin Redgrave, 1939-2010

Corin Redgrave, 1939-2010

The Marxist theory of thespianism: how a career revived after the Cold War

I once witnessed Corin Redgrave, who died last week, terrify a member of the audience at the National Theatre. He was playing an old beast of a journalist in Joanna Murray-Smith’s play, Honour. It opened with Redgrave in mid-rant, so when a mobile phone trilled about five seconds after his entrance, Redgrave was already in the zone. This was a traverse staging in the Cottesloe, and the woman rummaging in her bag was in the second row, so he was practically on top of her when, without slipping out of character, he swivelled and yelled, “Turn it off!”

For a long stretch of his life, Redgrave seemed to turn his own career off. Whatever view you might have taken of his views (and most found them baffling) it was a mark of his moral conviction that he was prepared to lay down his career to fight the – in every sense - profitless cause of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the fall of communism helped revive Redgrave’s career. “People discovered that Marxism was no longer frightening,” he told me when I last interviewed him. “It didn’t have to be something which was threatening. So I was able to resume acting.”

He said this as he prepared to take on Lear for the RSC. It was the culmination of a remarkable career revival. His Sir Walter Elliot, in the BBC adaptation of Persuasion (1995) found him shining as the first of many peers, patriarchs, QCs, KCs and, in the case of Jimmy McGovern’s Sunday, PMs, that defined the essential conundrum of Corin Redgrave: he was a man who spoke in the impeccable accent of an establishment he would have happily toppled.

Two of the greatest performances of his Indian summer were in his own one-man plays as, first, Anthony Blunt, then Oscar Wilde. He could have been born to portray both: men who contrived through one form of wrong-headedness or another to pervert or sabotage great careers. In Redgrave’s case, he gave himself so publicly to politics that casting directors gave up on him. “I didn’t put acting to one side,” he told me. “What determined it was the sense that to a degree I was excluded by other people from acting.”

The WRP disbanded in 1985. But it was apparent to Redgrave that the professional revival he called his “recuperation” was also propelled by the death, in the same year, of his father Michael Redgrave. He remarked to me that, while it was Trotskyism which lost him actual work, it may have been his father who held him back in a more subliminal way.

“When someone is dead you no longer feel any sense of rivalry,” he said. “It’s much more troubling, oddly enough, to think that you might do something better than him. It’s an Oedipal thing to feel as if you’re killing him. So subconsciously, if there’s liable to be any comparison you always just scale your performances that much below the level at which you think they would become murderous to your father. Once they’re dead you have no such inhibitions.” In 2002 at the Derby Playhouse he even gave a triumphant version of his father’s most famous role, Crocker-Harris, the old classics master in Rattigan’s The Browning Version.

tynan2007When he died, Redgrave had been in professional abeyance for several years owing to illness. I met him again in November 2008 at the Ilkley Literary Festival, where he and his wife, Kika Markham, gave a performed reading of the love letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. As a stage presence Redgrave was necessarily somewhat reduced, his voice more fluting, his delivery more hesitant.

Offstage, at least to me, he seemed donnish and given to introspection and self-questioning, but generous to the member of a profession that had not always been generous in return. I reprint here an interview from the Independent on Sunday, which he gave to me in 1997. The occasion was a BBC Omnibus documentary suggested by his memoir, in which he outed the knighted head of the Redgrave clan as bisexual. The article is a study of the phenomenon that is the remarkable Redgrave dynasty. Since its publication, of course, his mother, Rachel Kempson, and his niece Natasha Richardson have both died, while his sister Lynn has divorced from her husband. And now Corin Redgrave is gone.

CORIN REDGRAVE, ENTHRONED in his ramshackle garden in south London on a bright Monday morning, prepares to exhibit his bunion. There's a screech of Velcro as he peels back the straps of his black synthetic thong, and there the offending excrescence is, a malformed knobble on the ball of the left foot. The foot itself is as blanched as alabaster, with a chalky grain in the pigment. Lately Redgrave has been playing Marat, whose feet must have looked something like this as he lay stabbed in the tub. Apart from the bunion. "Did you know that bunions are inherited genetically?" he says. "You thought it was because you wore the wrong shoes. So did I. But there's some astonishing research being done in America. I've got this" - cue rip of Velcro - "and it's only on one foot. It's genetically inherited."

The Redgrave bunion would be of little interest had it been caused by mere ill-fitting footwear. But, if correct, the theory of genetic inheritance raises questions about other well-known feet. Was Corin's deformity handed down from his father Sir Michael Redgrave, or his mother Rachel Kempson? Do his sisters Vanessa and Lynn also suffer? And the family's next generation - Vanessa's girls Natasha and Joely Richardson, Lynn's daughter Kelly Clark, and Corin's Jemma Redgrave - will they succumb too?

Science has yet to determine whether thespians, like bunions, are the product of genetic predetermination. But the descendants of Michael Redgrave, and indeed the ancestors - acting goes backwards at least another three generations - offer persuasive evidence that there is such a thing as an actor's gene. Either that, or there's no harm in having a famous surname. By the end of this year alone, the family annual will show activity on a wide variety of fronts. Lynn was nominated for an Oscar for her role as Gillian Helfgott in Shine. Vanessa has unearthed an unknown play by Tennessee Williams which she will produce at the National, and will also appear as Oscar Wilde's mother in the forthcoming biopic Wilde. Jemma has starred in a third series of Bramwell. Natasha has been cast as Sally Bowles in Cabaret on Broadway. Joely is currently filming in Seattle, after making a sci-fi movie called Event Horizon at Shepperton; she will also appear in Stephen Poliakoff's The Tribe later this year. Even Rachel Kempson, aged 87, recently did two days' improvisational filming with the director Henry Jaglom; her granddaughter Kelly Clark was the assistant director. And now Corin, as well as playing Marat, has made a film for Omnibus about Michael Redgrave, the clan's founding father.

Michael_RedgThe film is the offshoot of Michael Redgrave: My Father, Corin's engaging filial memoir, which itself grew out of the material Michael Redgrave (pictured) omitted from his own autobiography, In My Mind's Eye. Debilitated by Parkinson's disease and unable to hold a pen, he falteringly dictated his own life story to his son over three years in the early 1980s. As they embarked on the project, father assured son that he would come clean about his homosexuality (which, by the way, would appear not to be hereditary: Corin has "never had a gay experience"). But somehow the truth went untold and Corin saw fit to fill in the gaps in his book with tales of Tommie and Bob, Fred and Alan, and most notably Noël (yes, that Noël, with whom Michael chose to spend his last night before joining the navy in the war).

The documentary was the idea of Roger Michell, who directed Corin in Persuasion and was presented with a copy of the book by its author. "At the time I didn't see how you could do it," says Corin, "because it seemed to me that having written the book, that was it: why make a documentary? But Roger explained that a documentary is the last form of free filming, in the sense that it is what you want it to be. You don't have to write it in advance, and we didn't." It couldn't be more Redgrave to perceive the making of a television programme about one's own flesh and blood as the practical expression of libertarian principles.

We know this family as a dynasty, and the word for once seems apt. There's something of the grand classical scale about the Redgraves - their zeal for political extremism, the Amazonian physique of the women, the way their marriages seem made to replenish the bloodstock: Michael's to Rachel Kempson, Corin's to Kika Markham (pictured below), Vanessa's to Tony Richardson, Natasha's to Liam Neeson, even Lynn's to the former child star John Clark, who played the lead in Just William on the radio. There are no members of this extended family who wouldn't look right in Roman costume. Why else is Coriolanus the one play in which three generations of Redgrave have appeared on the same stage together?

Redgrave_Kika_Markham Like all dynasties, they've grown up with the assumption that the world invests in them, measures itself against them. Long before their own ambitions would crystallise, Michael's children and grandchildren - and now greatgrandchildren - knew how it felt to be at the business end of a lens. Hence the autobiographies from Rachel and Vanessa, Lynn's one-woman show Shakespeare for My Father, and Corin's own memoir.

And these keepers of their own flame have had copious help from the papers. The Redgraves are always good for a headline. Thanks to his links with the Workers' Revolutionary Party, Corin-baiting is one of the press's more puerile knee-jerk entertainments: ditto Vanessa. Lynn, who would not have survived in California since 1974 by espousing Marxism, nonetheless threw in her quixotic ha'p'orth in 1994 when she filed for bankruptcy after a court battle in which she accused Universal Television of not allowing her to breast-feed between breaks in filming. The granddaughters have felt the hot breath of press intrusion too, thanks to Joely's affair with Diana Rigg's husband, Natasha's affair with and (broken) marriage to Robert Fox, Jemma's naked appearance in the Sun, which in one of its more absurd moral contortions was seeking to complain about the nudity in the TV version of The Buddha of Suburbia.

"I think people are interested in families," is Corin's explanation for all this literature, "for the same reason that people like Four Weddings and a Funeral [in which, somewhat against type, he played a millionaire entrepreneur]. There is a degree of universal appeal in weddings and funerals because we've all experienced them. There are very few people who don't experience family in one way or another. And there's a constant philosophical battle that we all engage in even if we don't put any name to it. To what extent are our abilities inherited? To what extent are they enhanced by our upbringing or by our schooling? The balance is shifting, to my regret, much more in favour of a genetic interpretation of almost everything."

So - the key question - does that include the ability to act? "I absolutely refuse to believe so." Then how does he explain the dynasty's extraordinary self-perpetuation? "Because we've had a great advantage in being able to absorb acting and to see how at its best it's a delightful life, and also to have the good fortune of having parents who didn't discourage us from going on the stage. Most actors do discourage their children from it."

In fact, the Omnibus suggests that the absence of discouragement was as far as it went with Michael Redgrave. "He never said, 'Go on the stage, you must'," says Corin. "I don't think he even said that to Vanessa. That was one of the things I had learned in making the film. I had never realised quite what a harsh and unsparing taskmaster he must have been to Vanessa. I began to realise as she talked about it that it must have been really quite painful. Because he had high hopes for her, he was not going to let up at all. In the closeness of the working relationship [they acted together on stage twice in the 1960s] he told her all the things that she was doing wrong. He just had a very very acute eye, and it can be painful to be watched by an acute eye. For most people that would have broken their spirit."

Michael contrived, though not deliberately, to break Lynn's spirit by different means. Her one-woman show, written by herself with illustrations from Shakespeare, focussed on her largely dysfunctional relationship with a chronically neglectful father. And yet it turns out from Corin's study of Michael's private diaries that his youngest child excited nothing but approval; he just kept it to himself. "Again and again he admired her comic ability," says Corin, "and felt it went way beyond something that he had reached himself. Again and again he writes about her performances in a way that just doesn't question at all. Whereas of Vanessa he writes, 'She's excellent, but attend to her voice, too much smoking,' of Corin it's, 'Very good, but his eyes too close together.' "

Corin was offered the role of Andrei, which would have yielded the oddity of a father playing his daughter's brother

For all his unspoken pride in the children who went about their father's business, no one seems to have enjoyed acting with kith and kin less than Michael, probably because by the time the opportunity arose he was in the early stage of illness. In the 1963 National Theatre Hamlet directed by Olivier and starring Peter O'Toole, Lynn had a walk-on to her father's Claudius. "He was beginning to lose his memory," says Corin, "and he would radiate this awful discomfort. Olivier destroyed him in the first week of rehearsal, saying, 'Michael, you are dim. Why don't you shine?' At which he became more and more dim." He was also dim on the two occasions Corin found himself cast beside him - in a 1970 film version of David Copperfield ("Best forgotten on practically everybody's part, I think, but certainly on his") and Richard Attenborough's film of Oh! What a Lovely War in which "again he was deeply unhappy". They appeared in only one scene together.

But it is presumably down to Vanessa's uncomfortable experience of acting with her father that, notwithstanding the number of plays that focus on parents and offspring, clan members have not often played versions of their real-life relationships. Shortly before his death, Michael and Vanessa had a more cathartic collaboration filming a scene between Lear and Cordelia for a foreign documentary about Vanessa. In David Hare's Wetherby, Joely made her debut as the younger self of the character played by Vanessa. But that is the only time Vanessa has acted with either of her daughters. In Calling the Shots, a television mini-series, Kelly played her mother Lynn's daughter. And in 1989 Harvey Redgrave, Corin's boy by his second marriage, played his son in Coriolanus, while Rachel Kempson played his mother Volumnia. A year later Vanessa, Lynn and Jemma played the Three Sisters in a West End production which is said to have strained relations between the cast's two real-life sisters. Corin was offered the role of Andrei, which would have yielded the oddity of a father playing his daughter's brother, but he was unavailable. And only last month, Corin and his mother both acted in a radio adaptation of Marguerite Duras' Days in the Trees.

But it's a short list, given the available permutations, and several family collaborations are waiting to happen: Corin has never acted with Lynn; nor Rachel with any of her granddaughters; Natasha has yet to play the blood relative of a blood relative. (She did once play Nina to her mother's Arkadina in The Seagull). Any Redgraves wishing to work with Joely will have to do so on film, because she evidently never felt comfortable on stage and has abandoned it altogether. That is the strongest evidence we have that the acting gene may not exist after all. That, and the decision of Michael's various (mostly male) grandchildren to give the whole profession a wide berth. We now await developments in the next generation. Joely's daughter "may well be an actor," says Corin. "She's a star performer at four or five." It's too early to tell with Natasha's sons by Liam Neeson, but the name alone suggests that dynastic things are expected of Michael. The Omnibus film has its own subtextual view on this. It ends with the camera climactically zooming in on the freshly minted face of Jemma's boy Gabriel. Another star is born?

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