Laertes has a daughter

Bee Wilson

  • The Redgraves: A Family Epic by Donald Spoto
    Robson, 361 pp, £25.00, November 2012, ISBN 978 1 84954 394 1
  • The House of Redgrave: The Lives of a Theatrical Dynasty by Tim Adler
    Aurum, 336 pp, £20.00, July 2012, ISBN 978 1 84513 623 9

In the National Theatre’s inaugural season in 1963 Michael Redgrave played Claudius to Peter O’Toole’s Hamlet. Apart from Olivier, the theatre’s first director, Redgrave, then aged 55, was its greatest star. Known to the public from his many film roles, and having just been named actor of the year by the Evening Standard for his Uncle Vanya at Chichester, which one critic called ‘the highest level of acting the contemporary theatre has to offer’, he was good box-office. A tall man who sometimes suffered vertigo on stage, he was finding his stage directions tricky. For his first entrance, he had to walk down a steep flight of stairs and then sit down. In rehearsal, he often missed the last step. On opening night, he went down the stairs gingerly to avoid stumbling. The critics praised his performance. Olivier seems not to have agreed. ‘When you came on as Macbeth years ago, dear boy,’ Olivier told him, ‘it was as if you were saying to the audience: “Fuck you – I am Macbeth.” Now, as Claudius, you are just dim. Why don’t you shine?’

The season got worse. Redgrave’s next role was in Hobson’s Choice, a romantic comedy set in Salford in 1880. The Lancashire accent was completely beyond him, and distracted by the demands of the dialect, he found himself fishing for lines. Next came The Master Builder. As Solness, Redgrave, who was drinking heavily, forgot entire sections of the script. His daughter Lynn, who was also part of the National that year, recalled that ‘all of us in the company watched aghast as, again and again, Dad called “Line … Line … Line!”’ Redgrave himself remembered it as ‘a general nervousness’ that had taken hold. Every night when it was time to go on stage he began to shake. Eventually, to his great humiliation, Olivier announced that he would be taking over his part. Redgrave told his wife that it was ‘agony for me’ when Larry ‘thinks I’m no good’.

Such a public breakdown might well mark the end of an actor’s career, but while Redgrave never quite recovered the shine of his glory days, he continued to work. In 1965 he directed and acted in Turgenev’s A Month in the Country in Guildford opposite Ingrid Bergman. Reviews were not particularly enthusiastic but at least they were respectful. Changing tack, he directed Werther and La Bohème at Glyndebourne. He put in a powerful cameo in Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between in 1970 as the old man, Leo Colston, who recalls his summer as the little boy running between the secret lovers, Julie Christie and Alan Bates. Redgrave’s gaze in that film is watery and blank, which seems right for a man so psychologically traumatised by childhood memories that he had shut down his emotions. In retrospect, though, this had less to do with acting than with the Parkinson’s disease which was starting to affect both his memory and his voice – once richly modulated, now trembly. In 1971 he agreed to act in The Old Boys by William Trevor at the Mermaid; the crew fitted him with an invisible prompter attached to an earpiece. At the first public performance the prompter malfunctioned, sending out a loud hissing, leaving both Redgrave and the audience in a state of high anxiety. The next day he relearned his lines, discarded the prompter, and gave a performance one critic called ‘as rich and deep as those we remember from his earlier days’. As late as 1978 he and four other actors toured Canada, South Africa, the US, Europe and South America with a medley of scenes from Shakespeare. ‘His voice was quiet,’ Donald Spoto writes in his new study of the Redgrave family,

but still expressive, and his gait often unsteady, but audiences seemed to provide him with a shot of adrenalin, and spectators were invariably impressed by the presence of Sir Michael Redgrave, still tall and commanding the stage – even when, as occasionally, he had to ask his fellow actors to join him sitting at a table for the performance.

America has the Barrymores and the Fondas, the Douglases and the Baldwins. We have the actoriest of all acting families or, as Vanessa prefers to put it, the many ‘sprigs of a great and beautiful tree’. All three of Michael’s children with his wife and fellow actor Rachel Kempson – Vanessa, Corin and Lynn – became actors. Vanessa then married the film director Tony Richardson and gave birth to two more actresses, Natasha and Joely Richardson. The latter was born the same year as Corin’s daughter Jemma Redgrave, also an actress. Corin was named after the shepherd in As You Like It and named his own son Arden after the forest in the same play. Arden Redgrave is now a theatre director.

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