For Redgrave, The Show, and Life, Must Go On
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 5, 2009
NEW YORK -- On the day his mother died, the celebrated actor Sir Michael Redgrave had a matinee and an evening performance to give as Hamlet. Backstage at the theater, he sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. Then he went out front. "And he did two of the greatest Hamlets he ever played."
Lynn Redgrave is speaking about her father, relating this tale as a way of explaining the family's indomitable work ethic. Theater to the Redgraves is what politics is to the Kennedys: family business, family birthright, family shelter. The stage entered the bloodstream of the Redgraves circa 1824 with the birth of Lynn's great-great-grandfather Cornelius Redgrave, who would become a pub owner and theater ticket agent. Like a hereditary virus, it has tenaciously spread through every generation since.
Grasping this genetic predisposition is helpful in understanding why, at this awful moment in Redgrave history, the award-winning actress is going ahead with plans to appear at Folger Theatre this Friday in "Rachel and Juliet," her brand-new one-woman memory play about her actress mother. With the ache still throbbing from the death of her niece Natasha Richardson, no one would have uttered as much as a mild groan if she had canceled the weekend of performances so she could nurse her grief in private.
That, however, is not the Redgrave way. "Natasha would have been appalled if I didn't do this," Redgrave says by phone from her home in Connecticut. "If I could talk to Natasha, she would say, 'What's the matter with you?' "
"I can't speak for others in other professions," she adds, "but very often work is an enormous solace, just keeping to the routine, showing up at work. For those of us in the theater, it's like almost a no-brainer. Because what we do has so much to do with conjuring spirits."
Redgrave and I first met in Manhattan to speak about "Rachel and Juliet" -- named for her mother, Rachel Kempson, and the Shakespeare role that would beguile her all her long life -- on a Saturday in mid-March. Two days after the interview, her niece, the actress daughter of her older sister, Vanessa, would hit her head on a ski slope in Canada. And the family would be convulsed by the multilayered dislocations that come with a sudden, premature death, the clicks of a thousand cameras and the flicker of a trillion page-views around the world.
Three days after Richardson was buried in a private ceremony in Upstate New York -- next to her grandmother Rachel -- we talked again. And while Redgrave was not ready to disclose too much of what was in her heart, she was willing to discuss how the sad event might affect what she brought to the stage.
Because there was no doubt about this: She fully intended to keep her appointment with the stage.
"Rachel and Juliet" is the latest in what has turned into a cycle of solo shows about her acting family. The first, "Shakespeare for My Father," was a poignant and painful account of her relationship with her indifferent father, Sir Michael, a man who had so little time for her as a child that her birth did not even warrant a notation in his diary. In December 1991, that play had gotten its start, in point of fact, at Folger, too, and eventually went to Broadway, where in a flurry of mixed-to-positive reviews it ran for nine months and 266 performances. (She later also wrote a show about her father's mother, "Nightingale.")
"Shakespeare for My Father" was a reaching-out to a parent by a daughter who was never sure whether she meant as much to him as the theater did. (On his deathbed, she recounted in the play, he thought he was onstage and asked her, "How's the house?") Although she'd had a successful film and stage career -- earning an Oscar nomination for her first title role, in "Georgy Girl," and appearing on Broadway, on TV and in movies -- there was a part of her that always wondered what precinct of his consciousness she occupied.
So the production turned out to be both psychotherapy and occupational therapy. Developed in response to an out-of-the-blue inquiry from Folger's Janet Griffin, about whether she'd be interested in coming to Washington and offering theatrical reminiscences, the event was originally called, simply, "An Evening With Lynn Redgrave." It filled a gap in a fallow period of the actress's working life.
"Her career wasn't very active at the time," recalls Griffin, director of Folger's public programs. "She was finding herself in a bit of a lull and she thought, 'Why the heck not?' "
Unbeknown to Griffin, Redgrave was home in Los Angeles, where she lived with her then-husband, John Clark, creating out of even his earshot a much more ambitious piece.
"I began improvising in my living room," Redgrave, 66, remembers as she sits in a cafe, a block from her midtown pied-a-terre. "I just got up every day and started. I was totally haunted by it -- it was almost an obsession. The need to hunt for a resolution to my relationship with my father. Did he even know I was there?"
Clearly, her rummaging publicly in the family attic was not an especially welcome prospect for her kin. Owing in major part to her father's bisexuality, home had not exactly been filled with ebullient memories. "They had a long marriage, but they had a difficult marriage," Redgrave says. "The difficulty took over and did shut her out."
Neither Vanessa nor her mother attended "Shakespeare for My Father" until six months into the Broadway run. "I think she was afraid of it," Lynn says of her sister. Finally they went, Lynn says, and after seeing it, Vanessa -- with whom Lynn had had her ups and downs -- told her: "You gave me a window into your soul and also gave me a window into Dad's." By the time the play went to London, her mother had become an ardent fan, coming to see it every Saturday night.
The inspiration for "Rachel and Juliet" was different; there had been no corresponding void in the relationship between daughter and mother, who died in 2003 at age 92. "I was very, very close to my mother," Lynn says. "I was the beloved third baby." (Her elder brother, Corin, works as an actor chiefly in Britain.) From Lynn's description, the play sounds as if it is a tribute to a gifted actress who did not achieve as much as she might have.
Kempson made a famous debut in the 1930s in "Romeo and Juliet" in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, and worked as an actress all her life. (In 1998, when she was in her late 80s, I traveled to Springfield, Mass., to see her perform selections of Chekhov with Vanessa.)
Lynn describes her mother as a funny and perceptive woman, afflicted with self-doubt. "She suffered from her lack of security, making room for my father's career," she says. "Rachel and Juliet," then, is "a love letter" to Kempson, who retained an attachment to Juliet into her golden years: At age 90, she recited a speech of Juliet's at the wedding of one of Lynn's three children, daughter Pema.
The theater wends its way so relentlessly through Redgrave's life that it's not surprising that it would even figure in the mourning period for her niece.
Redgrave had been planning to begin "Rachel and Juliet" with an image of a visit to her mother's grave in St. Peter's Cemetery in Dutchess County, N.Y. Now, that theatrical device could be confusing to an audience, given that Richardson is interred there, too.
It's a playwright's problem, more than a beloved aunt's. She wants, of course, to memorialize Richardson, and at the same time to relieve the audience of the tension that can arise when it is aware of something that is not being acknowledged on the stage. So, since the funeral, she has been rewriting, on her laptop as well as in her head, as she travels I-684 between her Connecticut home and her New York flat.
For Redgrave, it's yet another intimation of the ghost light. When Kempson died in May 2003, Redgrave was working off-Broadway in a production of Alan Bennett's "Talking Heads." She took off the matinee. But she was back in the show the next day.
"Somebody from the audience was at the stage door afterwards and said, 'I'm so glad to see you; I heard about your mother, I was afraid you wouldn't be on today.' I did go back to it. I didn't think, 'What are they going to think about this, out there?' Certainly, while waiting to go on, as I often do, I conjure the ghosts of both the living and the dead. There's so much of this to do with the magic of theater and the sharing of an experience with the audience."
She was happy to have been back on the stage, in the play, on that day. "Such a wonderfully laugh-packed piece of writing," she says on the phone, with warmth in her voice. "Somehow, I guess that's why we're actors."