Painting the Town Redgrave
Monday, May 23, 2005
Vanessa Redgrave is sitting in a restaurant in the Watergate, cigarette lighter in hand, her silver hair tucked under an Amnesty International baseball cap. For the first several minutes of an hour-long conversation, she's polite yet distracted, gazing into the distance as she talks, staring everywhere but at the person across the table. And then, relaxing a bit, she turns toward her interlocutor. Even though she's in neutral rehearsal gear -- shapeless beige sweater, cream-color slacks -- the impact is devastating. Those eyes! Redgrave may be 68 and a grandmother several times over, but the beauty is fiercely intact. Those pools of blue! Unlike many of her peers, the passing years are reflected realistically in her face. This, somehow, only adds to the magnetism.
"You still look like nobody else," Jane Fonda remarked to Redgrave in the luminous cafe scene in "Julia," the movie that won Redgrave an Oscar nearly 30 years ago. And Fonda's words continue to ring true. She still looks like nobody else, still projects the ethereal allure she radiated in the movies of the '60s that propelled her to stardom, films like "Blow-Up" and "Morgan!" and "Camelot" and "Isadora."
At the moment, however, inconspicuousness is the result she's after, and it's another bang-up performance: The lunchtime crowd in a watering hole across the street from the Kennedy Center barely notices her. This appears to suit her just fine. In the midst of refining her portrayal of an extremely challenging part, the title character in the Greek tragedy "Hecuba," Redgrave is rationing her energy, and at times even the most cursory of questions seems as if it is an interruption of some inwardly focused metamorphosis. "I'm playing a queen who has seen her entire family, all the men, killed, in front of her eyes," she says, a cigarette at the ready. "One daughter seized by Agamemnon, the other daughter sacrificed to propitiate a ghost. It's the most unimaginable . . ." she says, her voice trailing off. She spears the lettuce in her salad bowl. "Denied justice, she seeks to get it herself," she continues. "She then finds that she has opened the door to a whole cycle of horror, and ends up committing the gravest injustice herself."
Redgrave is clearly hoping that audiences will hear in this ancient play echoes of contemporary terrors and injustices. "Hecuba," imported by the Royal Shakespeare Company as part of a multi-year pact with the Kennedy Center, is, astonishingly, Redgrave's debut on a Washington stage. She has been here on many occasions, shooting a film, accompanying a loved one, publicizing a cause, but the itinerary never before included playbills, klieg lights and dressing rooms.
Thanks to Euripides, though, the oversight is being corrected. An actress known for passionate advocacy of leftist politics (these days she's focused on the rights of detainees in camps like Guantanamo) is working at last in this city steeped in soapboxes.
How Washington will take to this venture is a matter of some drama, and not because Redgrave is such a lightning rod. The production's history has been troubled. Redgrave's recovery from surgery forced a cancellation of "Hecuba's" run in the RSC's home in Stratford-upon-Avon in February, and later, after its London opening, it was accorded back-of-the-hand treatment by the critics. Several reviewers took issue with Redgrave's performance, arguing it lacked the necessary intensity. Laurence Boswell's direction came in for disparagement as well.
The production, though, encountered some problems beyond its control. It arrived in London on the heels of another "Hecuba," directed by Jonathan Kent at Donmar Warehouse, with Claire Higgins as its star. (In the Times of London, the critic Benedict Nightingale suggested that the convergence of two "Hecubas" in one season was an event as rare as a total eclipse.) In any case, the Donmar version had been an unqualified triumph, winning virtually across-the-board raves -- and Higgins an Olivier Award. Comparisons were inevitable.
The RSC has no such interference to worry about on this side of the Atlantic; "Hecuba" travels to the Brooklyn Academy of Music after its three weeks at the Kennedy Center, where preview performances started Saturday. Even so, major changes have been instituted since London, a highly unusual renovation for a production on tour. Boswell's gone; the play's adapter, the poet and dramatist Tony Harrison, has taken over the direction. Though the costumes are the same, the set is new. Even the lighting design has been revamped.
"We've changed a lot in the last few days," Harrison says by telephone, explaining that it's his usual practice to direct his own plays. In this case, he adds, "it was a question of having no choice. I was happy to do it, because I've been able to work more and more closely with Vanessa. She is an immensely creative actress when she feels free, and in the right space."
For her part, Redgrave says she is thrilled to be working with Harrison, a respected literary figure in Britain with the sort of restless intelligence that appeals to Redgrave. At a memorial service she attended a few years ago, Harrison spoke, and one of his topics was the love he shared with the deceased for the fabled Greek city of Delphi. "I said to my daughter Joely," she recalls, " 'We've got to go to Delphi.' " And almost at once, they did. Her "Hecuba" will go there, too, after the U.S. engagement.
Professionally, Redgrave is just as peripatetic, mixing roles in movies, television shows and plays in an unending melange. Over the last few years, she's portrayed Lady Churchill to Albert Finney's Winston on HBO, won a Tony for her pitiably impassioned Mary Tyrone in "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and played mother to her real-life daughter Joely Richardson on FX's "Nip/Tuck."
Speaking of family, she also happens to be the doyenne of the most extraordinary acting clan in the English-speaking world. There has to be a gene for drama, because everyone in the bloodline is showbiz, back to her grandparents and down to her children and nieces and nephews. Her daughter Natasha is on Broadway now, playing Blanche DuBois; her son Carlo recently directed a film version of a Wallace Shawn play, "The Fever"; her brother, Corin, is in London, doing "Pericles." Her sister, Lynn, is set to appear in Roundabout Theatre's "The Constant Wife," opening this week in New York. She's even Liam Neeson's mother-in-law, for goodness' sake.