How do you dissolve a mystery called Vanessa? As a woman, and an actress, she is unique and highly emotional. Yet the beam she casts is so intense, its radiance so powerful, that she penetrates to the depths of your soul while revealing her own. Now 71 years young, Vanessa Redgrave shares the phenomenal energy of Judi Dench and the classic star status of Maggie Smith, both her seniors by just over two years, but she is more animal, more effusively impassioned, than either.

When I saw her remarkable performance in The Year of Magical Thinking at a matinee on Broadway last year, the audience was stilled from start to finish, the silence broken only by the sound of ladies in mink coats sniffling into their handkerchiefs. For Joan Didion’s memoir, an amazingly intuitive and affecting account of despair and bereavement after the death of her writer husband John Gregory Dunne, was transformed by Redgrave’s great performance into a conduit of all our sorrows and losses. Repeating this solo in David Hare’s stark production at the National Theatre, Redgrave takes up the bundle of grief she let go as Hecuba with the Royal Shakespeare Company three years ago.

That electrifying performance covered a plea for a daughter’s life and terrifying retribution for her son’s death with the same grace and spiritual fixation Redgrave brought to her Tony Award-winning performance as Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night on Broadway in 2003.

Goddess & Everywoman

“There is a quality about Vanessa,” wrote Jane Fonda in her autobiography, “that makes us feel as if she resides in a netherworld of mystery that eludes the rest of us mortals. Her voice seems to come from some deep place that knows all suffering and all secrets.” Fonda starred with Redgrave (who won a supporting actress Oscar) in Fred Zinnemann’s Julia (1977) and could only compare her to Marlon Brando who, like Vanessa, “always seemed to be in another reality, working off some secret, magnetic inner rhythm.”

So it has always been. “I give myself to my parts as to a lover,” she once said. She is goddess and everywoman, an alien force and a reverberating spokesperson for all humanity, and in particular the unhappy and the dispossessed, which is why it is impossible to connect any one performance directly to her political causes. It’s just how she is.

On the last page of her own 1991 autobiography, one of the great actors’ books of our day, Redgrave explains how, in Olga’s final lament in Three Sisters, she “cried for and with all those who will not see happiness again; for the painful reality of the suffering of those who are alive, for what Marx called ‘man’s inhumanity to man’... We want peace and we only need to know the truth, and will go on insisting on the truth, so that we can ensure that all oppressed people have justice and a real human life.”

All of Vanessa Redgrave’s performances are contained in that summary, from her exotic, sensual, free-living Gilda in Coward’s Design for Living and her drenched, luminous Ellida in Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea in the early 1970s, through to her really great super-charged Ibsen performances in Ghosts at the Young Vic in 1986 and in John Gabriel Borkman. at the National ten years later, fighting to the last on a snow-capped mountainside with Eileen Atkins over Paul Scofield in all his glorious, valedictory majesty.

Absolute truth

And a belated insistence on the “absolute truth” lights up Redgrave’s features in the last reel of Joe Wright’s Atonement (2007). There is no hiding place in that full, quivering, screen-filling face of the elderly novelist suffering from vascular dementia but determined to give her characters, in her final fiction, a version of the happiness she peevishly denied them in life. It is a heart-stopping intervention. This quality of re-living experience in a poetic and moral way informed Redgrave’s other recent cameo in Roger Michell’s delightful Venus (2006) where, as the happily abandoned wife of Peter O’Toole, she treats the old roué with as much critical tolerance as affection.

Redgrave’s film career was well and truly launched in 1966, with the release in that one year of Antonioni’s Blow Up (stripping off ecstatically with David Hemmings), Fred Zinnemann’s A Man for All Seasons (a luminous Ann Boleyn to Scofield’s Thomas More) and Karel Reisz’s Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment (hovering anxiously, as well she might, between the nightmare marital alternatives of David Warner and Robert Stephens).

But Redgrave was always destined for the stage, heralded at the curtain call by Laurence Olivier when playing Hamlet on 30 January 1937 at the Old Vic alongside his Laertes, Michael Redgrave: “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight a great actress has been born. Laertes has a daughter.” Too tall to fulfil an early ambition to be a dancer – though she made up for that omission by playing Isadora Duncan fulsomely on both stage and screen – young Vanessa hit the West End stage running in 1958, alongside her father, in NC Hunter’s A Touch of the Sun.

She was understudied by her lifelong friend, producer Thelma Holt, then a contract player for the HM Tennent management. “I didn’t go on for V, which is just as well as she’s six foot tall and I’m five foot nothing; I would have been tripping over the frocks all night,” Holt recalls. “She’s always been the same, never changed. She’s a mixture of a tornado, the daughter of the Empress of Russia and the ideal stage manager.”

Eating together

Holt continues: “She buys all the sandwiches. And she does have the rather old-fashioned idea that if you all eat together, you probably won’t kill each other. So she cooks for everyone in her house.”

People who saw Redgrave’s Rosalind at Stratford in 1961 say it was the best ever. “A creature of fire and light,” enthused critic Bernard Levin, “her voice a golden gate opening on lapis lazuli hinges, her body a supple reed rippling on the breeze of her love. This was not acting at all, but living, breathing, loving.” In later life, Levin castigated Redgrave relentlessly as “a loony leftie”, but he never altered his opinion of her as an actress.

I first saw her as a tremulous, beautiful Nina in the all-star 1964 Royal Court The Seagull (with George Devine, Peggy Ashcroft, Peter Finch and Peter McEnery) at the Queen’s Theatre and have remained bewitched ever since, even when she played a bizarre Prospero at the Globe in 2000, stomping about in big boots and a bad Belfast accent (accents are not her forte) and failed each time she played Cleopatra, always in (three) bad productions.

Redgrave’s Olga of 1990 haunts me still – she played in Robert Sturua’s blistering production of Three Sisters, produced by Thelma Holt, alongside her real-life sister Lynn as the best-ever Masha and her niece (brother Corin’s daughter) Jemma as Irina – as she turned on the vulgar Natasha (the character, not her actress daughter, Natasha Richardson) with horror at the way she treated the servants, then communicated animatedly with deaf old Ferapont in sign language. Not for the first or last time, here was humanity on the rampage, and woe betide anyone who stands in Vanessa’s way when she’s in that sort of mood.


The Year of Magical Thinking runs in rep at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre from 30 April to 15 July 2008 (previews from 25 April), followed by a UK and international tour. A longer version of this interview appears in the April issue of What’s On Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), which is out now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online edition. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now!!

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