Putting the shadow of Emma Peel permanently behind her, Dame Diana Rigg spent the nineties captivating theater audiences with a seemingly impossible succession of classic powerhouse roles. Her performance as Mother Courage, Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Medea all won major awards, with the latter also earning her a Tony. No one to take a predictable path, she has returned to the London stage in Humble Boy, a new play by Charlotte Jones, an exciting young dramatist who in 1999 won the London Critics' Circle award for most promising playwright. "I thought it was high time I got into modern dress," Rigg says wryly. "Also, I do love doing comedy, and although Humble Boy is very thought-provoking, it is also extremely funny."
Based loosely on Hamlet, Humble Boy is a comedy about death, time and space, mothers and sons, broken vows, failed hopes, and the joys of beekeeping. Rigg plays the widowed matriarch Flora, an outspoken ex-model who has had a nose job and is dating a nouveau riche bore.
"The point about playing a character is that you don't criticize," she says protectively. "The great Sarah Siddons once said, 'I read over a part to see if it is in nature, and if it is, I know that it can be played.' I have always remembered that remark." When it came to casting the play, the Royal National Theatre plucked several actors from its recent production of Hamlet to play their contemporary counterparts. For example, Simon Russell Beale, arguably the finest classical actor of his generation, has swapped his award-winning Hamlet for the role of Felix, a promising Cambridge graduate who has fallen flat on his face. Rigg, however, is a newcomer to the ensemble. "I have never played Gertrude," she says. "And in my younger days, I always thought I was a bit too strapping to play Ophelia."