May/June 1996: Departures

Stage Presence

We've always loved her as Emma Peel. But now Diana Rigg is returning in triumph to her theatrical roots.

"Oh good, you're a smoker," says Dame Diana Riggin the cathedral quiet of the Royal national Theatre's Mezzanine Restaurant. "Do you mind if I have one? I gave up yesterday - I had catarrh - and I haven't had time to buy any today."

Tall, rangy - in white turtleneck and powder-blue cowlnexk sweaters - Rigg plops down on the banquette and puffs contentedly for a moment as the maitre d' hovers. He hands out menus and shuffles ashtrays, moth-busy. Then the maitre d' stands back: "Your usual Kir, Dame Diana?" he asks. "Oh no," she answers, looking up, smiling. "I have to work this afternoon; I have to go back."

Back is to a rehearsal room somewhere far away in the dour, clanging keep of the Royal National Theatre, where this morning Diana Rigg has been no doubt sweating her way toward what seems like one of the unlikeliest roles of her extraordinary career. Over the years she has played a string of mostly beautiful tragic heroines: Cleopatra, Hedda Gabler, Phaedra, Cordelia, Lady Macbeth. But Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage is something else: an old crone - a 17th-century camp huckster who for over a decade obstinately drags her canteen cart across Europe (and the stage) in the wake of the armies of the Thirty Years' War. Desperate to hang onto her three grown children - and losing them one by one - she's noisy, brash, pithy, demotic, and ultimately doomed by her obstinacy and dreams of profit to having no life at all but in the war's continuation.

Of this cackling, aging, treadmill dancer-of-death there is not the slightest trace, of course, in the woman who sits across the table, scanning the menu: amused, slightly aloof, with a rustle of bracelets at each wrist, and a pair of glasses like owl's eyes perched in a nest of perfectly groomed, pendant hair. And it is as if, I think to myself - while she finally settles for cold lemon-and-coriander soup and tunafish salad - this is precisely what Rigg is amused by. It's a joke that Emma Peel from The Avengers is now 55. And the joke has over the years and roles become incorporated into her private performance, her way of keeping the world in a sort of out-there complicity, happy to have its bifocal expectations and memories of her so adroitly made droll.

I put aside all thoughts of The Avengers. Instead I ask Rigg, as the cold soup comes (in a rush), if returning here to the National company for a third time is in any sense like coming home. The last time she played this theater was in 1976, shortly before the birth of her daughter Rachael, who from then on took priority over acting. "No," she says, "because it is not really a company in the sense that you mean. We're just contract players hired for the job. There simply aren't any standing companies in Britain like the kind you are talking about anymore - which is a tragedy. I have friends here, of course, like Jonathan Kent, the director, with whom I've worked before [on All for Love and Medea]. There are even people I was at drama school with, like Sian Phillips [about to open in Sonheim's A Little Night Music, in the film version of which Rigg herself starred with Elizabeth Taylor]." She laughs. "In drama school, I remember, the good students, like Sian Phillips, played in the evening. I played in the afternoon. There was even an old bird of a teacher who write in a report that I should seriously consider another career."

She didn't - but she might have. When Rigg left the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, she says, she was unemployed "for a long time," until a friend helped her get a job in a provencial theater company as an assistant stage manager. "That was another world that no longer exists," she says, dipping into her soup with the feral delicacy of a falcon. "A play a week. Wonderful. I had digs in Chesterfield with a young widow - very D.H. Lawrence, with a lavatory outside and no bathroom, just a zinc tub for a bath in front of the fire. I had to go into town to beg for props. I played small parts. I did the prompting. I handled the ropes for the curtains. Oh, and I had something called a Panatype for sound effects, a sort of gramaphone with a pre-set arm. Whenever a play needed a sound effect, such as a car arriving, I had to reach round behind me from the prompt book, turn it on, turn it off, and then reset it. I had never been so happy."

And then she went to Stratford-upon-Avon. "Yes." Then she stops. "Oh, look, do you mind if I have another of your cigarettes?" She reaches for it with long ringed fingers. Rigg has such a clear, unwandering gaze that, listening to her, it's hard for me to concentrate on eating. The lamp above and behind her is making a nimbus of the red and gold highlights of her hair.

"Yes," she continues, as I bend to finish my own soup, "and again I was hugely lucky. When I first went, it was still the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, under Glen Byam Shaw. But then Peter [now Lord] Hall came and - to his huge undiminished credit - reintroduced the three-year contract by which actors were taken on trust. They were taught, matured, and then gradually did bigger and bigger parts. No one was left out. I recall classes with Michael Saint-Denis, voice classes, verse-speaking classes, fencing classes, everything." Rigg pauses. "You know, everyone assumes that once you've been through drama school you're fully equipped. But it's like driving. I remember, when I passed my test, the driving instructor said: 'Right, you've passed. Now get out there and learn to drive.' The same thing is true for acting. It was a great teacher, a great builder of confidence, that three-year Stratford contract."

In fact, Rigg signed two of them, back to back. She paid her dues, moving up and down between Stratford and London, finally emerging in the early '60s to play Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Lady Macbeth and Cordelia to Paul Scofield's Lear in Peter Brook's landmark production. About this time Brook said somewhat superciliously that Diana Rigg could become something good "if she doesn't waste herself on silly films," which is, of course, exactly what she proceeded to do. Something worse, in fact: In 1965 Rigg turned down a third Stratford contract and instead went to work on that upstart Johnny-come-lately, television. She had the nerve - a classical actress! - to turn herself into a star.

As her tunafish arrives, burn-meshed, as if it's been grilled on a hot tennis racket, the phone rings on the maitre d's desk, the sound echoing through the virtually empty restaurant and away down the corridors. It's time for a moment's private recollection. For in the mid-1960s, in the television series The Avengers, the woman I am with marched unceremoniously into the collective consciousness of audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, the embodiment of an independent female sexuality that flew in the face of the romantic compliance of the times. The Avengers has since been endlessly rerun across the planet, yet Diana Rigg's Emma Peel remains obstinately contemporary, as if the character were made in an unbreakable mold.

Peel was, on the face of it, a pinup: She was upper-class, dramatically physical, and wore black leather; in many ways, she fitted the male fantasies of the age. But there was also in Peel something that has constantly renewed Diana Rigg's performance and kept it from being an anachronism - it's precisely that buried sense of privacy, of distant amusement and rooted selfhood, which she carries with her today. It's hard to separate them, Dame Diana and Emma, always known as (another honorific) Mrs. Peel; they keep bleeding into one another as I talk to her. No doubt it is another source of wry amusement on her part, that she should always be approached, in part at any rate, as if she were forever 25.

As she dives into her salad, I ask about The Avengers. "Well," she says, "there I was, a young classical actress. I had a little money and didn't want to be pigeonholed. So I went to an audition and three days later I was filming. It did me a world of good. I had a whale of a time and was lucky with Patrick [Macnee, her costar]." I think back, as we dine in the emptiness, to the acting world of the '60s, which she's already descibed as "closed, shabby-genteel," a world in which men made all the decisions, and women were protected and cosseted, forced to wear pearls, to become demure institutions long before their time. I can imagine that world's outrage at this flibbertigibbet's flouting of its collective notion of what was right and proper. Certainly, after The Avengers, the classical parts listed in her resume limp rather than hurtle through the years. She was restless, no doubt.

Rigg wanted to do films, she says, but the British industry still relied on "studio charm schools and especially bred starlets. It was years before women got a halfway decent break in films." So she did comedies and musicals instead, and more TV - even an ill-fated American sitcom. But by that time marriage - her second, now ended - to Scottish landowner Archie Stirling had intervened, as well as the birth of her daughter Rachael, and for the moment they came first. By then, one way or another, Rigg had lost what might have been her ground base as an actress, her natural classical home. "I had stopped paying my dues, I suppose," she says. "And that's what counts with people, as perhaps it should."

Euripides' Medea (1993) and now Mother Courage and her Children were (and are) Rigg's comebacks, her way of reclaiming the territory The Avengers and her marriage forced her to cede. I ask why she chose those roles. "Fear," she says sunnily as coffee is delievered and she reaches for another cigarette. "No, perhaps not that. Danger. Take Medea. Jonathan Kent directed me as Cleopatra in All for Love (in a 1991 London fringe-theater production for a basic $250 a week). We both enjoyed it, so we said, 'Let's think about doing something else together.' Well, I think I suggested Medea because it was the most difficult thing I could think of to do. Neither of us liked any of the extant translations, so we commissioned a new translation from a Greek scholar and changed it a lot as we worked, looking where the words should sit on a line, where the emotional stress should fall, what should be liquid, what consonantal."

The result was a triumph. Critics cooed that she was Medea. Clothed in the words she helped to create, Rigg transferred to the West End and went on to win the London Evening Standard Award for best actress and, in New York, the best-actress Tony. In short order, she was made Dame of the Order of the British Empire; quite suddenly she was back at the top, forgiven. There were American miniseries to do - Danielle Steel's Zoya and James Clavell's Gai-Jin for example. There were film parts and West End plays on offer. Instead, she chose to do this: Mother Courage (for much less money). Again I ask her why.

"For the same reason," she says. "Because it is necessary to pay one's dues, and because it's scary. Not first-night scary, you understand, that is merely selfish, and besides you never receive universally good reviews. What I'm scared of is failing. And when Jonathan suggested it, I said yes on pure blind trust and faith. Brecht is a very great playwright, and it's time for him to be reassessed. Mother Courage is a fantastic part, and if I bugger it up in terms of the audience I'll be sad for the rest of my life. But as long as the audience comes, as long as it feels it's had a good experience, and has really enjoyed Brecht, then I'll be thrilled. I'll have given something back."

By this time there are perhaps two other people left in the Mezzanine Restaurant, and the thin rain falling outside the National has turned the afternoon into what seems like evening. We are marooned in a cocoon of light. Then, as Rigg talks with passion and knowledge about playwright David Hare's adaptation of Brecht's Mother Courage - the power of words again: "strong and ringing, funny and cruel by turns; now I know how to do it" - there is a cough at our side. "Excuse me Dame Diana," says one of the press officers, "but I think it's time to go back to rehearsal."

Dame Diana, looking at her watch, asks for first five, then later a further five minutes, and reaches for another cigarette. In the time that remains, over the detritus of the meal, we talk about other things: of Scotland, which she loves and in which she still spends as much time as possible; of her daughter, Rachael, now on her way to Edinburgh University to study Russian; and of her work for the MacRoberts Art Centre in Scotland and for the British Museum Development Board and Islington International Festival in London.

And as we do, the ghost of Emma Peel - which perhaps exists largely in my imagination - begins to disappear. There is still a hint of wry detachment, of raised eyebrows, deflection, and irony poised on the edge of laughter, but it is clear to me that from behind this screen there is someone else watching and in charge - intelligent, private, and passionate about her craft. The outside persona is essential but not integral; the inside is secret, hard-bought, and not for public consumption. And it is from the inside that old Mother Courage will begin to emerge when Diana Rigg does, as she puts it, back.

Before the press officer returns for the third time, I ask her whether there's anything left she'd like to do. "Yes," she replies. "One film that really rated. I'd like to be able to say, 'That was fine. I really did that.'" Anything else? "Well," Rigg pauses for a moment, "I think it's disloyal in a way to talk about one thing when you are doing another. However, I was in Russia this year, which I loved. And being there, I realized somewhere in my belly that the English have never got Chekhov quite right. So, yes, I would love to do Chekhov, in another new translation."

"Producers," I breathe, "take note."

And then she's gone, striding back down the corridor toward the 17th century, with the press officer in her wake. As her footsteps disappear, I light the last cigarette in the pack and write beside my notes: "Peel. Courage. Rigg. Mrs. Mother. Dame."

The maitre d' comes up through the silence. "Your bill, sir?"

"Yes," I say. "I'm done."

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