08 November 1995: The Guardian

Courage Reborn: Mark Lawson meets Diana Rigg, whose stage renaissance sees her tackling David Hare's revamped Mother Courage

FOR leading actors, classical theatre provides a logical and progressive programme of roles against which to test themselves: Romeo, Hamlet or Henry V when young, Ibsen's and Chekhov's menopausal brooders for the middle years and Prospero or Lear to see them past the pension. The repertory of an actress, particularly in maturity, requires rather more invention.

"I suppose," says Dame Diana Rigg, "that Mother Courage is the female equivalent of King Lear with songs." But she acknowledges dames' less precise theatrical ladder. The Queen appears to agree. When Rigg received her DBE last year, she enquired at the investiture whether the actress was working. She wasn't. For her first role as a Dame of British theatre, she contemplated Chekhov before choosing to interpret Brecht's 17th century peasant-woman entrepreneur in a new production of Mother Courage And Her Children, directed by Jonathan Kent. This version, by David Hare, opens at the National next week.

"I'm not inclined to join the band of moaners about the shortage of strong roles for women," she says, fiddling with a Marlboro in a corporate hospitality room. "Look at Judi (Dench), she's never stopped working. Or Maggie (Smith). You just have to get out and find things to do. I don't have a hit list of roles. Never since doing The Scottish Play (Macbeth) at the Old Vic. I had so wanted to play her (Lady Macbeth) and I didn't enjoy it at all. So I've rather ditched hit lists."

Even in interview, she crisply separates the consonants in that tricky final string of i-sounds and eroticism apart, her major asset as an actress has been her deep-voiced diction. It is no coincidence that her career has been structured around works by writers of unusual verbal precision and challenge.

She delivered Tony Harrison's torrents of conversational rhyming couplets in his versions of Moliere and Racine - The Misanthrope (1973) and Phaedra Britannica (1975) - for the original National Theatre at the Old Vic. She was, until the advent of Felicity Kendal, Tom Stoppard's preferred interpreter of his comic dialogue, starting off the parts of Dotty in Jumpers (1972) and Ruth in Night And Day (1978). Moving to musicals, in the 1987 West End revival of Stephen Sondheim's Follies, she survived one of the songwriter's most intricate lyrics, "Ah, but underneath!", with its climactic triple internal rhyme: "But no-one thought to query her/ superior/ exterior." Of her star parts, only Emma Peel in The Avengers on television in the sixties - a role more concerned with rendering males of that generation speechless - does not naturally fit that pattern.

When Rigg returned to theatre after some dry years around the turn of the last decade, language remained her passion. Asked by director Jonathan Kent to play Medea at London's Almeida, she found the available translations unactable and worked with Kent and a classical scholar on producing a fresh text. That 1992 production travelled to the West End and Broadway, bringing Rigg her first serious acting honours since the seventies: an Evening Standard and a Tony award for best actress. For the new production of Mother Courage, she again rejected all surviving translations, signing up only when David Hare was contracted to produce a new version. Clearly, Rigg likes control over her work. "Back in the olden days," she says, "at the RSC in the sixties, you came in on the first day of rehearsal and there was a model of the set and a design of the costume you were going to wear, stuck up on the noticeboard. Actors' opinions simply weren't asked. Working with Jonathan Kent, I know that any input I had would at least be listened to.

"By chance, two accounts of Rigg at work have recently been published. In the posthumous diaries of the director John Dexter, whose favourite actress she was, he noted: "Working with Diana reminds me of something Larry {Olivier} said about Edith Evans. 'She absorbs all direction and makes it her own. A director's dream.' " In Howard Brenton's rehearsal diary of his 1993 Royal Court play, Berlin Bertie, Rigg, a church-going Christian, is glimpsed agonising over an anti-religious speech given to her character. The negotiating position she offers to Brenton - "I've taken my clothes off in plays. I've stripped at the end of a first act. I'll do anything as long as it's justified. I mean, as long as it works . . ." - suggests that her style in rehearsal is a vaguely menacing coquettishness.

Apart from eroticism and diction, Rigg has always had the quality of intelligence on stage. She explains: "I read the play over and over . . . then books about the subject or, in the case of a classic, casebooks on earlier productions, get a smell of what they were like, biographies of the writer. Learn where you can and store away what you can't use. Acting is about choices and it has to be an informed choice."

With Mother Courage, she believes that her preparation has exposed evidence to undermine two stereotypes: that of Brecht as a bleak and peevish ideologue and of Mother Courage as a hag with bags. Reading accounts of Brecht in rehearsal, she found that he would often instruct the performers to "have fun" and that his preferred casting for the first American production was Ethel Merman or Mae West. To the probable delight of both the Royal National Theatre box office and the Avengers Fan Club, she is hinting at a sexy Mother Courage and, hopefully, a funny one: "Brecht has become covered in dust and reverence. But the comedy is very important. Humour in the lower depths of adversity. Jewish humour is like that . . ."

Brecht wrote the play in 1938 and, at its Zurich premiere in 1941, its depiction of the Thirty Years War inevitably took on the resonances of the war then two years old as subsequent revivals have tended to reflect Vietnam, the Falklands or the Gulf. Inevitably, European theatre has recently seen a number of Bosnian concept productions. Rigg and Kent, though, are keen to avoid a CNN-reading of the piece: "We thought about it. But I think it's very bad taste to lasso the play to a particular view. It's a greater play than that. It's about war, not a war."

The return to Brecht brings her career full circle, the circle in question being Caucasian and Chalk - it was in the Brecht play of that name that she made her professional debut in 1957. She was born in Doncaster in 1938, but spent most of her first seven years in India, where her father was a railway engineer. She knew from the age of 11 that she wanted to act and against parental incredulity, a teacher helped her to RADA.

At 57, a Dame, about to open at the National Theatre in the female equivalent of King Lear with songs, she remembers the moment in the sixties, when she realised she had made it: "There was a precise moment of revelation, and it was economic. I remember opening my handbag and finding a pound note there that was not accounted for. And that was a revelation, because, until then, every penny had been accounted for."

Mother Courage And Her Children opens at the National Theatre on November 14.

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