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07 April 2004: Newcastle-upon-Tyne Journal

No Worries For Diana

If you remember Emma Peel on terrestrial TV, the chances are that you're not of the hip-hop generation. But what memories to take into retirement!

Emma, played by Diana Rigg, was an undercover agent in the 1960s espionage series The Avengers. She replaced Honor Blackman and was duly replaced by Linda Thorson.

But none matched Rigg's leather-clad action woman. Mrs Peel made her last appearances in 1969, but Diana Rigg didn't need leather boots to keep her career striding forth.

She is now officially a "Dame", one of a formidable triumvirate with Maggie Smith and Judi Dench.

Theatre director Michael Grandage perhaps didn't have to explain why he approached Dame Diana to play Mrs Venable in his acclaimed production of the Tennessee Williams play Suddenly Last Summer, which comes to the North-East next week.

"She is somebody I've watched for years," he confided before a matinee in Sheffield.

"One of her greatest qualities is that she isn't concerned (and this is slightly unusual) with vanity on stage. She is prepared to go to all sorts of places and not worry about how she looks."

"If you're going to play a part like Mrs Venable, you have to go to a formidable place and you can't have any worries about anything," said Grandage. "If you can only be truthful, as Diana is, then you are perfectly qualified for the part."

The play focuses on the fraught confrontation between the bereaved Mrs Venable, whose son died "suddenly last summer", and the young woman, Catharine Holly, who was with him at the time. Mrs V is a vengeful dragon who understandably saw only the best in her son.

It's a powerful blast of drama set in an extraordinary garden where son Sebastian kept his flesh-eating plants. Diana Rigg's performance is equal to the challenge posed by a showy set and by Williams' demanding text.

Shortly after the performance, a cold-wracked Diana Rigg explained why she took the part.

"I had lunch with Michael and he delved into his capacious bag of scripts and said, 'I've always wanted to do this play'.

"I went home and read it and was struck by it. I love Tennessee Williams anyway but this seemed to me to be a particularly heightened piece of work of his.

"But I did very much like the idea of playing Mrs Venable... that wonderful, extraordinarily complex relationship she had with her son."

She had also been struck by the structure of the play, which gives the first half to Mrs Venable and the second to the tearful Miss Holly (Victoria Hamilton). "The balance is incredibly important. It's like a pair of scales: if the first half doesn't work, the second half won't work."

The role involved ageing once again but this hadn't been a problem. "It does help that I look just like my mother in this," she said cheerfully. "My mother would have had that grey hair tinted blue. And I'm 65 now so I'm not that far away."

The prospect of touring held no fears for such a trouper. "I've always done this sort of work so, while I might gripe about touring, it's something I've done for years and I do feel very committed to this part and this play."

"But I'm going to not work for quite a long time after this. I like to do a lot of walking in the country and reading and I have a house in France so I go there. And I love going to the theatre."

She loves mixing with young people too. "Michael (Grandage) is considerably younger than me and I think, at my age, I learn more from young men and women," she said.

Her maternal side has evidently gone down well with her younger co-star. "She's wonderful to me," said Victoria Hamilton later. "She really looks after me.

"I'd worked with her before. We did a film together (Victoria And Albert) in which I played Queen Victoria and she played my nanny. It was a six-week shoot and she kept me sane. We drank lots of wine together when it was raining outside and had a good laugh."


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