DAVID HARE, whose elegant political plays have made him a favourite with the chattering classes, has sparked a less cerebral debate: is Dame Judi Dench's latest West End role a veiled critique of Dame Diana Rigg's life?
Hare's latest play, Amy's View, features a famous middle-aged actress desperate to convince a sceptical younger generation of the importance of her craft.
Critics were enthralled by Dench's mischievous performance from the outset. But now they are asking whether she has also been motivated by rivalry with Rigg after it emerged that Hare's play may have been drawn from real life.
One theatrical source who knows Dench well said: "She has confided that Esme, her character in the play, is partly inspired by Diana. When the two women met at a party there was a definite chill. Judi was rather playful, and Diana made a couple of frosty remarks."
Dench, who has been nominated for an Oscar for her recent film role as Queen Victoria, is said to be highly amused by the comparisons. Last week she played down the connection.
Meanwhile, a source close to Rigg said: "They are very different people and have not achieved the closeness you might expect from people in their position. You only have to compare their looks to realise they have little in common."
Rigg's career bears some striking similarities to the fictional Esme. She raised eyebrows when she left the Royal Shakespeare Company to play the leather-suited Emma Peel in The Avengers. Peter Brook, the doyen of directors, was dismissive: "If she doesn't waste herself on silly films, she could become something good."
Rigg judged correctly that The Avengers would catapult her to a level of fame which would otherwise have taken her 20 years of solid touring to achieve. She also appeared in a Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
In the play, Esme risks critical censure by deserting the stage at an important moment in her career for audience-pleasing roles in television as a nurse in a hospital series.
Rigg was forced to decide whether she valued her family more than her career when she had a daughter, Rachael. Her career stalled during the 1980s as she put her daughter first, but revived after she split up with her then husband, Archie Stirling. She subsequently commented: "If it were said I hadn't achieved my full potential as an actress, I would understand the reasons."
The fictional actress also undergoes a character-forming struggle with her daughter, played by Samantha Bond, who has chosen an unsuitable boyfriend. However, unlike Rigg, who is known to be gregarious and popular, Esme is shy and neurotic.
Dench is not immune to comparisons with Esme. She co-stars with Geoffrey Palmer in As Time Goes By, the BBC1 sitcom, and was deeply upset when her daughter failed to tell her she was pregnant. The first she knew of it was when the baby was born.
Hare has impeccable credentials for judging the relative strengths of the two actresses, who are widely acknowledged as being among the finest on the British stage. At 50, he is regarded as being at the peak of his powers.
He is a close friend of Dench and wrote Amy's View in 1997, after collaborating with Rigg in a successful remake of Bertolt Brecht's anti-war parable, Mother Courage and her Children.
Critics confirmed that Hare's play appears to have drawn from his experiences with some of Britain's grandest actresses.
Sheridan Morley, the film and drama critic, said: "Is there a bit of Diana in there? Yes, I think there is. David, more than most, is a playwright who deals in documentary. He researches very carefully and he is more of a journalist playwright than, say, Tom Stoppard, who is a literary playwright, or Alan Ayckbourn, who is a comic playwright."
Hare's method has landed him in trouble on at least one previous occasion. His friendship with Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader, secured him privileged access to the 1992 campaign, which he used as material for his play, The Absence of War.
Although the play was not intended as an attack on Kinnock, it did portray the fictional Labour leader as a windbag and upset members of Kinnock's inner circle, who were angry at what they saw as a betrayal of privacy. Hare further blurred the line between fact and fiction by publishing his background research for the play.
This weekend he opted to avoid controversy by declining the chance to explain exactly the source of his inspiration. He simply laughed and said: "I can't say a single word on the subject." Rigg said: "If I am indeed David's muse, I have to be thrilled."