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08 February 2004: The Observer

The eternal goddess

Tormented, betrayed women, like the matriarch in her new Tennessee Williams production, are now Diana Rigg's speciality. She has aged into tragedy - but never lost her beauty or wit

Peter Conrad

Memory compiles a photo-album in which faces and bodies are magically saved from the assault of time. Ever since adolescence, like most men of my generation, I have been gluing candid snaps of Diana Rigg into that mnemonic treasury. Perhaps this is why, when I turned up to meet her during rehearsals for Tennessee Williams's Suddenly Last Summer, I walked straight past her without a glance.

Who was I expecting to encounter? Not, surely, the leather-clad dominatrix from The Avengers, whose legs were deadly weapons. I have other, more intimate glimpses of her stored in the back of my brain: Rigg undressing as the lights coyly faded in Abelard and Heloise, or playing peekaboo with the aid of a feather boa as she lolled on a bed, teasingly naked, in Stoppard's Jumpers. I also remember the sound of her voice, waspishly witty as well as sultry, balancing Tony Harrison's rhyming couplets in The Misanthrope at the National Theatre, or atonally yelping and howling as Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion.

Vanessa Redgrave, already at Stratford when Rigg joined the RSC in 1959, embodied the stern activism of the Sixties, but Rigg sympathised, instead, with the hedonism of the decade. Redgrave intended to change the world; Rigg just wanted to enjoy being in it, and made a vow never to change or grow up. She had, she used to say, 'no desire to be respectable'. Well, she is now 65 and knows that respectability comes with your sagging skin and creaky joints. Her figure is still erect, her eyes bright behind the glazed barrier of her contact lenses, but Rigg the bohemian free spirit is gone for good.

Embarrassed by not having realised who she was, I blamed her hair. That, at least, was unrespectable: a crown of sandy spikes. 'Isn't it savage?' she moaned, her voice equivocating between tragedy and comedy.

'It was done to me by one of those young men who flap around, snip-snip-snipping and by the time I realised, it was too late. I must have been comatose that day.' Or perhaps the hairdo was her punkish act of rebellion, since the thorny quiff was about to disappear beneath a blue-rinsed wig. In Suddenly Last Summer , she plays the repressive matriarch Mrs Venable, who is respectable with a vengeance. She wants to have her daughter-in-law, Catherine, lobotomised; the operation is intended to prevent the young woman from posthumously outing Mrs Venable's son, a predatory homosexual who used his wife to procure rough trade for him.

We settled down at a cafe table reserved for smokers, and she retreated behind a blue haze of fumes. 'At my age,' she said, 'there are two parts for women. Either you're the monster, a mad and embittered old bat, or you're the elegant hostess who crooks her pinky and says, "Would you like a cup of tea?"' She has chosen mania rather than gentility and Mrs Venable joins her recent catalogue of menopausal crazies, which includes Euripides's Medea, Racine's Phèdre, Brecht's Mother Courage, Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Mrs Danvers, the lesbian martinet with the punitive hairbrush in Rebecca .

But this time, the continental shelf, as Larkin called it, down which we totter into decrepitude, has become abruptly steeper. 'In Suddenly Last Summer,' she said with a lyrically anguished shudder: 'I have my first walking stick. Oh, and my first wheelchair.' She laughed: what other defence do we have against time's insults?

Though the young Rigg was a delectable comedian, she has aged into tragedy. She dismisses her premature attempts at tragedy during the Seventies. 'There was Macbeth at the National, which is what we call "a troubled production"; Tony Hopkins got bad reviews and he just walked out. And my first Phèdre was wrong-footed by Tony Harrison's version, which set it in India during the Raj. That meant the gods were alien, foreign, so how could Phèdre truly believe that they were tormenting her?'

During the Eighties, she seemed to have retired and - worse - succumbed to conventionality. Married for a second time, to a Scottish landowner, she plodded around his acres in green wellies, attended agricultural shows, fished for salmon and trout, officiated as chieftain at the Highland games, and listened to the sermons preached in the Church of Scotland. But the marriage fell apart when her husband left her for Joely Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave's daughter. In the Nineties, as Rigg admitted: 'I started again. And now I knew how to do the pain! Roles like Medea or Phèdre require a certain masochism: you have to relish suffering. It was liberating for me. The English spend most of their time denying what they feel and saying, "I'm fine, I'm fine" as they quietly crack up.'

Her performances as these betrayed, abused women also afforded her revenge: she turned herself into a homicidal fury, lacerating her victims with her tongue just as Mrs Peel used to administer karate kicks with her catsuited limbs. After these triumphs, she once more withdrew. 'I love not working,' she said (and, just in case any casting directors might happen to read this, she immediately added: 'Of course, I also really love to work!'). 'I found this huge house in the south of France which I've been restoring. It's a major project. The last thing I did in the theatre was a tour of that old RSC anthology, The Hollow Crown, around Australia and New Zealand. I needed the fees to pay for the central heating in France, though I can't say I'm very proud of myself.

'But I did other things to make myself worthy of the house and the place. I enrolled to learn French at the Lycée in London, and was the oldest in the class by 35 years. The course taxed the old grey matter; they said I had a good accent, but very bad grammar.' She happily shares the French property with Mabel, her Jack Russell.

'Ah, poor Mabel is not very popular in the village. She made a big mistake by killing one of the mayor's guinea fowls, which he was fattening for Christmas. I am hoping there won't be reprisals. No one there knows who I am, or if they do, they don't care. You know the way the French refuse to be impressed.' She blinked, gave her head a slight toss, and shrugged her shoulders to signal indifference: she is an expert caricaturist of human reactions.

Rural France appeals to the conservative nostalgia that has replaced the young Rigg's giddy, party-going playfulness. 'The streets are cobbled, the church was built in the tenth century, there are no shops in the village, no cafe, no garage. A van comes with fish once a week, and another with meat. It's not the standardised, savourless world we have here. I have the joy of going on tour with this production of Suddenly Last Summer, but I know that wherever we are between Edinburgh and Plymouth, it will still be the same place: a high street with Boots, Marks and Spencer, Blockbuster.'

Such laments for a vanished world are the bleak prerogative of the elderly. What, I wondered, had become of the young Rigg who used to live so impulsively? In 1973, she married an Israeli painter who, when they quarrelled on holiday, chucked her suitcases out of a seventh-storey window; she divorced him after a few months, and called the match 'a grotesque error'. 'It happens to us all,' she said, explaining her surrender to property-owning propriety. 'Look at me. I'm a dame and I'm a chancellor.'

She does her chancelling at Stirling University and takes the ceremonial falderal very seriously. Her appointment there lasts for another five years. 'I've warned them that by then I'll be propped up on my Zimmer frame as I hand out the diplomas. The only one from the Sixties who didn't change was Timothy Leary, the fool! And maybe Mick Jagger. The rest of us all stagger back to some fundamental bass note that was always present in our lives.'

The bass note in her case, surprisingly enough, is a sense of morality. Other actresses of her generation have been vexed by a conscience that disapproves of their artificial profession. Hence Glenda Jackson's renunciation of her career or Vanessa Redgrave's sideline in agitprop. Rigg refuses to apologise for the theatre and believes that it has a healing, harmonising social function. Where Jackson or Redgrave turn to radical politics, she invokes religion. She once startlingly denied that actors were mere exhibitionists: 'Performing, standing up and being seen has been an impetus for thousands of years, since before Christ.' The remark, when I read it, took me aback. For Rigg, to stand up and be seen was like standing up to be counted, and the reference to Christ aligned performance with a voluntary martyrdom.

With typical wit, the anthology of bad reviews she edited treats journalistic barbs as an equivalent to the whips and scourges used by Christ's executioners. It is called No Turn Unstoned; though it makes light of the insults, including some directed at her, it does not deny that they hurt. When I quoted her comment about Christ, she replied by referring to another religion.

'That's how it all began. Thespis, when he founded our profession, stepped out of the chorus line to portray a god. I suppose it was ambition that thrust him forward, but his initiative enabled people to see something that would otherwise have remained invisible.' I was reminded of Rigg's Phèdre, testifying to the clawed ferocity of Venus.

While my skin prickled, she introduced a giggly ironic proviso. 'People will read this and they'll be saying, "Oh, puh-lease, what is she going on about?" But I do hate the way everyone laughs at us as luvvies. We're not narcissists or damaged people. Ours is an honourable activity, and we make a contribution to the culture. We expose reality, the human condition. Who says it's remote and unreal? Suddenly Last Summer is about cannibalism, and in Germany they've just been trying an erotic cannibal.

'What made Olivier so great was his capacity to reveal the secrets of the heart, and that takes courage. I remember playing Regan in that television production of King Lear , which was one of the last things he did. It was hot in the studio; the set was a peat bog, so after a few minutes your nostrils were black. He was ill and exhausted, but he insisted that if he forgot a line in one of the big speeches he'd go back and start again, rather than let them splice different takes together. It was agony to see his eyes cloud over as his memory failed. Even so, he refused to cheat.'

Rigg is proud of the more modest physical strains that vouch for her own unfeigned commitment. While simultaneously playing Phèdre and rehearsing Racine's Britannicus for the Almeida, she tore a vocal cord. 'And when Medea sold out in New York, everyone thought I must have been having a wonderful time. In fact, the role consumed all my energy: I'd get up halfway through the day, stroll in Central Park, eat, then go to the theatre and try to summon up this whirlwind.'

She recalls Medea, which won her a Tony Award in 1994, as her proudest achievement, and - because plays like this are a test of physical strength, and also a spiritual trial - she appraises the efforts of all concerned in terms that are emphatically moral. 'We believed in it, so it didn't matter that we began on Equity minimum wage, rehearsing in some terrible cold hall. We had no commercial expectations; the work was completely pure in intent. We just wanted to do it well, to get it right. After the Almeida, no West End producer wanted to touch it. But we refused to give up and audiences grew and grew.'

Sad, I said, that such performances leave no trace. 'Ah, but they do,' she replied. 'People still come up to me and look very hard, and they say, "I saw you as Medea."'

Reproaching myself, I realised that this should have been my line. Time for me to update my juvenile photo-gallery. Rigg refuses to autograph Avengers memorabilia (not that I asked her to do so). The image I should be preserving is that of her feral, infanticidal witch, uncomfortable though it is to have such characters inside your head. After a few seasons of walk-ons at Stratford, Rigg stepped out of the chorus, and has been portraying goddesses ever since. If I didn't recognise her, it was only because such supernatural beings wear disguises when they go out for lunch or give interviews.


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