It is a big coup for Sheffield Theatres to have brought Diana Rigg back to her native South Yorkshire to head the cast of Suddenly Last Summer opening at the Lyceum Theatre at the start of a UK tour, perhaps more than people appreciate.
“I love not working,” she says several times during the course of a break from rehearsals in London. And you can’t begrudge her that at the age of 65.
In Michael Grandage’s production of the Tennessee Williams classic, she is playing Mrs. Venable, the New Orleans matriarch grieving for her dead son and planning revenge on the girl she believes stole him from her. It is another formidable woman to follow other recent stage roles which include Mother Courage at the National and Medea in London and New York.
“I have to say I would rather do that than one-lump-or-two parts. The best ones are the old bags,” observes the actress whose name conjures up the absolute opposite in visions of the high kicking Emma Peel in The Avengers.
“I seem latterly to have got cast as strong monstrous women and at first glance she would appear to be that but I don’t think Tennessee Williams wrote one dimensional characters,” she says.
“She is obsessed by her son and she is obsessed by the creative process, the fact that he was a poet who needed her support and determination to write his poems.
“There is that thing that makes it real and a whole mix of emotions going on. It’s fascinating. It’s a play about a person you never see and yet he is so brilliantly delineated.”
The role was a big attraction.
"I love not working," she continues. "I never really had the fire of ambition burning brightly and was just incredibly lucky and I think life has a great deal to offer and I'm in the last third of my life now and I have to grab as much as possible while I am active.
“I don’t like getting up and going into make-up at six o’clock in the morning. I don’t want to be on a film set every day.
“I am at an age where the good jobs are few and far between and I call this a really good job, which is why I leapt at it.”
Dame Diana Rigg was born in Doncaster but spent only two months there before going out to India, where her father was a railway engineer. But the ties with South Yorkshire are stronger than that might imply.
“My mother was from Doncaster and she came back to have me because the natal delivery rooms were not up to scratch,” she explains.
At the age of seven she returned from India and was sent away to school, returning in the holidays to her grandmother in Doncaster.
“Then my dad came back with my mum to Doncaster and took a flat there and I went to Miss Poskitt’s School for a very short time before we moved to Leeds.” She still has an aunt living in Doncaster.
So how exactly did this revival of Suddenly Last Summer come about?
“It was Duncan Weldon nagging me about doing a play and I was disinclined because I like not working a lot,” she admits.
“He organized a lunch with Michael Grandage and straight away Michael dived into his briefcase and brought out Suddenly Last Summer and said he had always wanted to do it.
“I took it home and read it and rang him and said, ‘Yes’. He was astounded because I don’t think he is used to responses that quick.”
She admits that she may have been a little hasty. “I thought it was going to the Donmar and it would be a nice cosy 12 weeks,” she smiles but evidently was not too disheartened at the prospect of a run in South Yorkshire, followed by seven tour dates around the country.
Perhaps it helps that she lists travelling as one of her passions. Otherwise she divides her time between homes in London and France.
“A few years ago I happened to be in France and fell in love with a house,” she recalls.
The upshot was she bought it and then enrolled for language lessons at the Lycee Francais in London and learned to speak French. “It was hardly Proust but I could talk with the plumbers and electricians and builders. I now have this alternative life which I just love.”
She enjoys village life in south-west France, pottering down to the market. “In France there is a strong cultural life outside Paris, so there are things going on. But I am left alone, which is just wonderful.”
So her neighbours have no idea who she is? “They know me from Avengers and Bond, of course, but they don’t think it’s terribly important.”
In Britain her appeal has crossed boundaries.
“I think I was one of the generation that pushed away from the strict categorisation that was going on at that time,” she ventures.
“You are just a classical actress – that’s what I was. But I wanted the whole spectrum of parts that a young woman of my age could have done.
“There’s a quote from Peter Hall about me that ‘She would be a very good actor if she doesn’t waste herself on film’.
“It is very interesting now with so many film actors coming into the theatre, but he was voicing the general thought at that time if you were a stage actor that’s where you stayed and paid your dues.
“Now it’s different, but what’s so interesting is that if you want a continuum in your life and want a long career as an actor regardless of stardom only the theatre will give you that, or possibly TV.”
Suddenly Last Summer begins previewing next week at the Lyceum and continues to February 28 and then tours to April 24.