07 March 2004: Sunday Times

Peel Might be Ageing but She's Still Avenging

Don't mention the A-word to Dame Diana Rigg. She has weightier stuff on her mind, writes Allan Brown

Though she would shrink from the allusion, Dame Diana Rigg has spent a disproportionate stretch of her acting career in the process of Avenging. In 1998's production of Phaedra at the Almeida her eponymous heroine committed suicide to get her own back on a feckless stepson. In Medea she slaughtered her children to punish her husband for desertion. In television's Mother Love, Rigg got the scissors out whenever her relationship with hero-child son Kit was threatened. From Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf to Lady Macbeth, Rigg has serious form playing women who keep the ledger of life and death index linked.

And, of course, who could forget - though Rigg clearly wishes we would - The Avengers, that unbearably wonderful psychedelic spy series in which Rigg starred as Mrs Emma Peel, perhaps the only catsuit-wearing, karate-kicking nuclear physicist in history. Though she appeared in only 51 episodes, between 1965-67, battling diabolic masterminds with their time machines, invisibility rays and evil robots, she is still pursued by the series. It has the tenacity of the Furies that haunt the Greek drama she so conspicuously prefers. "Oh God," she sighs, "it's just so long ago."

Although she denies it, plain thespian elitism might have something to do with her wish to put the television series behind her. None of her theatrical peers got their start in anything so lowly as a spy series.

Dame Maggie Smith did not star in Department S, Dame Julie Andrews never appeared in The Saint and though Dame Judi Dench now turns up in James Bond movies, it is more in the spirit of late-career whimsy than anything else; Rigg got there first anyway, in 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service, as the only woman Bond ever married, another role she doesn't relish discussing. Beyond the mystery and lore of the theatre, in fact, there doesn't seem much Rigg does relish discussing.

While warm and gregarious, head-to-heel in conciliatory shades of taupe over a pair of maroon stiletto boots not commonly worn by those who have recently turned 65, Rigg defends her right to privacy vigorously and submits to the process of promoting her latest work, a revival of Tennessee Williams's Suddenly Last Summer, with the unspoken caveat that her interviewers (there are three of us today, in a session designed to minimise the chore) do their best not to bore her.

The populist genuinely seems to vex and pain Rigg, so it's problematic that the subjects people wish to discuss with her - The Avengers, James Bond, her divorce from Scottish landowner Archie Stirling, her "reclusive" French lifestyle, her daughter Rachel's appearance in the unrestrained lesbian drama Tipping the Velvet - all have a populist, tabloid air to them. All the Tony awards and Mother Courage revivals in the world pale to popular insignificance when your husband absconds with Joely Richardson, daughter of Vanessa, your professional rival.

"One has to be so careful," she says. "Things get put in one's mouth and then they become a fact. You just can't challenge everything, so it circulates and gets regurgitated and gets so you no longer know where your truth begins and artistic license ends. Ha ha ha. You're looking at a battered woman!"

Turning up as Mrs Venable in Suddenly Last Summer, then, appears a characteristic move for Rigg, continuing her involvement with vividly wronged and emotionally wayward women, now facilitated partly by her age, and partly by the fearsome streak that directors seem to divine in Rigg's nature. Last year the readers of TV Guide in America voted her, as Emma Peel, the sexiest TV star in history; Suddenly Last Summer is the first role in which she uses a walking stick. "Vanity in a 65-year-old woman is slightly...misplaced. You have to know where you're at and I'm a crumbling woman!"

Mrs. Venable is a Greek heroine transplanted to the Louisiana bayou, a manipulative old bully tortured by the mysterious death of her son Sebastian while on holiday.

His cousin Catharine was there when he died but her account of the circumstances is so bizarre she has been institutionalised. Before Catharine can tell the whole truth Mrs Venable attempts to broker her a lobotomy. Within Christopher Oram's stunning set - a giant oil drum opening to reveal the sinister hothouse where Venable spends her days - the women battle to expose the implications of sexual lust and matriarchal obsession, in dialogue as florid as the Venus fly-traps studding the set.

Last October, Rigg won a 13-month legal fight with the Daily Mail (and a 40,000 settlement) after she was misrepresented by a female journalist. Rigg has been known to refuse to be interviewed by her own sex; making an exception reminded her why she observed the policy in the first place. The choice of her latest role - a female battle to set the facts straight - had nothing to do with the settlement, says Rigg. "At. All," she adds firmly. "It reminds me more of Rosemary Shipman -the suspicion that someone is rewriting their life the way they'd like it to be, as Mrs. Venable does."

At the outset of Rigg's career, Sir Peter Hall said of her: "If she doesn't waste herself on silly films she could become something good." The advice was mostly heeded. She has admitted to taking on hack work (a tour of Australia in The Hollow Crown, to raise her 80,000 legal fees) and Suddenly Last Summer seems to be in a similar line, more cartoonish than her usual fare.

As well as a home in London she now has a house in the Loire valley. "Living in France is an alternative to working," she says, "because I'm not as it were sitting at home in London waiting for the phone to ring."

Another call on Rigg's time is her chancellorship of Stirling University and her role as chairman (the term she prefers) of the MacRoberts Arts Centre, obligations that she places highly.

"It's quite sweet, you know, the Scottish students, the lads. They've got their hair in twists and twirls with gel. At their graduation ceremony, I have to tap them on the head but I always think, Oh no, I can't destroy that! And as they go by they say 'Yer lookin' good.' At my age that's quite wonderful."

Suddenly Last Summer, The Kings Theatre, Edinburgh, March 9-13

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