15 May 2008: Chichester Observer

Diana Rigg's Conversion To Chekhov

It took Mike Poulton's new version of The Cherry Orchard to change Diana Rigg's mind about Chekhov. The version is the opening production in this summer's main-house season at Chichester Festival Theatre (May 15 until June 7).

"I have avoided Chekhov for a very long time," she confesses. "I always found it vaguely irritating. The characters were always whingeing on about wanting to do something and then never doing it and I would just think 'Get on with it!'"

But the point many productions missed is the comedy: "Chekhov called most of his plays comedies."

And that's something Poulton's version, balancing the comedy with the tragedy, brings out nicely.

Diana Rigg plays Mme Ranyevskaya who, still locked in grief, returns for the first time to the country estate where her young son drowned. The cherry trees, the pride of the province, are in glorious blossom but the estate is now neglected and mortgaged to the hilt. The cherry orchard must be sold and the trees cut down.

"She is an adorable character," Diana says. "I think I would want to slap her if I ever met her. She is so completely feckless but she is absolutely adorable. I don't expect the audience to adore her, but I find her adorable to play.

"She is so open and so completely sincere in what she is doing."

For Diana, who remains probably best known for her portrayals of Emma Peel in The Avengers and Tracy Bond in the 1969 James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service, The Cherry Orchard is in her first time in Chichester since Antony And Cleopatra in 1985.

It's a show she recalls fondly not least for the people it threw up: "Alex Jennings brought me my asps and Philip Franks, who is directing The Cherry Orchard now, was playing Caesar."

Philip isn't the only old friend The Cherry Orchard has brought her way: "John Nettleton I worked with a thousand years ago and also Bill Gaunt. We went to the same school Fulneck (in Pudsey in the city of Leeds), a very very strict Moravian school, a Czechoslovakian Quaker school in Yorkshire. They trekked there because of religious repression."

Diana attended the school after spending her very early years in India a place she has returned to on recent visits.

"I went back with the Daily Telegraph on one occasion and last time with Channel Four when they did this series on the Empire's Children.

"My father was working for the Indians. He was employed by the Maharajah. He answered an advertisement in The Times for an engineer."

She was seven when she left India: "I had never even seen a theatre. I didn't even know that theatre existed. The first thing I saw was panto and then we lived in Leeds and we had all the major touring shows coming."

And that's when she saw her first Shakespeare one of the experiences which pushed her towards the stage.

"I also got into poetry and into the power of words. I did an audition for RADA and got in. My dad couldn't afford the fees, but in those days the councils used to give scholarships."

In those days RADA was considered the best. Now there is a greater range on offer, and indeed many people don't feel the need to go to drama school at all.

"My daughter did not go to drama school. She went to university, but what she did do and what is really good for children dying to get into acting was get into the National Youth Theatre. It gives you a very good grounding. It is very democratic."

Is it a route which makes her a different kind of actor?

"It's more that she comes from a different generation. Each generation brings something new. Each generation refreshes things."

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