April 1991: Lear's

A Shot of Wry

Diana Rigg is about to file for a divorce, so you might expect to find a few signs of strain on her face. Odd, isn't it, the different distress signals that men and women send out at a time like this. Men usually manage to keep their faces on straight, while their grooming goes to pieces; women become extra meticulous about their makeup and dress, even as the worry lines deepen around their mouth. As it happens, Diana Rigg is impeccably groomed tonight, wearing a glamorous, if severely tailored, black silk suit for a dinner interview at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston. And while there are etchings at the corners of her mouth, they only seem to outline that famously wry smile of hers, the one that signifies vast amusement, and no little amazement, at some fresh piece of human idiocy.

At 52 the British actress has made professional use of that knowing smile for some 35 years, primarily as a leading actress of the classical stage. In fact she is now appearing in London as Cleopatra in Dryden's epic Restoration tragedy All For Love. But Rigg is also an immensely popular film and television star, and although Queen Elizabeth II recently honored her with a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for her distinguished career, American audiences persist in remembering her best as Emma Peel, the sexy, leather-suited, karate-chopping agent who performed alongside Patrick Macnee in the TV series The Avengers.

Diana Rigg is currently smiling her bemused smile on the PBS TV series Mystery!, which she introduces each week. Her appearances are taped at WGBH, the PBS station in Boston, where earlier this day she had delivered her introductory comments to "Mother Love," the suspense drama that opened the series last fall and in which she herself starred.

After a day's work the smile is still in place, although it wears into a thin line when the inevitable reference is made to the breakup of her marriage to Archibald Hugh Stirling, a 49-year-old aristocrat. Rigg will reveal no confidences on this subject, though she does have something to say on the general subject of men who stray from their wives during mid-life crises.

"Men have a pretty tough time coming to terms with aging," she remarks. "They do dumb things... But one must recognize that the man who goes for the younger woman is looking to re-create his life, not to cement the life he has built." Thinking about that, smiles to herself as if savoring a secret and adds "I can see that could be very beguiling."

Rigg insists she is "entirely reconciled" to all this. "It's no good saying that a woman looks as good at fifty as she did at twenty-five. Rubbish! Oh, she may look wonderful at fifty, but she sure as hell does not look as sexy as she did at twenty-five."

Her own sophisticated looks would be startling in a woman of any age. Rigg is five feet nine inches tall - before stepping into the stiletto-thin heels she favors - and she carries her height with an assured grace, even to the regal lift of her chin and the tilt of her head. She attributes her trim figure to nothing more than a sensible diet and participation in sports such as tennis, swimming, and fishing. "I absolutely loathe the idea of standing in a classroom, doing regimental exercises," she says. "I also think we forget that you can be hellishly boring if the body is all you're exercising."

Since leaving her Yorkshire home at the age of 16 to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Diana Rigg has never had to compromise either her beauty or her intelligence for her career. It's true she made quite a show of herself on The Avengers and in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, in which she played James Bond's bride. And there are theatergoers who still remember the sensation she caused 20 years ago in Broadway, playing a nude love scene with Australian actor Keith Michell in Abelard and Heloise (she earned a Tony nomination for her performance). But these were calculated professional decisions, carried out in the context of a serious career and fully in keeping with her intelligent and supremely confident persona.

Although she once played Cordelia on stage to Paul Scofield's King Lear and the modest Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew, Rigg is not attracted to passive heroines. She has never played Juliet, for example, or Ibsen's oppressed Nora in A Doll's House. ("Nobody would ever believe I'd let myself be trapped in that marriage," she says with a downright dirty laugh.) Like Maggie Smith and Glenda Jackson, she is more believable in a role with a backbone; and if the character has to suffer, it had better be done with emotional awareness and intellectual wit.

Strong, tragically flawed characters like Clytemnestra, Phaedra, and Lady Macbeth are more her meat, as are the smart, sophisticated, and verbally dexterous heroines of Molière and Congreve. When the National Theatre's celebrated modern-dress production of The Misanthrope came to New York with Alec McCowen as Alceste and Rigg as Célimène, no less a critic than Robert Brustein expressed astonishment at the actress's ability to turn the beautiful but shallow coquette into "the most complicated character in this production." As for modern playwrights, Rigg has a natural affinity for the brainy banter of Tom Stoppard, winning praise for her verbal pyrotechnics in Jumpers and Night and Day.

Her strength of character is evident off stage, too. When she complained that her monologues on Mystery! sounded too lightweight and too Americanized, a new writer was assigned to create them.

In 1979 Diana Rigg appeared on the cover of Time, annointed Britain's Best Actress. During her marriage to Archie Stirling and especially following the birth of their daughter, Rachael, now 13, Rigg spent far less time at her career. There were many television appearances but little film and less stage work, which took too much time from her family life. When she did go back to the stage in 1987 it was to make her debut in musical theater - typically, in a work of brittle wit and brilliant style, Stephen Sondheim's Follies. Rigg had contributed a much-admired performance to the otherwise lamentable film version of Sondheim's A Little Night Music. Impressed with her work, the composer wrote four new numbers for her to perform in the London edition of his Follies. One of these, "Ah, but Underneath," was a ladylike striptease.

In "Mother Love" Rigg plays a woman whose smothering love for her son becomes both obsessive and homicidal when she thinks he has betrayed her. Living inside such a character was unsettling, says Rigg, but not so much so that she couldn't sympathize with the woman's loneliness. "However fearsome they may be, such people do exist. And it is terrible that they exist. Can you imagine the horror of being that woman?"

Rigg's feelings about her own mother are complicated. The actress spent her early years with her parents and brother in India, where her father, an engineer, helped build the state railway. When Rigg was seven, her mother brought her back to England, put her in boarding school, and got right back on a boat for India. Rigg didn't see her mother again for 18 months, and she acknowledges the experience was traumatic. "But that was the custom in those days," she adds quickly. "I wasn't unhappy all the time, because I was forced to become independent at an early age, I developed a certain... tenacity. You may want to run straightaway to find Mother, but in my case you couldn't. So you hang in there and just get on with your life, make the most of it. I think that tenacity has stayed with me through life."

Once the family was reunited in England, Rigg began to see her mother in a different way. "She was a wonderful mother, and I loved her dearly. But she had no personal expectations and lived vicariously, very largely, through her children and her husband. When I was a child I made a secret vow: I am never going to do this to my child."

Diana Rigg has kept that vow. "I am a deeply loving mother, and Rachael and I have a very tactile and honest relationship," she says, speaking very slowly, as if one false phrase might sever the bond. "But I am not a possessive mother. A possessive mother want her child to be attached to her, to need her, to manifest the same tastes, likes, interests. To me, loving is entirely the opposite. I love Rachael's uniqueness. It absolutely astonishes and delights me how totally different she is from me - and from anyone else on earth."

Last year, at the age of 12, Rachael, too, went off to boarding school. Rigg had mixed emotions about the separation, but she felt enormous relief when her daughter declared herself independent and happy about it. "Quite out of the blue, she said to me: 'Mummy, I'll always be homesick. But I love school and I don't want to change or come home.' Now I ask you - is that not good? Is that not splendid?"

But Rigg herself has not quite adjusted to the change. "I miss Rachael," she says with real pain in her voice. "I miss such terrible things. The pad of her feet on the stairs. Coming home at the same time in the afternoon. Saying good night. Holding her. Good Christ, that is the worst - the physical privation. It is an ache. Constant. Even as I talk about it, I feel it."

Diana Rigg became a mother at 39, reversing an earlier decision not to have children. (Before meeting Rachael's father she was married briefly to the Israeli artist Menachem Gueffen, then was involved with the film and television director Philip Saville, who remained married to another woman throughout his eight-year relationship with Rigg.) When Rachael was born Rigg was so grateful for having given birth to a healthy child that she became a moving force in BLISS, a charitable organization that raises funds to put infant-life-support systems into British hospitals. A vice president of that organization, she is also active in other child-oriented charities.

Now, in addition to dealing with her daughter's absence, Diana Rigg is coming to terms with the end of her 15-year relationship with her husband. She seems remarkably free of bitterness - not exactly jolly but irreverently amused by the situation. "When life has been generous to you, as it has been to me," she says, "then it is easier to avoid being crabbit - that's a Scottish word meaning 'small-minded' - about anything. It's too defeating. Laugh about it, for God's sake. Have a philosophy about it. My whole philosophy has been anti-crabbit."

With that, she laughs, lifts her chin, and raises her glass in a mocking salute.

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