As Diana Rigg, the finest Lady Macbeth and the unforgettable Mrs Peel, returns to the West End stage, she reveals that she has no desire to be understood.
In the corner of the saloon bar Diana Rigg is looking distinctly nervous. Her stiletto-thin fingers are crushing a tissue into a tiny ball, while her magnificent brown eyes are scanning the other tables like radar beacons - to warn her about intruders. It is as if she would like to disappear into the woodwork.
Not that it is all that easy to disguise that main of auburn hair, or the glacial look that made her one of the finest Lady MacBeths of this, or any other, generation - an icy Rigg stare could still shatter a glass at 50 paces. It is just that she prefers to inhabit her own private world. The slightly distant courtesy with which she greets strangers is the mask that she has chosen to hide behind. When it drops for a moment the real, edgy Diana Rigg peers out warily.
Looking across the saloon bar table she suddenly confides: 'The one thing I hate is crowds of people standing there looking at me.' She pauses for a moment, then whispers, 'My face turns to stone.' And as she says it her magnificent cheek bones rise like the drawbridge of a castle, and she retires back to her corner.
No matter how regally confident she may seem, the actress once hailed as 'among the finest to ever grace the Royal Shakespeare Company' and who went on to become the black leather Emma Peel in The Avengers, has never been quite the ice queen that some of her parts may have suggested. Hard she may have acted, but the iron mask concealed a glass chin and a soft, even naive, heart.
'I've played the game of presenting myself - too well sometimes - and I've assumed the role because that is what is expected of me.' It has not been easy. 'I have measured the distance between my persona and myself.' And she has taken refuge from a prying world in a well-protected private life and a highly polished image. The make-up is immaculately applied, the telling lines of her 48 years carefully concealed. But while other actresses may delight in revealing everything about themselves, Diana Rigg does not care to.
She knows the potential for torment in every public appearance - whether on stage or in the local public house; what she calls her 'chequered' career has taught her that much. On the surface she has laughed off the failures, but the wounds have been deep. She recalls every brutal critic's remark about her work, as well as the details of every flop - the American television series that bit the dust, the Broadway musical that folded in Denver, the movies that might have made her a star, but somehow never did. They have made her wary. 'Let us say that I have become a little more careful,' she says.
Nevertheless, the divine Rigg, whom Bernard Levin once called 'a force of nature', is about to expose herself to public examination again. This weeks she opens in a new play in the West End called Wildfire, written by Richard Nash, the author of The Rainmaker. Inevitably, she plays a sophisticated career woman arrested for arson and the murder of her father, who is cross-examined by a young psychiatrist. The plot revolves around whether she is sane or not. Is she concealing a dark secret? Once again the tortured passion that she has always seemed capable of revealing will smoulder to the surface on the London stage. It is not before time.
Apart for a very brief appearance in 1983, it is eight years since Diana Rigg graced the West End. Then she won an award for her performance as the diplomat's wife Ruth Carson in Tom Stoppard's play Night and Day. But since then there has been a silence.
'I have been looking for a new play almost all the time since, because a new play is quite different,' she says. 'It comes without any attachments. It's clean for you.'
There were moments in the intervening years when she put herself into what she calls 'semi-retirement' to wait for the right project. So now her professional reputation is riding on Wildfire. She has no wish to make a mistake.
Diana Rigg remembers all too clearly the harsh things that have been said about her. Never someone to flinch from the truth, she even collected her worst reviews, along with those of her many fellow actors, and published them in a book in 1982, No Turn Unstoned.
Diana Rigg has always preferred to maintain her dignity, even in the face of pain. 'I don't want to be understood,' she says. 'I understand myself. There is no particular light that I wish to be seen in. Whatever misonceptions people have of me, to a certain extent I might have perpetrated them myself. And to a certain extent people draw their own conclusions regardless.'
But there is another reason why she retreated from the world of plays and players over these past years. Her only child, a daughter Rachael, was born a little over 9 years ago. The experience changed her life. 'The career woman having talked hypothetically about having children suddenly had one,' she says carefully. 'And, the one thing that you least expect, something that gave you prfound satisfaction - acting - is supplanted. Thereafter vast portions of what have been most of your life changed.' Diana Rigg hesitates again, and then says firmly, 'for the better'.
By the time her daughter was born, the career of the girl born in Doncaster in July 1938, the only daughter of a father who worked for the Rajputana railway in British India, and who got herself a place at RADA in 1957 without 'really any concept of what the theatre was about', looked as though it was in danger of not quite fulfilling its promise - especially in the cinema, 'where everything had looked so bright'.
Diana Rigg's six years with the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1959, which eventually led her to television as the athletic and unforgettable Mrs Peel in The Avengers in 1965, were never quite converted into stardom in the cinema. 'In those days television was the bastard child. You were neither a film actor nor a stage actor. Everything has changed since then.' Films like The Assassination Bureau with Oliver Reed in 1968 did not make her a star, any more than the Bond epic On Her Majesty's Secret Service did a year later - she got George Lazenby rather than Sean Connery as Bond. The harder she tried, the less successful her film career seemed to become.
'I suppose the thing I regret most is that I never really cracked films,' she admits now. 'I never quite seemed to get it right.' Paddy Chayefsky's Oscar winner The Hospital, in which she starred alongside George C. Scott in 1971, threatened to do the trick, but didn't: and neither did Theatre of Blood with Vincent Price in 1973, or A Little Night Music with Elizabeth Taylor in 1977. Slowly the stardom that everyone had predicted slipped away. The disaster was compounded by the failure of an American television series especially built around her, called Diana.
The stage provided her salvation. In 1970 she returned to London to play the sensuous Heloise opposite Keith Michell's Abelard. And in 1972 she joined the National Theatre to play the part of Dottie in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers, and Lady Macbeth. Speaking verse has always been one of her greatest strengths. 'To me theatre was poetry,' she says. 'I can remember actually being high on words.'
But there were other disappointments in her career. In 1982 a musical based on the life of the French novelist Colette, and aimed at Broadway, folded in Denver before it got withing sigh of New York. Significantly, the day after it closed she confirmed her retirement into the safety of a private world. She married for the second time, Archie Stirling, son of Colonel Bill Stirling, who owns 50,000 acres of Perthshire and who was also the father of her daughter Rachael, who was then four years old. Her first marriage to Israeli artist Menachem Gueffen had ended in divorce.
Diana Rigg now divides her time between their London and Scottish homes, but gradually she has begun to work again. 'I'll work till the end of my days,' she vows. 'I just hope somebody will want me to.' But she is determined now to bring the taste to her career that may have been partly lacking in the past. She and her husband have decided against having another child, and he is clearly taking a careful interest in her work. He is one of the co-producers of Wildfire, 'though he got involved later than I did'. But even after a day's rehearsal for the new play she still says, 'The excitement of a new play is slightly tempered by "Will I be home by bedtime?", and all those other domestic considerations, like if it runs, "What will happen in the holidays?"...'
With her fingers entwined in the strap of her handbag, she pauses again, then says in a rush, 'It's the one part you never get a second stab at. It's gone before you realise it.' It takes a moment to realise that she means motherhood. Almost before you do her eyes go back to scanning the bar again for strangers.