06 February 1983: Sunday Times

Rigg's Reversal

On Monday Diana Rigg joined the board of a brand new actors company, United British Artists, and on Tuesday she picked up a best film actress award for her "two lines and a spit bit part" as a prize bitch and corpse in the Agatha Christie frivol Evil Under the Sun.

And all week she has been luring men to their distraction as Hessie Hushabye in Shaw's Heartbreak House on the stage of the Ashcroft Theatre, Croydon, on the way to the West End.

Shaw wrote Hessie as a display cabinet for Mrs Patrick Campbell, so it is a good role for Rigg (who said she now "represents something bankable but not, I'm afraid, necessarily avant-garde") to exhibit her elegant choreography of gesture - resting her chin on a man's shoulder, seplying shoulderblade, elbow, wrist, fingering her neck like pearls have been stolen; and to use That Voice.

It is a safe part, and yes, the Berkertex camel car coats and the very serious handbags out front adore her in it, and remember, "this business really depends on how much people want you and what you represent," she said.

What she wants at 45 is change, a reversal: "Most 45-year-old actresses are dying for a reversal. I simply don't want to wait for another 10 years until - like Peggy Ashcroft - someone sees in me potential for an experiment. When you've been on stage as long as I have, the cloak of safeness falls about you, and that's just when you need most, need most, for somebody to come along, some new writer or director to offer radical redirection."

All her life, which she said is unplanned and intuitive, has advanced by such bursts, interspersed with improving disasters. She was a child of British India, daughter to the works manager of the Rajputana railway, a man who read aloud so well that she nearly fell in love with the sound and feel of words, and so logically, in time, came through that passion to RADA, and rep, and Stratford, when Peter Hall was just establishing it as a University of Classical Acting.

This progression ended at 25, when she seemed set to be the next diva of the iambic pentameter. At which stage she veered off and became the public property of most of the televiewing world as Emma Peel, an Avengers heroine whose longest speech seldom exceeded 17 words.

There passed five listless years as a nearly movie star before she was redirected to, and by, the National Theatre. There she began to define, through her characters, the pattern and manners of the adult women of our time. She "cares passionately but not abrasively about women now - women who are and will get more and more interesting and intricate. Virago Press are my heroines," she said, and, in fact, the women she began to play that season 11 years ago were previously found in novels but not on the stage - women like Dottie in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers, brilliant but disintegrating, or Celimene in the Misanthrope, amoral but honest.

If there is a new tragic heroine, she will be like Rigg's Ruth Carson in Stoppard's 1978 Night and Day, who potentially could run the African state in which she lives, but instead wisecracks, fails to sew in Cash's name tapes, and seduces in dream only the play's most honourable man. She'll come to a bad end with a whiskey bottle, but not drivel or lament, and Rigg played her for months anaesthetized nightly against the back pain from a pinched sciatic nerve.

This is the Rigg house style. Her American TV debut drooped, her first filmed musical was canned and shelved, her first stage musical about her adored Colette folded even before Broadway: "the writers didn't see her quite as I did", Rigg sighed digressing into A Life of Colette, strong on footnotes and sexual references. "So early on there was always a division of intent which is always dangerous. Of course, being Americans they wanted her to be a heroine, good and manipulated from the start...she should have worked, but she didn't." When she didn't, Rigg moaned not but the very next day had finally married Archie Stirling, the father of her five-year-old daughter Rachael, and distracted herself further by publishing an anthology of vicious and bilious theatre reviews, of course including her worst, to show what good sports actors were (the Raj lives).

The next item on the agenda was the organising of the Utterly British United Artists (other props. including Maggie Smith and Glenda Jackson) to enter "the video market with well presented, well-thought-out pieces first staged for a season, then taped". The memory of good work could be retained that way and so could the revenue. Remember, she added unbitterly, the afterlife of that television series which had been showing worldwide and nonstop since she was 27, but from which she had a meagre salary and now what you would call any dividends.

The company would make part location easier. We would not now be getting her Portia or Rosalind, she was too old, however if there was anybody out there relevant listening, she was still deeply keen on Cleopatra. She would have to balance home and stage life, both of equal import, she had done her time working all hours

Consider though, she said how much better she was doing than she had forecast when young, "when I gave myself a stage lifespan of from 25 to now. I am not sure that I like the thought of decline, I've got to come to terms with that, of bodily decline. I'm not at all sure in what way to go forward into the next part of my life.: She did not want to rigidify into a one-element mask, but...No despondency!

At which point she answered the dressing room door, and a corridor whiff of Sanfect displaced the bouquets' perfumes as the municipal house staff brought her in champagne in a bucket and "a congratters card! Oh, I saaaaaaay, how sweet, goodness how nice...I'm terribly lucky. I really am...I don't deserve this kind of thing...I haven't done anything really, except plod on in life..."

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