Exploring the mystery of human genitals with Dame Diana Rigg is like being privy to Miss Marple’s case-notes on sex. “I’ve learnt so much,” marvels Rigg in that gloriously fruity voice. “I had no idea there was such a big trade in men . . . MEN,” she booms, “who grow bosoms, and keep their penises.” Her eyebrows arch in wonder. There is a polite pause as we think of men with large breasts in Kevin Spacey’s cramped office at the Old Vic, where she will appear in an adaptation of Pedro Almodóvar’s film All About My Mother. “I vaguely assumed people were born hermaphrodite,” muses Rigg. She reaches a freckled hand into a lumpy bag and fishes out a packet of cigarettes. “I didn’t know they deliberately chose to be like that,” she shrugs, sinking into Kevin’s casting couch in a puff of blue smoke.
It is, of course, strictly forbidden to spark up in any theatre unless you’re very, very grand.
“Ah, the wine. Thank God,” trumpets Dame D, as a cold bottle of pinot grigio makes a welcome landing on the Perspex table in front of us. The venerable aristocrat has just finished a draining rehearsal, and she’s in surprisingly jolly form. I was expecting Rigg in full armour. But age has defrosted the famous froideur, and time has softened her face. I barely recognise the glacial actress I interviewed 14 years ago for her terrifying turn as Medea. In fact I barely recognise her at all. The neat bob of hair has been dyed a fashionable shade of EastEnders blonde. The baggy jumper, jeans, and scuffed trainers are perfect uniform for the launderette.
Rigg’s crash course in gender-bending is the fault of Almodóvar. She has cornered a terrific part in an adaptation of his 1999 Oscar-winning hit. She plays Huma Rojo, a Spanish diva at the crumbly end of a forgotten career who is infatuated with a young female co-star in a creaky touring production of A Street-car Named Desire.
“Oh, I can’t tell you the sheer joy of being able to play Blanche Dubois at my age,” purrs Rigg. “A little late perhaps . . . but better than never.”
The diva befriends a devastated mother whose teenage son is flattened by a lorry after watching the actress perform on stage. The play is obsessed with the many different ways women tend to mother one another through good times and bad.
“That’s why the title is so appropriate,” Rigg says. “ All About My Mother is a kaleidoscope of women, whatever form they decide to take. If it happens to be a ‘fella’ who decides he’s a woman – even though he’s got a penis – so be it. The play is about acceptance. It’s about outsiders.” Does Rigg regard herself as an outsider? “Oh yeah. Very much so. I don’t mean to be, but I am. I was born an outsider.”
Spending her formative years in India might have had something to do with it. Rigg was actually born in Doncaster in 1938, the daughter of an engineer, Louis, who answered an advert in The Times in 1925 for railway engineers to work in India. His wife made a brief sojourn back to England for the birth. When Rigg was shipped back to gloomy Yorkshire and boarding school in 1945, she felt like a fish out of water. But by 1959 she was an aspiring actress at the RSC, and then a leading member of Olivier’s National Theatre company at the Old Vic.
Rigg’s beauty put her beyond the reach of mere mortals. She was theatrical Viagra for critics who recall her taking her clothes off in Abelard and Héloďse, and Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers. Most of her tabloid fans remember her as Emma Peel in that classic series, The Avengers. Once a week, her alter ego reduced grown men to dribbling schoolboys. Her karate chops and spray-on catsuit were a lethal mix.
“That stuff is still around,” she sighs. “It’s all over the place on the internet. Apparently I’m used as a screensaver. I’m also a mouse pad. How low can one get? You are looking at a mouse pad,” she splutters.
All About My Motheris Rigg’s most savoury challenge since the glory days of Peel, and the actress is all too aware of the irony. She is slightly nervous about how audiences will respond to the sex talk and kinky twists. Almodóvar is a shameless iconoclast. Indeed, the Spaniard’s early experiments in the 1970s were dangerous tickets when Franco was still at large and homosexuality was a criminal offence.
“I don’t think the word ‘wholesome’ can be usefully applied to the play,” agrees Rigg. “For me, the real acid test is whether Almodóvar will give us his seal of approval. Almodóvar’s films are deeply rooted in his country’s spicy idioms. The West End show will stand or fall on how well Tom Cairns (the director) and Samuel Adamson (the playwright) render these in English.”
It took a marathon campaign to secure Almodóvar’s cooperation. The precocious punk has defied every effort to turn his films into plays for more than 20 years. The West End opening will be the final act in an historic deal.
“It’s great to be in something new and utterly experimental,” she says. How many actresses of my age are invited to do plays like this? Normally we’re tossed some creaky classic.”
This sounds a little disingenuous, especially to those of us who adore Rigg for her impressive collection of – as one broadsheet journalist gently put it – “menopausal crazies”.
“Menopausal crazies?” The temperature in Spacey’s office drops ten degrees. “I’ll have to go home and think about that one,” she puzzles. “What crazies have I played recently? Ahhh,” she suddenly beams. “Mrs Danvers was definitely a menopausal crazy.” We are back at room temperature. Rigg is referring to the repressed and vengeful lesbian she once played in a gripping television adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. I can think of memorable others: Racine’s Phčdre, Brecht’s Mother Courage, mad Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and a murderous mother-in-law in the mini-series Mother Love. But only a fool would tamper with the fuse to Rigg’s highly explosive temper. “It’s formidable,” she agrees. “FORMIDABLE. I go nuts with people who think they know everything about me. In fact my idea of hell is talking to someone who’s done a great deal of research on me. It invariably means they’ve read a lot of rubbish based on other people’s theories of the kind of person I am.”
But it’s impossible to erase Medea, which many regard as the outstanding performance of Rigg’s career. She was a profound sensation in Jonathan Kent’s blood-red production at the Almeida in 1993. “I knew then I had further to go and more to give,” Rigg says. “I look back on that show as the happiest time of my professional career because it started so modestly and ended up as a sell-out on Broadway.” One suspects the personal cost was very different. The trauma of spilling her guts every night as a vengeful wife who kills her estranged husband’s children must have been unimaginably tough. Rigg’s own wounds after separating from her second husband and man-about-town, Archie Stirling – father of their glamorous daughter, Rachael Stirling – were still relatively fresh.
“I didn’t have a social life,” concedes the actress. “It was pathetic. I was Norman No-Mates. I couldn’t do anything. I was shattered.”
But Rigg doesn’t do self-pity, twittering English tea ladies, or Hollywood for that matter. I wonder if she regrets not doing a Sean Connery or Michael Caine? “Oh God no! I’d be a basket case by now.”
And she would almost certainly have never discovered duende. “It’s a Spanish word which I don’t think has any equivalent in English,” says Rigg. We would probably describe it as ‘passion’ but it’s not the same thing.” For a second she is at a loss for words, then she slowly rises from the sofa. “ Duende,” she rumbles, “is an energy you draw up from the earth.”
The moment is worthy of Marcel Marceau. Dame Diana heaves on invisible ropes, as the power of duende surges through Kevin Spacey’s new grey carpet, towards her buckling knees, up her arms and into her shoulder blades. It’s a talent shared by very few of her peers. When did Dame Diana discover this gift?
“I had duende in Medea,” says Rigg. “When you become aware it exists, it’s something you aim for in every performance. Spanish audiences measure everything by the quality of duende – be it flamenco, bullfights, or theatre. It’s a magical thing because you don’t know where it comes from, yet it completely takes you over.”
Rigg is worried that Almodóvar might not see enough duende at the Old Vic. That he might find an English cast too bloodless. As we trip down the stone stairwell towards the stage door, I can’t help thinking he’s in for a mighty surprise. Not a single passer-by throws Dame Diana a second glance as she trundles down the street. They wouldn’t dare. After 50 years in this barmy business, that’s exactly how she likes it.