Tackling roles in works as diverse as Bond films and Medea with equal artistry, Diana Rigg is the consummate actress, says Benedict Nightingale.
Here is a quiz question for a sleepy Saturday. Which Dame of the British Empire and Chancellor of the University of Stirling was proclaimed one of the 20th century's 100 sexiest women by Playboy magazine? Just to add to your sense of disorientation I will give you a confusing clue. The lady once appeared naked in a stage version of the Abelard and Heloise story and was described by a critic as "built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses".
The answer to the conundrum is Diana Rigg, surely one of our most contradictory actresses. She was the only Bond girl who actually married the world's most famous spy. At the age of 63 she can still turn a male head. And she has recently specialised in playing what she calls "mad or embittered old bats", the latest of them Simon Russell Beale's cranky mother in the play now previewing at the National Theatre in London, Charlotte Jones's Humble Boy.
Dame Diana spent her earliest years in British India, where her father worked as an engineer. Then it was back to Yorkshire, a conventional schooling and, much against family tradition, RADA. Soon she was playing roles at the RSC and winning plaudits from everyone from Laurence Olivier ("a brilliantly skilled and delicious actress") to Peter Brook, who feared that she would be sucked into a movie career.
That has never happened, despite her intimacy with 007 in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). But the national fame she won in the mid-Sixties as the cool, leather-clad Emma Peel in The Avengers could indeed have pushed her up a fake- glamorous cul-de-sac. It says much for the fundamental seriousness beneath her stylish, humorous, unpretentious surface that she did not let that happen. She played Lady Macbeth for the RSC. She was a glorious Celimene in Moliere's Le Misanthrope and Michael Horden's wayward wife in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers, both for the National in the Seventies.
But her marriage to Archie Stirling, whom she divorced in 1990 after he became involved with Joely Richardson, checked her career. She spent much of the Eighties being the laird's wife in Scotland and bringing up her daughter, with the result that the beginning of the Nineties found her feeling professionally abandoned, too: "I put up my hand and said 'adsum' and nobody wanted to know." Enter Jonathan Kent, the co-director of the Almeida in North London, who in 1991 invited her to play Cleopatra in Dryden's revamp of Shakespeare, All for Love. It was the start of a partnership that has been key to that theatre's international success, and to the maturing of the supposed sex-kitten into a DBE.
Her fierce, yet dignified, performance in the title role of Euripides' Medea won her the Evening Standard Best Actress award for 1992, and a Tony in 1994 when the production transferred to Broadway. She said later that she had allowed herself to let go and expose her darkest feelings to a degree she had not found possible before. Each night she could inwardly hear the sound of children dying as their barbarous mother murdered them offstage. Each night she found herself weeping as she played a more modern ogre, Martha, in the 1996 production of Edward Albee's portrait of a spectacularly difficult marriage, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Then came two Racine plays, Phedre and Britannicus, both for the Albery. The first, in which Rigg played the title character, gave her an opportunity to exude lovelorn rage. The second, in which she was Nero's mother, let her add a zest for power to her range. If you had seen those performances, then turned on your television and watched her deeply sinister, Emmy-winning Mrs Danvers in Rebecca in 1997, you might have concluded that Rigg was less an unbuttressed mausoleum than a haunted morgue.
But let us not forget her more recent performance as the debonaire television detective, Mrs Bradley. Rigg has wit as well as depth, a sense of fun as well as pain, and, when we last met, she told me that she longed to appear in a comedy, "maybe even a farce". Will Humble Boy allow her to express her humour as well as display her more profound skills? I have a feeling that, yes, we shall again be revising our definition of Diana.
Diana Rigg is appearing in Humble Boy at the National: Cottesloe, London SE1, until Sep 22
CV Diana Rigg
Born July 20, 1938, in Doncaster
Education Fulneck Girls' School, Pudsey; Royal Academy of Dramatic Art
Married In 1982 to Archibald Stirling, with whom she has a daughter, Rachael, who is also an actress. They were divorced in 1990
Big Break Taking over as Steed's sidekick in The Avengers in 1966
Awards Include Bafta for Best Actress, 1990, for Mother Love; Evening Standard Drama Award, 1992, Medea; Honorary Doctorates from the Universities of Stirling, 1988, and Leeds, 1992; appointed a DBE in 1998