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Old Interview #15 – A Very Special Sisterhood

The Observer

December 9 1990

Review: A very special sisterhood – The Redgraves are a theatrical legend. The latest episode in their remarkable story is a new production of Three Sisters in which the title roles are played by the sisters Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave and their niece Jemma.

BYLINE: KATE KELLAWAY

SECTION: Pg. 43

LENGTH: 2889 words

SIR Michael Redgrave loved Chekhov’s Three Sisters. He said it had an ‘authentic thrill.’ How gratified he would be, if he were still alive, to see his two daughters Vanessa and Lynn on stage for the first time together and to see his grandaughter, Jemma, who in Robert Sturua’s production opening in London this week, shines out a new Redgrave star. Together, the three actresses two sisters and a niece are an overpowering combination. They are uncommonly tall, each has presence but it is Vanessa who, although she talks far less than Lynn, commands attention right from the start. She is one of the greatest actresses alive and one of the most difficult to interview.

She requires interviewers to sign a contract before meeting her, agreeing not to ask about ‘non-professional matters.’ She also asks to check copy before it goes to press.

She expresses distaste for talk of ‘personalities’. To ask her about family arguments is to contravene her contract. She lets it be known that she has more important things to do in life than discuss family rows. Any attempt to ask about her relationship with Lynn provokes rolling of eyes.

‘Vanessa is great on gravity,’ Michael Redgrave once wrote, adding the warning: ‘Gravity can be mistaken for severity.’ It’s still easy to make the mistake. At 53, Vanessa has made of herself a garrison; even her haircut is fierce although her beauty is not defeated by it. There’s more than a suggestion of Virginia Woolf about her. Her stare is spectral, her smile a relief. Michael Redgrave described it as ‘joyous’ and it is.
She mentions her father once to tell of the first advice he gave her as an actress, which she has tried to follow ever since. ‘I remember the first thing my father ever told me when I worked with him. I went home one night. He said: Did you enjoy today’s rehearsal? I said: No, I didn’t enjoy it at all. He said: Yes and you let everyone know it. Oh, I shouldn’t have then? and he said: No, you certainly should not, and I said: But the thing is, you see, I don’t think my character would feel like that I wouldn’t feel like that and he said: Excuse me, but it’s not a question of whether you’d feel like that; it’s a question of your character feeling like that. Get it straight.’

It’s a little story but it reveals the two most important things about Vanessa: her single-minded dedication to work to getting it straight; and her professional lack of self-importance. She has a studied humility, the rigour of her outlook on life curiously contrasted by her self-effacement.

She compares Chekhov’s writing to a musical score and says, ‘I am like a musician I only wish I was a musician I’m not.’ The character, Olga, is her instrument: ‘I don’t have to worry about whether this is my Olga; of course she is my Olga. I’m playing her.’ When she plays the Olga ‘conducted’ by Robert Sturua, ‘all I surrender is my ignorance.’ It is the ability to give herself up to a part that makes her such a compelling actress to watch: she, quite simply, becomes someone else on stage.

When she speaks she does not hurry, or emphasise anything unduly. There’s little excitement but the pace gives every word weight and deliberation. Even when talking about her character Vanessa puts the work before the personality. Olga is the eldest of the three sisters a tired, disappointed, unmarried schoolteacher whose idealism has been tarnished by experience. If Olga is the teacher, then Vanessa has become the pupil, reading about the Russian education system of 1901, learning about the reasons why Olga would not want to become a headmistress.

Vanessa does not find any of her parts depressing to play and she talks positively about Chekhov’s characters: ‘I don’t think any of them are depressing, either for the actors or for the audience.’ You could say she has more charity than critical edge. When asked, in a recent Kaleidoscope interview, if the sisters would be happy if they ever got to Moscow, as they long to do, she unhesitatingly and likeably answered, ‘Oh yes.’

The word ‘work’ appears and reappears like a repeated footprint in her conversation. ‘Chekhov is not one-sided in his work. He shows that human beings are not trapped and fixed for all time, however outrageous their circumstances ..they can change. That’s how he sees life. He’s not an optimist, nor a pessimist, he sees things as they are.’

Vanessa is bowled over as all three Redgraves are by their director Robert Sturua, of the Rustaveli Theatre from Georgia in the Soviet Union. He is quite unlike contemporary British directors. She likens his method to Tyrone Guthrie’s. When Guthrie directed All’s Well with Dame Edith Evans, he ‘choreographed physically every single moment of the whole and of the individual parts. He told every actor the rhythm they had to play a speech at. He did not make an exception for Dame Edith.’

It was always obvious that Vanessa would become an actress. On the night she was born Lawrence Olivier announced to the audience at the Old Vic: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, tonight a great actress has been born.’

Lynn

NOBODY welcomed Lynn into the world with a helpful label and for a long time she did not know who or what to be. Corin and Vanessa remember Lynn, as a child, calling out: ‘Wait for me!’ The Lynn of those days was a drag. Six years younger than her sister she was ‘a plump little dumpling’ (her father’s description). She was also desperately shy. graceful, willowy and talkative (an active promoter of Weight Watchers) Lynn has no need to call out ‘Wait!’ If Vanessa is a garrison, Lynn is an open house: she is an articulate speaker and a feminist heroine in the United States. It has been said that her eloquence is the result of years in California appearing on chat shows. But this is to undervalue Lynn’s intelligence and imagination.

If Rossetti saw her, he would kidnap her. Her hair is a pile of copper curls. Lynn plays Masha the only sister to experience romantic love. Once, Vanessa and Lynn would have fought for the part. But there was no argument when they met for supper to discuss it. It was the first supper they had ever had on their own together which suggests, whether by choice or chance, that they can never have been close. Vanessa said: ‘I’ll be Olga, you can be Masha.’

Yet as a child Lynn idealised Vanessa and it seems, at least when she talks about their past, that she still does.

Vanessa was a ‘wonderful sister’ who made her childhood ‘heavenly’, who ‘looked like Tenniel’s Alice only prettier’, entertaining her with puppets, decorating the doll’s house or inventing stories for her. Lynn’s first memory is of a longing to go into Vanessa’s bedroom in their house in Chiswick.

‘I always wanted to go into her room ..there was a little platform in it which was exactly like a stage. It was full of treasures, books and illustrations she was a very good artist, she drew beautifully. I would try and copy her.’

Vanessa was trained to be a ballet dancer until she grew too tall while Lynn, as so many girls do, turned into a horse. At 11, she was given a pony by her godmother which she kept on Wimbledon Common. She rode all the time and dreamed of the Olympics. Lynn remembers she and Vanessa both had long plaits which were cut at the same time. They persuaded their mother, unwilling Rachel Kempson, to let them go to ‘a sordid hairdresser in Hammersmith’.

Vanessa, Lynn and Jemma all felt as children: life must get better as we grow up and they agree that it did.

Lynn says that she and her eldest daughter Kelly, now at drama school in England, had the same problem. Kelly’s teacher summed it up, saying to Lynn: ‘Your daughter is no good at being a child. She is just not cut out for it.’

Lynn lives in California with her husband, the director John Clark with whom she has three children. Her CV is a dizzying assortment of jobs classical and commercial. She has two children in their twenties Benjie and Kelly, and Annabel, who is eight. Lynn has invented a marvellous entertainment for Annabel while they are apart. They send each other postcards which tell a story; each card adds a sequel and the contents are suggested by the pictures on the cards. Lynn has dreamt up a character called Lucia who is searching for ‘three lost sisters’. Let’s hope they turn up before the first night.

Lynn plays Masha as a potentially suicidal rebel, but with a strong ‘life force’. ‘Life force’ is a phrase which Lynn uses more than once and a quality she has in abundance. She says that acting with family is quite unlike acting with anyone else. ‘There are some extremely famous actors I’ve acted with some of them but when you look into their eyes, there ain’t nobody home. They fool everybo dy.’ Lynn says that the family feeling has to do with ‘the look in the eye, the touch of skin on skin’, the sense of ‘looking into the soul’ of the other. It has to do also with shared memories and recognition.

She says that in their production they believe that though the three sisters are depressed, they are not (as is the case in most productions) lethargic or apathetic. ‘We are desperately trying to cheer ourselves up. No one is sitting around saying, God, I’m depressed. When we’re sad, we’re furious that we’re sad.’

Three Sisters is like a calendar in which the sense of time passing is so concentrated that it often seems as though mortality were being measured in a minute. But the three sisters find it hard to live in the present. Lynn says it’s hard but necessary.

‘I’ve changed my feelings over the years. I suspect it is to do with ageing. One summer, my parents rented a place in Portofino. It was the most extraordinary, exquisitely beautiful place. My father was in a rather expansive frame of mind which was not his mode. Expansion was not something he played very well.

‘Every day we did fabulous things in Portofino. We would take a boat, go and fish, we’d eat marvellous Italian food. I had been offered my first job as a student ASM, working on John Dexter’s production of The Kitchen, earning pounds 1 a day and I was looking forward to it so much that every single second I was wishing away and I hated myself for it; I willed my life away. I remember crying to my mother about it. I was only 18. I knew that I was doing it and I knew that it was wrong.

‘Now, at the grand old age of 47, having had three children, it has even changed my attitude towards them. Because I had Annabel in my late thirties, I was already able to view mortality a bit and because birth always reminds us of death I suddenly found myself saying when my third child arrived: I want to hang on to every second, I want fully to experience every second.’

She is no longer capable of sleeping in in the morning as she once did: ‘I dread missing something, I have a real sense of time running out.’

Does she feel, as Vershinin says, that if we could have our lives over again we would live them differently? Lynn would prefer to think that the mistakes were worth experiencing: ‘In our profession, we are open to great disasters as well as successes and mediocre in-betweens. I have had these terrible days, I’ve had these disasters. I’ve been told my acting is appalling and it’s all frightful but I will rise again. After the disasters I can say, like Stephen Sondheim, I’m still here.’

Lynn believes that Jemma, the third sister, rounds off their circle perfectly. If Irina had been played by Vanessa’s daughters or her own there would have been an imbalance.

Besides, ‘Jemma is fabulous. I’ve adored her since childhood. I don’t think of her as my niece. I said to her the other day,’ (this with a trace of melancholy) ‘Do you think of me as your aunt? I feel she’s like the sister I never had, my little sister. Although there is nothing about Jemma that’s little. I don’t mean size-wise. I mean in character.’

Jemma

TWO DAYS before opening as Irina in the West End, Jemma Redgrave looks calm. She stands in the kitchen of her Kilburn flat, which she shares with her boyfriend, talking as she slices up a marzipan cake, makes tea and sets the table under a big window looking out on to a winter view. Her boyfriend is not in evidence: ‘He’s mending the bed,’ she says disarmingly. She’s dressed in black. Chekhov would approve, though he might be surprised by her jaunty shorts. Jemma is 25 but looks younger. Her manner is robust, her laugh delightfully hearty. She wears no make-up; her open face matches her forthright character. Like Lynn, she is a free and bold talker. She volunteers for example that her private life is ‘increasingly happy’.

Last August, at one o’clock in the morning, Vanessa phoned Jemma from France. Jemma was sure something terrible must have happened. ‘How are you?’ Vanessa said. For God’s sake, tell me the worst, Jemma thought. ‘Would you like to play Irina?’ Vanessa eventually asked.

Jemma stayed awake until four in the morning: ‘I drew a fear chart listing all the things I was frightened of and then arguing against them one by one. Could I act beside Lynn and Vanessa? Was I good enough? Would being part of the family be a problem?’

Jemma’s grandmother Rachel Kempson is still acting at 80; so is her father Corin. When asked about the Redgrave sense of humour, Jemma says that she and her father have a sort of private sign language.

When Jemma was five, Rachel took her to see Peter Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Jemma adored the white set, the swing, the feather that was Titania’s transport. As a result, in spite of indifferent teaching at school, ‘I was never scared of Shakespeare.’

At 10 or 11, she knew that she wanted to be an actress. Most 10-year-olds don’t suffer from self-doubt but she was in a flap: ‘I remember eating nut brittles from the sweet shop near our mansion flat in Earl’s Court and crying out, I want to be an actress but maybe I won’t be any good.’

In spite of her outer composure, her unconscious is still crying out. She wakes in the middle of the night shouting and says that she has been having recurrent nightmares featuring severed limbs ‘the style is somewhere between Macbeth and David Lynch.’ She dreams that she has forgotten her lines.

But the fear of acting with her two aunts has proved baseless. She knows Vanessa well and is devoted to her she lived for a year in her house between school and drama school. Lynn she knows less well, although like Lynn feels she has acquired a sister (Jemma has three brothers).

Jemma realised, in a flash, that there is a practical way in which family counts, a closeness that makes acting with your family quite unlike acting with anyone else. Once, during rehearsal Vanessa put an arm round her, and she found herself crying. What she felt was, literally, familiarity.

Although part of the Redgrave clan, she remembers Michael Redgrave, her grandfather, as ‘a mystery’. She used to go and stay with him and Rachel in the country. But while she was growing up, he was already ill with Parkinson’s Disease. ‘Although I think he liked his grandchildren, he preferred them to be in another room. But he liked to hear our voices and I remember his voice. I loved it it was very deep, always on the break.’

Jemma’s voice is deep and unpredictable. She falters sometimes as she speaks, her long fair hair, which she has to curl every night for Irina, hangs down one shoulder.

In a very Chekhovian fashion, she addresses no one directly as she says: ‘More and more I identify with Irina. I feel her getting under my skin. I remember, when I was 16, feeling as she does that I suddenly understood the world. Of course that is to do with youthfulness. It’s a cliche that the older we get, the less certain everything seems. I absolutely identify with her longings especially the longing to work.’

Jemma was out of work for six months and does not know how she endured it. She bangs her fist on the table: ‘You’re not an actress when you’re not acting. You can paint on your own, you can write on your own but you can’t act. You can be a waitress. I’ve done all that clothes shops, hamburger joints. But acting is the way I express myself. And it’s much easier to organise and control your life when you are working. There is nothing worse than having too much time.’

In Three Sisters, Jemma says it is the failure to act, the crime of passivity that their production aims to bring out. ‘Why did no one prevent the duel? Everyone must have known the baron would be hurt.’ Sturua, she explains, wants audiences to remember that since Three Sisters was written we have seen the Second World War, Vietnam, Pol Pot he wants us to be ashamed.

Jemma pulls down a red notebook from the top of a cupboard in order to read out some of the things Sturua said on the first day of rehearsal. She pores over her tiny blue Biro script: ‘He said that the play is a cemetery of talent I can’t forget that. He said: Everything begins with our attitude ..Pain reveals complexity ..Why is this wonderful world perishing? What is happening to us? ..The tragedy is that I will still do what I should not be doing.’

Who is he talking about there? ‘Oh,’ says Jemma, surprised, ‘everyone.’

‘Three Sisters’ is at the Queen’s Theatre, London, from 12 December until 2 March 1991.