Filler Fishing For Father

Lynn Redgrave Casts The Net Of Memory Around Her Famous Shakespearean-Actor Dad.
By Margaret Regan

LYNN REDGRAVE GREW up in England, the youngest of the three children of the famous acting couple Sir Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson. Immersed though they were in a theatre world peopled by such illuminati as Noël Coward and Sir Laurence Olivier, Lynn and her sister Vanessa and brother Corin didn't necessarily spend that much time with their parents.

"My father was already a big star, with a big house," Redgrave recollected in a phone interview last week from Phoenix, where she was playing in her one-woman show Shakespeare for My Father.

"We did not have breakfast, lunch and tea with my parents: We had them in the nursery with my nanny. It was my nanny who took me to school and so on. Having reached that level of fame and fortune, that's the way we lived."

The Redgraves' upbringing was by no means unusual for upper-class English children a generation or more ago (Lynn Redgrave was born in 1943). But for the smallest Redgrave, the formidable persona of her father, one of Britain's greatest Shakespearean actors, exacted a double burden.

"I was afraid of him, in awe of him. He was not just distant, or busy, the kind of father who buries himself in the newspaper. He just vanished behind a face without expression. You'd read into it an expression that might be there. You read the worst. As a child, as children do, I thought it was all about me."

That problematic relationship with her father, who died in 1985, eventually led to the writing of Redgrave's first play, Shakespeare for My Father. It's in Tucson this week as a presentation of The Arizona Theatre Company. At its most basic, the critically acclaimed work charts the daughter's search for the father, but takes the unusual step of weaving scenes from the Bard in with reminiscences about Redgrave's father and her humorous impressions of the famous theatre folk that orbited around the family.

Originally, the author was trying to make Shakespeare "user-friendly--it is accessible," but as she dug deeper into her psyche she found that the Shakespearean scenes and characters illuminated critical emotional scenes from her own life. She's included Cordelia and King Lear, of course, characters we would expect in this dissection of a troubled father-daughter relationship, as well as many others that are not so expected.

"For instance, I'm being myself and my nanny, and then I'm Juliet and her nanny (from Romeo and Juliet). It's an easy jump. Sometimes I take Shakespeare's words and use them in my own context."

Image A Shakespearean actress in her own right who over the years has played Portia, Helena, Viola and "four or five others," Redgrave has included scenes in her play from King Lear, Richard II, Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice and A Winter's Tale. Sometimes in the play, Redgrave recites Shakespeare along with her father's recorded voice (Michael Redgrave's presence is marked on the stage by a large Cecil Beaton photograph of him as Marc Antony). Lynn Redgrave's Shakespeare, her father might be proud to know, was deemed by New Yorker critic Edith Oliver "better than any we've heard in years."

And it was Shakespeare, not so incidentally, that led to the creation of the play in the first place.

"I thought about it (our relationship) a lot for a few years after his death, seeking resolution. Maybe there was a story in it. I might not have done it--I had not written a play before--if the Folger Shakespeare Library hadn't asked me to do an Evening with Lynn Redgrave. They wanted me to read some of my favorite Shakespeare and talk a little bit about my father and grandfather (also an actor). I thought, 'Maybe I could write a little play.' If it didn't work out, I could still read to them."

Redgrave did write "a little play," a one-act work that so moved the Folger Shakespeareans that more than one came up to Redgrave afterward to declare: "That was me and my father."

The little play eventually evolved into a full two acts. Directed by Redgrave's husband, John Clark, it played on Broadway for nine months in 1993, beguiling the New York critics and winning the Outer Critics Circle Award and the Elliott Norton Best Actress Award for Redgrave. If Redgrave, whose career in adult life has been somewhat overshadowed by that of her famous sister, Vanessa, was surprised and delighted by the success of the work, she said she was even more grateful that it meant so much to others. She swears that New York psychologists "regularly sent their family-therapy patients to see it.

"To find that the play speaks to others was the nicest surprise," she said. "I had a lovely letter from a woman in Phoenix the other day who said that it was a 'squeeze around her heart.' She began to think about her own dead father and realized she was looking at herself. It released something in herself."

Redgrave's own family, including mother Rachel, now 87, and Vanessa, both worried that it might be "too personal," but found it otherwise. "They loved it," Redgrave reported. "What they hadn't realized was how I felt about him. It was quite a revelation. I'm not telling their story, though my story criss-crosses theirs."

But Redgrave, who describes herself as a positive person, doesn't enact a Daddy Dearest revenge on the father who didn't even note her birth in his daily journal. "Instead of resenting him for what he wasn't, she appreciates him for what he was," wrote the normally hard-hearted New York critic John Simon. "In so doing, she displays a great generosity of spirit."

As Redgrave herself put it: "I look at the relationship, confront it and turn it and put it to good use, instead of burying it in the English stiff-upper-lip way...I sent out a great fishing net, and it allowed me to bring it all together."

Shakespeare for My Father, a presentation of the Arizona Theatre Company, continues through Sunday, June 30, at The Temple Of Music And Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 to $35, with discounts for students, seniors and members of the military. For more information or for reservations call 622-2823. To charge tickets through Dillard's call 1-800-638-4253. TW

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