Regrets? He's had a few

A brilliant father. Two talented sisters. Hard politics. Corin Redgrave's acting career has had its stumbling blocks. By Georgina Brown
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Corin Redgrave seems to be popping up all over, doing movies (Four Weddings and a Funeral), television (Persuasion), fringe theatre (Some Sunny Day), and now a slot at the RSC's Swan. The name inevitably gives him a visibility and a cachet greater than the parts (few) he's played or the success (late) he's found, but it's tempting to suppose he's making a comeback. Except that he never entirely disappeared. While Redgrave claims that his involvement with the Workers' Revolutionary Party made him unemployable ("I was blacklisted by the BBC for 25 years"), he usually managed a play every year ("enough for my own sense of self, and to keep in practice, and so that people didn't think I was dead"), most often at the Young Vic when David Thacker ran the show and generations of Redgraves starred singly or severally. It is said that they spent rehearsal-breaks proselytising to young actors (easy prey), who hung on every word that fell from the lips of the British theatrical aristocracy.

Corin Redgrave's most recent performance in Some Sunny Day as a diplomat sick with love for a belly-dancer surprised critics as much as it delighted them. "A high-precision account of shambolic ineptitude", "A comic tour de force", "A blend of subtle authority and self-satirising humour I had not realised was in his range", "Vibrant", they said. The Independent's Paul Taylor believes Corin is particularly good at showing the cracks beneath the mask, at suggesting the pain and compromise of a disappointed idealist. With the collapse of the WRP, one can't help supposing that Corin Redgrave must be familiar with this particular emotional hell. "I act well what I can understand and see into rather than through any identification with myself," he says, half-slithering out of the question. Moreover, he claims that it is not disillusion with politics or the WRP ("I still lecture and write") that brought him back to acting, but Gorbachev's perestroika. "Let's not go into anything so complex as whether there was such a thing as Communism in the Soviet Union - I don't believe there was - but the term was demonised and I was unwittingly demonised until Gorbachev undemonised it. The new climate removed the fears and bugbears, and in the eyes of others I was released and people began offering me work."

If you let him, Corin will rabbit on forever about the strong sense of solidarity he feels with a whole generation of actors and writers "whose careers were obliterated by practical censorship - Sam Wanamaker, John Garfield, Kim Grant. Some came back and picked up the threads of their careers. Others were snuffed out." It's all rather self-aggrandising but then Corin and Vanessa have always taken their redness much more gravely than anyone else has managed to. They have absolutely no small talk; the big talk, by contrast, is no problem at all.

Today, in shabby, floppy clothes and peering mistily through fine silver- rimmed specs into the nothingness of the middle of the room, Corin Redgrave might be a don who has wandered in from his vegetable patch. He obediently sits down and eats his sandwich, utterly - indeed oddly - unresponsive to its content or to his surroundings (Adrian Noble's office) and calmly submits to interrogation. He sits astonishingly still and avoids eye contact at all cost, providing ample time for me to stare and find lots of his father in the shape he cuts out, especially the Roman nose, and just a trace of his big sister Vanessa in the washed-out version of her famously cerulean eyes. There's a similar remoteness and absence of laughter or lightness too, but none of her awesome presence. Which perhaps explains why Vanessa has always dazzled while Corin, albeit it in his hiccupy career, has merely impressed.

Howard Davies, who is directing him in this tiny role in Richard Nelson's new play, The General from America, believes he's "a wonderful character actor who has come into his own now he's a little bit older", and perfect for the role of George Washington - "a glorious depiction of a tortured compassionate figure". He was nevertheless more than a little astonished that he took it. Washington is not required until halfway through the play and is dismissed well before the end after two brief scenes. "There's an old saying, not unfortunately as true as it should be, that parts are not determined by their size and this is one of them," says Corin drily. "It's wonderfully well written." He is preparing for it by extensive reading and a "reacquaintance with riding - Washington was the greatest horseman on his side". Moreover, he is fascinated by the play ("An investigation into what prompts a person to change sides. Very many great writers have attempted that subject and none has planted their standard on top of Everest") and confesses to a sentimental pleasure at simply being in Stratford where "the smell of Shakespeare" hangs in the air. In his eloquent memoir of his father (in which he writes with moving candour about his father's bisexuality, a matter coyly overlooked by Vanessa in her autobiography), he nostalgically recalls the summer of 1958 when Michael Redgrave was playing Hamlet and Benedick, and his mother, Rachel Kempson, was "in other plays". "The nostalgia I still feel survives despite bucketloads of commercialism and wagonloads of tourism," he says. "There's a palpable sense in which the performances of Redgrave, Gielgud, Ashcroft and Olivier, and many since them, reverberate in a place like this. I have a very living sense of the past."

It's doubtful that Redgrave, who is 56, will be joining that list (though it's always possible, of course, that like Robert Stephens, whose photograph as Lear hangs behind him, he could be suddenly championed and prove his acting powers to be at their peak). His father played Hamlet (for the third time) here when he was 50; Corin has never done it (a particular pity since he could have been an Olympic fencer which would have livened up the fight scene). "Sadly, I've left it too late," he says, though he would do it if asked. "But I shan't be unless I ask myself," and he laughs in an unamused sort of way. "That's one of the things to be said for being an actor-manager. You get to do things no one else would ask you." Last year, when he and Vanessa, under the Moving Theatre umbrella, staged a season (playing to 19 per cent houses and losing them a fortune) to celebrate 50 years since the end of Fascism, he considered casting himself as Antony to her Cleopatra. When we talk about regret, this is a rare one he admits to. "I was about to overcome the problem of a brother and sister acting a passionate relationship, which I felt might be difficult not only for the actors and the audience, when someone else stepped into the part. That's a very small regret now." Naturally he also regrets not playing more of the classical roles and that he's running out of time, but this is tricky territory as he won't admit to regretting playing politics instead. Would he do it the same way again? Pause. "Yuh." Pause. "I would." Pause. "Absolutely."

Wholly unconvincing. It's tempting to suggest that he immersed himself in politics in order to escape from the competition inevitably presented by his sister and his father. As children, Vanessa's talent (she was naturally graceful and beautiful) was nurtured by his father, while he and Lynn got no encouragement at all. "I wasn't as obviously good as Vanessa when I was young. I was physically awkward, rather small." He was also brainy, going from Westminster to Cambridge, where he got a First in English and hung out with Trevor Nunn and Ian McKellen, his stars in an adaptation of Henry VI. "I resolutely refuse to believe that one can explain an interest in politics in terms of the individual psychology - it seems to me that if politics is to be worth anything at all it's not about making a career or fulfilling yourself, it's not about doing something which is true to you or avoiding something you fear, it's about doing something which you believe is worth doing and will make a difference. But I believe that the hardest thing of all is to make yourself compete. Competition is much harder if your father has striven hard and then made it. If you compete then you feel as if you are chipping away a piece of your father, as though you are diminishing him, as though if I were to do this part which he did, not only as well but better, what would that say about my father and what would it be doing to my children?"

Jemma, his daughter, is an actor, his eldest son, Luke (also from his first marriage to Deirdre Hamilton-Hill, a former model), works in films; the two boys from his marriage to the actress Kika Markham are still at school (a Balham comprehensive). He says they are both very good and yet he scorns the idea of inherited talent. "You can acquire things that help to make an actor, such as an attitude to literature and drama, and an understanding about the acting mentality. But I often notice now as a producer that those younger actors coming from theatrical families are sometimes too respectful." Respectful of what? I ask. "I'm afraid I don't know how to complete that thought," he says.

In My Father, he reflects on why people act. His grandfather, an actor of the barnstorming kind, he says (rather disparagingly), did it for the applause, "the bigger, the louder, the better"; his father promised his mother (who had performed with Sarah Bernhardt) he wouldn't act and became a teacher until he could resist the stage no longer. For Michael, he explains, acting was a flight from self. So what's the attraction for Corin? "I can understand why many actors evade the question and say they do it for the money," he says. "They fear the mockery they might encounter if they say they do it for civilisation, because they believe acting is a deeply civilised art." Naturally, "they" include himself. Pompous certainly, but in the end, rather touching.

n 'The General from America' opens Fri at the RSC's Swan, Stratford-upon- Avon (01789 295623)