The lady from the dynasty

Joely Richardson, a scion of England's grandest theatrical family and with a glittering career to match, is pensive on the eve of her return to the London stage, writes Arifa Akbar

Joely Richardson has managed to walk into Carluccio's in Kingston upon Thames at the height of the lunch buzz and sit at a window seat, her voice raised above the hum, without causing fans to clamber or heads to turn. Perhaps they're being very English and taking furtive glances over their menus instead, though you get the feeling that her low-key presence is a carefully learnt skill which must be perfected if you are a scion of Britain's biggest acting dynasty and want to nip out for a bite to eat.

Still, it's odd to see Richardson pecking at a plate of pumpkin risotto with Kingston's lunching ladies as her backdrop. She's here because her theatre gene has kicked in, swinging her anti-clockwise in a career that might have begun on the boards but which has been defined on screen (Peter Greenaway's Drowning by Numbers; The Patriot, opposite Mel Gibson; 101 Dalmations, opposite Glenn Close) and more so on the small screen, from her pitch-perfect Lady Chatterley in the BBC's 1993 production to the plastic surgeon's wife in Nip/Tuck that found her Hollywood fame, and as Henry VIII's last wife in the costume drama, The Tudors.

This month, she's back on stage, at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, after a 10-year hiatus which ended last year when she signed up for an angsty off-Broadway marital drama, Side Effects. She chose it, she says, for the same reason she chose to come to Kingston – because she wanted to start small and ease her way into the great classics of the stage.

So how is it that she has found herself warming up for the lead role in Henrik Ibsen's classic The Lady from the Sea, to be directed by a diehard Ibsenite, Stephen Unwin, who has translated his own version of the play for this production? And can it really be easing back in, to play a central character that both her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, and her late sister, Natasha Richardson, have played in critically acclaimed performances?

"If I'm completely honest, of course I was aware when Stephen offered me the role, that it probably wasn't a super-intelligent choice. People will say my mother did it, my sister did it. Individually you don't want to attract obvious comparisons, but it's a little bit more complicated.

"There's the level on which I thought it wasn't necessarily a smart move because it invites comparison. On the other hand, I feel really excited that I get a crack at a really great role that happens to be a role they also played. Thirdly – and this is the big one – I'm not a 24-year-old just coming into the business, struggling to find my way. I've got some idea of self. You can only make artistic or career decisions on what you would like to do next based on the love of it, and not on what people might say, or think."

There's a small pause, and what looks like a quiet steeliness. "I'm really excited about it at the moment, and strangely fearless. If you go up in flames, you go up in flames."

As has been tirelessly documented, Richardson is from pedigree acting stock. Daughter of director Tony Richardson, granddaughter of actors Sir Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson, sister-in-law of Liam Neeson. It goes on. Just as her achievements have been closely followed by the media, so have her losses, and in the past two years, she has had more than her fair share. In March 2009, Richardson's sister Natasha died after suffering a head injury while skiing. She was 45, two years younger than Richardson is now. Her actor uncle, Corin Redgrave, succumbed to prostate cancer in April 2010, and her actress aunt, Lynn Redgrave, died of breast cancer less than a month later.

Richardson appeared to rebel against the family gene as a child, first training in gymnastics and later taken by tennis, but she says this was less a career choice than an early phase of testing out her passions. She has, in the past, talked of the acting gene in relation to her daughter (whose father is Tim Bevan, co-founder of Working Title), currently at drama school. There is a mother's apprehension there in her daughter's choice to follow her into acting.

"I think it's desperate for students coming out of drama school. There is no work for them, there really isn't. It's a high, high-risk decision. When I first started 26 years ago, you got paid more than you do now, so how a man with four kids manages... And women get paid so much less than men. Having said that, it can also be an amazing job... I feel like every other parent on the face of the planet. I just want my child to be happy so whatever she chooses I will be supportive of."

The Ibsen, meanwhile, captivated her the minute she read it. Unwin, for his part, thought she was made for the role. And though she's not a planner, she had found herself wanting to move in a different direction two years ago. "I don't believe in game plans because I think life surprises us constantly in a good way and a bad way, but I really wanted to do theatre again. When Nip/Tuck finished, my plan was to do more theatre and work in films again with interesting directors. Amazingly, it has worked out that I have."


'The Lady from the Sea', Rose Theatre, Kingston upon Thames ( ,23 February to 17 March.