Rachel Kempson

Actress whose vulnerability became her strength

Rachel Kempson, actress: born Dartmouth, Devon 28 May 1910; married 1935 Michael Redgrave (Kt 1959, died 1985; one son, two daughters); died Millbrook, New York 23 May 2003.

Had her commitment to family life in her marriage to Sir Michael Redgrave been less strong, Rachel Kempson's career would have undoubtedly been even more distinguished than it was. With all three of their children - Vanessa, Corin and Lynn - later launched on successful theatrical careers of their own and with that of her husband dimmed by debilitating illness, she was able once more to shine in her own light with a flourishing television career and remarkable later stage appearances.

Her own peripatetic childhood and education, together with her observation of her parents' difficult marriage, had perhaps something to do with her own determination to keep her own marriage - which, with all its problems, remained a genuine love story for nearly 50 years - and family life paramount. Her father taught at Rugby, then moved the family to Kew on taking up a post with the Board of Education, finally settling as Headmaster of Dartmouth Naval College. Her education ranged from a private day school in Kew to a bleak Anglo-Catholic Sussex convent to Colchester County High School.

It was her birthplace, Dartmouth, that crystallised her early theatrical learnings. Living near the college and becoming good family friends were the retired actor-manager Cyril Maude and his second wife; it was Maude who smoothed her way to a half-scholarship at Rada, where she worked extremely hard on a pittance in a year which included Joan Littlewood and Ida Lupino as fellow students.

On leaving she auditioned for Stratford, then run by W. Bridges Adams, and was contracted for the 1932 season at £4 a week, mainly in small roles (First Witch in Macbeth, Virgilia in Coriolanus, Hero in Much Ado) but with the chance to work with an intriguing roster of directors including the young Tyrone Guthrie and the innovative Russian émigré Theodore Komisarjevsky, as well as the more traditional Bridges Adams. Her work was impressive enough for her to be cast opposite John Wyse in Romeo and Juliet, directed by Bridges Adams whose patience helped develop a movingly fresh portrayal of enraptured first love.

The critical success of her Juliet led to a second Stratford season which revived Romeo and Juliet, as well as seeing her as an androgynous, gilded figure of unearthly charm as Ariel in a Tempest partly designed by Rex Whistler in the style of a Jacobean masque. She also played Olivia in Twelfth Night, an elegant princess in Love's Labour's Lost and a spirited Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream in a magical Norman Wilkinson setting of greys and blues.

Had Bridges Adams stayed at Stratford, Rachel Kempson's blooming classical career would surely have flourished further, but he retired after the 1934 season. Her father wrote of his period: "Bridges Adams spoke of his doubt as to whether Rachel should go on with the stage: no doubt as to her artistic power, but a feeling that she herself was not of the theatre world, which called for something hard-boiled in its citizens." And she often herself touched on her feeling from childhood onwards of never quite totally belonging anywhere, of her lack "of an important ingredient - a tough ego".

Certainly she was never ambitious for personal fame, although intriguingly much of her best work was distinguished by a crucial tension between an outward fragility or vulnerability and an inner tensile strength. And she was strong enough to reject an offer from Ben Iden Payne, the new Stratford director, to remain in the company's security but only in inferior roles. Instead her next move was into rep - at the then flourishing Liverpool Playhouse under the canny Scot William Armstrong.

Also in the company then was the young Michael Redgrave, in his first job after the decision to leave schoolteaching at Cranleigh for an actor's life. Cast opposite each other for the first time in John van Druten's Flowers of the Forest (in which Kempson as Naomi began as 40 and in Act II returns to 20), their delight in each other's company slipped quickly into love.

From the outset - as she acknowledged - Redgrave was open about "the difficulties in his nature", his bisexuality, which might give their marriage problems. But she felt, "I loved Michael so much . . . indeed, it was probably this sensitivity in his nature that made me love him so." Indeed there were difficulties - his love affair with Edith Evans when playing Orlando to her radiant Rosalind (at 48) while his wife was pregnant with their first child, Vanessa; his male partnerships and attachments; his frequent absences - often involving unhappiness but never in the final analysis enough to erode her love and devotion.

Redgrave's Liverpool successes took him off to the capital - first at the Old Vic under Guthrie at his inventive best and then to be a crucial part of John Gielgud's trail-blazing classical West End seasons, at the Queen's in 1937-38 alongside Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, George Devine and Alec Guinness, and in many watershed productions. But pregnancies meant that Kempson was never a major participant in those heady days. She played the Princess in Love's Labour's Lost (Old Vic, 1936) and for Gielgud's company the minor role of Maria (also directed by Guthrie) in The School for Scandal (Queen's, 1937).

With three children born between 1937 and 1943, she juggled work to fit in with family life while Redgrave's career on stage and, from The Lady Vanishes in 1938, on film, took off into major stardom. She occasionally acted with him - a gravely touching performance as a young wife waiting at home in the Ealing film The Captive Heart (1946) and, less ideally cast, Marianne, the indomitable French girl with two very different suitors in Redgrave's production of S.N. Behrman's Jacowbowsky and the Colonel (Piccadilly, 1948).

She also joined Redgrave at Stratford for the memorable 1953 season, her best opportunity being an unsettlingly chill-voiced Regan to his King Lear. She even managed to make something genuinely touching out of the hapless Octavia in Antony and Cleopatra in which Redgrave gave one of his greatest performances opposite Peggy Ashcroft's equally revelatory Cleopatra; Kempson had also selflessly agreed to understudy Ashcroft and went on once, for a matinée she found both exhilarating and exhausting. Working again with Ashcroft, a close friend by now, she also illuminated Mrs Elvsted in Hedda Gabler (Lyric, Hammersmith, and Westminster, 1954), one of the most striking instances of her ability to humanise apparently weak characters.

Her love of family life was paralleled by her love of ensemble work in the theatre, and she was an eager member of the first English Stage Company as the Royal Court under George Devine in 1956, in an astonishing run of parts revealing her wide range - Ann Putnam in the British premiere of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, a high comedy role in Angus Wilson's only play, The Mulberry Bush, Mrs Mi Tzu in Bertolt Brecht's Good Woman of Setzuan (again with Ashcroft) and Miss Black Panorbis in Nigel Dennis's intellectual farce Cards of Identity.

Other company-based work included another ESC season at the Queen's in 1964. This included her first appearance with her daughter Vanessa (playing Nina) as Polina, the unhappy land agent's wife, hopelessly in love with that philandering doctor (Devine) in a Seagull also with Ashcroft and Peter Finch directed by Tony Richardson, then married to Vanessa Redgrave. The brief scene when she snatched the posy given by Nina to the doctor, crushing them in impotent jealousy, was a memorable glimpse of the private torment endured by a woman like Polina forced to wear a serene public mask. She also played in the company of Redgrave's season opening the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, again revealing her range as she moved from the austere classicism of Samson Agonistes to the larky fun of her dottily snobbish Lady Mary in Lionel and Clarissa (both 1965).

The controversial John Osborne play A Sense of Detachment (Royal Court, 1972), returning her to Sloane Square, saw her enjoy her turn as the genteel lady reading hardcore porn. (She especially enjoyed chasing a pair of noisy real - as opposed to the play's planted - hecklers out of the theatre into the Chelsea night during one disruptive performance.) But some parts of this period - a loony aristo in a dire thriller called Gomes (Queen's, 1973) and a less than happy time as another stereotypical scatty dowager at the National Theatre in Peter Nichols's Freeway (Old Vic, 1974) - were distinctly unrewarding.

Much more satisfying was Julian Mitchell's subtle distillation of Ivy Compton-Burnett's basilisk comedy of Edwardian landed family life in A Family and a Fortune (Apollo, 1975). She played Blanche Gaveston, the seemingly scatterbrained wife of a detached husband with some unloving children, revealing only in a haunting deathbed scene how much in fact she has perceived. Even although her part ended at the interval, her beautifully gauged performance shone even in a stellar company including Margaret Leighton and Alec Guinness.

She played opposite Guinness again in Alan Bennett's The Old Country (Queen's, 1978), giving one of her very finest performances as the disappointed wife of a British traitor living out a sad exile in a Russian dacha. And she seized her opportunities as the garrulous Julia in John Dexter's revival of T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party (Phoenix, 1987).

Her television work in her later years also revealed her emotional range. Especially fine were the title role of Kate, the Good Neighbour as an elderly spinster determined to keep her independence after an accident, and her Lady Manners in Granada's Jewel in the Crown series. Reunited with old colleagues such as Peggy Ashcroft and Fabia Drake, she was outstanding as the redoubtable old woman determined to bring up the child of her dead daughter Daphne by Hari Kumar, a child dismissed by most of the Raj old guard as "an Indian bastard".

With Redgrave's work limited increasingly as his Parkinson's disease extended its grip, Kempson uncomplainingly took on an ever- increasing workload. She had always managed to combine her career with the creation of characteristically comfortable homes. For 15 years, before financial crises forced its sale, the family lived in one of London's most beautiful houses, the 18th-century Bedford House on the Thames at Chiswick Mall, although her finest creation, much helped by the family's friend John Fowler of the Colefax and Fowler firm, was the restoration of a tumbledown cottage in the overgrown Hampshire woods into the warm and welcoming house of Wilks Water, its gardens - she was always a "gloves-off" gardener - quite magical, especially in the spring and summer months. That too, sadly, had to be sold in her later years.

Although a lifelong Labour supporter - Edward Heath was a particular bogey figure to her - she was not especially active politically herself, but she would fiercely champion the right of her children Vanessa and Corin to express views with which she might not necessarily agree, just as she would protect any of her 10 grandchildren's lives from a prying press. She said of herself that, with her patchy education, she was no intellectual. Perhaps not; she was, however, often extremely wise.

Her son, opposite whom she played a memorably blazing Volumnia in Coriolanus (Young Vic, 1989), found the perfect adjective for her. Writing of an incident in her old age when she managed somehow to rescue her husband - no lightweight - from an icy stream into which he had slipped in the winter darkness, he said: "There is something Homeric about my mother."

Alan Strachan

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