SOME of the best actresses are not in themselves beautiful. They can make themselves seem so if they need to. Nor are they blessed with beautiful voices. But they know how to rivet our attention as they speak.
Kate Reid belonged to that rare breed of player which may lack ambition in the gossip-writer's sense of seeking fame for its own sake, but has the better kind of ambition which likes to stretch itself at every turn. Although she had already done something of the sort in a couple of West End plays in the 1950s - at least one of the performances taking the critics' breath away with its authority and power - it was not until she was summoned by her former teacher Uta Hagen to New York, where that fine actress ran an acting academy at the Herbert Berghof studio, that she got her great chance - to share the role of Martha in the 1962 premiere of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Both actresses set Broadway afire, Kate Reid in the afternoons, Uta Hagen at night. The arrangement was unusual. Reid's agent said, 'You're mad.' Reid said, 'I just have to play Martha.' It was not difficult, she said later, 'I felt purged after every performance.' The teacher and her former pupil filled the Billy Rose afternoon and evenings.
Two years later Hagen left the show to come and shatter Londoners in the same part. Reid, alas, did not come with her. No arrangement existed in the West End for such role-sharing; otherwise we might have seen more of Reid's stage-work in London.
Kate Reid had been born in London, but was educated in Toronto. English appetites had been whetted by her two appearances at the St Martin's in the 1950s, first as plain Lizzie destined for the shelf until Sam Wanamaker's roving charlatan swept her off her feet in The Rainmaker (1958), and then as the spirited second wife of a dreary widower and his even drearier son in The Stepmother. Thereafter she stayed in North America, where the leading playwrights still wrote meaty parts for actresses (Terence Rattigan having been just about the last of that breed in Britain) and where the Canadian tradition for classical acting, instilled by Tyrone Guthrie at the Stratford Festival, was then taking firmer root.
Even the late Gwynneth Thurburn, the London voice teacher, went out for a spell to see that Shakespeare's verse was not being Americanised; though there was never much risk of that from Reid, whose theatrical career prospered under such directors as Michael Langham, John Hirsch and Robin Phillips, but mainly because she never was so pretty or sexually appealing as to be cast to type.
Somehow she skipped the usual gap between ingenue and character parts. 'Very suddenly at some point I switched. In one year I was in Little Women and then Candida in the title- role.' She also played often at the Shaw Festival, Niagara on the Lake, and for the Stratford Festival Company, Ontario, when she was not filming or on Broadway.
After Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? her best-remembered acting in New York was as Caitlin Thomas in Sidney Michael's Dylan, in a double- bill Tennessee Williams wrote for her, Slapstick Tragedy, in Arthur Miller's The Price, as Esther Franz, the pushy wife of the nicer brother, another part written for her (it brought her back to London at the Duke of York's in 1969), and perhaps her greatest triumph, Linda Loman in the 1985 revival of Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman as her husband, Willy. So awed was the German film director Volker Schlondorff by her acting on that occasion that he filmed it on videotape. It went the rounds of the film festivals and art cinemas in the late 1980s, provoking admiration not as film but as an example of an accomplished emotional actress at the height of her powers.
In A Delicate Balance, Albee wrote a part for her out of gratitude for those famous matinees as Martha, but although she never got to play it in the theatre she did in Tony Richardson's 1974 film. Somebody else got there before her again as Big Mama in the film of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but on the stage for the American Shakespeare Festival, at Stratford, Connecticut, it was by all accounts a night for connoisseurs, like so much of her work.
On television it was mostly the classics. Should that include her appearance in Dallas? After Shakespeare, Chekhov, Turgenev, Montherlant, it might seem cheap to consider her brief appearance as Aunt Lil in the same breath as Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard, the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, Gertrude in Hamlet, Juno in Juno and the Paycock or Clytemnestra in The Oresteia, but Kate Reid belonged to that small class of players who can never bring themselves to name their favourite parts: 'all played', she used to tell the reference books when asked. And usually exceptionally well.