A peep between the curtains at the traumas of a theatrical dynasty: Peter Pringle in New York watches Lynn Redgrave's voyage round her father
'No birth, no Lynn,' exclaims a throaty Lynn Redgrave in her Broadway solo performance, Shakespeare for My Father, a personal memoir of life and times with Sir Michael, an ogre of a parent if ever there was one. Witness the extraordinary revelation last week that his ashes are still sitting in an urn in Mortlake crematorium, unclaimed by any of the surviving family: Lynn, sister Vanessa, brother Corin and Sir Michael's widow, Rachel.
For two compelling hours Lynn Redgrave fills the tiny Helen Hayes Theatre on 44th Street with a lot of cheer and some fine mimickry, both of which come naturally to her. There is also much sadness in this catharsis, a strenuous, kinetic effort to face the memory of her cold, distant father, and exorcise some of the more painful moments of an unpleasant childhood. In the manner of gritty Britons at the frontlines of emotional upset, she laughs off Sir Michael's behaviour: benign neglect or wilful cruelty, depending on your attitude towards parental duties. The US audience, spurred on by excellent reviews of a play whose original six-week run has so far extended to 18 weeks, applauded as though their lives depended on it.
Shakespeare for My Father is an intimate peep into a thespian dynasty whose theatre connections span five generations, beginning with Cornelius Redgrave, a 'theatrical racketeer' who worked the ticket booths of London in the 1820s. Then came grandmother Daisy Scudamore and grandfather Roy Redgrave, known as the 'cock of the North' for reasons apparently more to do with reproduction than his vocal chords.
It was not clear that Lynn, a desperately shy and often sickly child, would follow the family trade, and Dad certainly offered no encouragement. If he spotted her talent for mimickry, which this performance confirms, he never mentioned it. In the play, she describes meeting Richard Burton in her dressing room during the New York run of My Fat Friend. Afterwards, she drew a circle round the spot where he had stood, and never allowed anyone to step on it. Her tour with the National Theatre Company in the 1960s gave her a chance to watch and absorb the talents of Noel Coward, Dame Edith Evans and a young Maggie Smith.
A British accent, jokes about the Blitz and doodlebugs, a walk-on part for a brown and white bull terrier, visions of family holidays at Bexhill-on-Sea and ancient bathtubs with clawed feet will easily raise laughs in America, and Redgrave has been here long enough to score direct hits with such a repertoire.
Throughout the performance, a dimly lit portrait of Sir Michael as Antony in Antony and Cleopatra dominates the bare set. The play, which Redgrave wrote herself, is in part a tribute to him. Breaking off from childhood memories, she launches into passages by 16 Shakespearian characters - among them Juliet, Viola, Olivia, and Hamlet, which she reads alongside her father's recorded voice.
She first read these plays in a complete works of Shakespeare given to her as a Christmas present by her father when she was 10 years old. This apparently was one of the few nice things he ever did, although he did give her a pair of yellow slippers decorated with beads on his return from one of his many American tours. If there were other gifts, she did not mention them. Her father's expressions of emotion, it seems, were confined to stage performances.
Addressing the large portrait on the wall, Redgrave asks the questions of her father that she could not ask while he was alive, and constructs imaginary answers. These replies are often suggestive; for example, of Sir Michael's closet homosexuality. 'Who are you, Dad, who are you?' she cries, and then answers herself. 'Daddy did behave completely differently depending on which play he was in.' The answer gets a laugh, but you understand that for Redgrave it explains little.
Only when he was dying of Parkinson's disease did she become close to him. She describes how bent his body was, how his hands trembled and how he believed that the curtains drawn around his hospital bed were theatre curtains about to part. Could he really have thought that, I wonder? Did he really say that? Or was it just another good line?
What would Sir Michael have made of his daughter's performance? 'I think he would just be amazed,' says Redgrave. 'He'd be so surprised that all these things were going on inside me. I do believe that he sort of sees it in some way. Maybe that's fanciful of me, but I really do - if for no other reason than the fact that every night, at every performance, I just can't wait to do it.'
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