Michael Coveney: Woman who inherited the full expressive talent of Redgrave dynasty

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The Independent Online

She was so like her mother it was almost unreal, and Natasha Richardson never played down the similarity, even going out of her way to work with Vanessa Redgrave and take on some of her famous roles. When she played Ellida, in Trevor Nunn's production of Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea at the refurbished Almeida in 2003, it was like revisiting Vanessa in the role almost 30 years earlier.

There was a difference, though: whereas Vanessa's Ellida was a supercharged embodiment of "the other life" in a performance of almost unbearable intensity, Natasha lived her madness in the moment, with an edge around it, until she broke loose in a great explosion. Mother and daughter shared tremendous empathy with Ibsen's land-locked housewife answering the call of the deep from a murderous sailor.

The same quality of emotional yearning informed her charismatic performance as Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie, Greta Garbo's first speaking role, at the Young Vic in 1990 and when she took the performance to New York in 1993, her sexual search was made real in the presence of Liam Neeson as the muscular stoker Mat Burke; she left her husband, the producer Robert Fox, and settled with Neeson, marrying him in 1994.

Richardson always said that her family connections opened doors but didn't guarantee work, although she made her film debut, aged four, in her film director father Tony Richardson's epic The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968). She made her stage debut in 1983 in out-of-town revivals of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls and Tom Stoppard's On the Razzle, bowing in the West End as Nina in Chekhov's The Seagull at the Queen's Theatre in 1985 – on the very stage where her mother had played the same role in her father's production in 1964. This time, Vanessa played the temperamental actress Arkadina.

She exuded a wonderful freshness and spontaneity as Nina, suggesting a wild-eyed idealist whose eventual desolation cut pitifully deep. I declared she had inherited the full expressive talent of the Redgrave dynasty along with the bony, slightly less generous facial features of her father. And by the time she appeared as Tracy Lord, the Grace Kelly role, in Richard Eyre's 1987 stage version of Cole Porter's High Society, she positively glowed with beauty and star quality. Vanessa shines a very strong beam on stage, Natasha irradiated more warmly.

Although she won a Tony award on Broadway 10 years ago as Sally Bowles in Sam Mendes' production of Cabaret, her stage career was disappointingly sporadic and she often made movies that were more interesting than really good, such as Ken Russell's Gothic (1987) in which she played Mary Godwin romping around with Byron and Shelley. Or Volker Schlondorff's The Handmaid's Tale (1990) scripted by Harold Pinter from Margaret Atwood's bestseller. Or Rupert Everett's dysfunctional partner in Paul Shrader's The Comfort of Strangers (1991) adapted by Pinter from Ian McEwan.

After appearing on Broadway in Patrick Marber's sexy comedy of bad manners Closer, she played a bored housewife of an institutional gauleiter in Marber's script for David Mackenzie's Asylum (2004) and then embarked on two film projects with her mother: Merchant Ivory's last (and least good) collaboration The White Countess (2005), in which her Russian aristocrat was smitten by Ralph Fiennes's blind diplomat, and Lajos Koltai's Evening (2007), in which Vanessa played a mother putting the domestic record straight for her daughters' benefit.

Her last stage appearance was in a benefit performance of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music in New York, and talks were underway to bring mother and daughter together again in the Trevor Nunn revival of the same musical for the Menier Chocolate Factory.