Secret Dreams: A Biography of Michael Redgrave by Alan Strachan

Airbrushed out of history by Olivier

By Matthew Sweet
Monday 10 October 2011 11:24

When the curtain came down on the opening night of the 1967 Old Vic production of The Master Builder, its star, Michael Redgrave, retired to his dressing room, and waited for the verdict of the season's artistic director, Laurence Olivier. "You must know," he smouldered, "that this evening you have made a fool of yourself. You have made a fool of the other actors. You have made a fool of the young National Theatre. And you have made a fool of me. Next season we will commence the season with this production. I will play Solness. I cordially invite you to the first performance."

Alan Strachan's biography of Redgrave is, in effect, a 484-page attempt to rescue his subject from this humiliation. Redgrave, he says, has been "almost airbrushed out of theatrical history" - and Olivier, it seems, fired his blast of aerosol early. Robbed by Parkinson's disease and an early death of the decades of farewell appearances granted to his more celebrated contemporaries, Redgrave's reputation rests upon his cinema performances and his position, with his wife Rachel Kempson, at the head of a dynasty of actors and activists. When that triumvirate of Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson has been expanded to include Redgrave's name, the biographer's mission will be accomplished.

The book puts some juicy source material to good use. Letters between Redgrave's parents, Roy and Daisy, a pair of touring melodrama actors, yield a story of bigamous marriage which might have been staged in repertoire with Black Ey'd Susan. Private diaries describe Redgrave's dormitory crushes and Aesthetic student years. Letters from Edith Evans commemorate an unexpectedly vigorous affair between Jack Worthing and Lady Bracknell: "Darling, please don't alter. I love you shamelessly." Strachan's work in the archive has identified all the actor's significant lovers except one - the mysterious Alan, with whom Redgrave kept afternoon appointments even in the last stages of his illness.

But the insistence upon Redgrave's importance as a stage talent leads the author into easy dismissals of his film work. He's unfair about The Years Between - in which Redgrave plays a British POW who returns from the war to find that his wife has outgrown him - deriding it as "Mrs Miniver corn" in which "sex, of course, goes unmentioned." The death of the couple's sexual relationship is, however, the principal theme of his subject's performance.

It is Redgrave's commitment to film that will, I think, cast him as the tortoise in the race with his knighted peers. Olivier is twitchy and telegraphic in front of the lens. Gielgud and Richardson conquered film comedy, but neither succeeded in getting the camera to take them seriously: playing hero for Hitchcock in The Secret Agent, Gielgud is like a stuffed snake wrenched freshly from its mongoose.

Redgrave, conversely, offers 40 years of easy mastery. Watch him in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, sparring with Tom Courtenay in a vicious game of word association; or in The Browning Version, collapsing under the knowledge of his own emptiness; or in The Lady Vanishes, responding skittishly to a gun-toting nun in high heels. Watch any of his movies, and listen to that melancholy, gentle voice, canned forever, as the memory of Olivier's Master Builder fades away.

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