Elizabeth Spriggs: Versatile character actress

Sunday 23 October 2011 04:44

Never a shrinking violet on or off the stage, Elizabeth Spriggs was often seen at the peak of her form (and often for the Royal Shakespeare Company of which she was a crucial early member) as formidable women: P.G. Wodehouse's dreadnought Aunt Agatha in Jeeves and Wooster (1993) or a sodden Sairey Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit (1994) on television, and Cleopatra, Mistress Quickly, Shaw's Lady Britomart and, unforgettably, Boucicault's equestrienne Lady Gay Spanker in London Assurance on stage. Yet her versatility, rooted in her years of apprenticeship in repertory theatre, covered, too, a gift for direct unaffected pathos, most signally in her mesmeric portrayal of an alcoholic in Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance.

Born in 1929 in Buxton, Derbyshire, she was educated there, displaying a musical gift fostered by her initial training in opera at the Royal School of Music. For a while, less than fulfillingly, she was on the teaching staff at Coventry Technical College ("I felt as if I was dying inside. The desire to act was like a weight within me"), but before long took the plunge to realise her acting ambitions – from early childhood she had dreamed particularly of appearing on the Stratford Memorial Theatre stage.

She went first to the Bristol Old Vic and subsequently the Birmingham Rep, both then leading regional theatres offering invaluable grounding experience. At Birmingham, Spriggs successfully tackled some testing challenges, including Shakespeare's Cleopatra, and brought a convincingly Slavic volatility and sensuality to Ranevskya in The Cherry Orchard (1958).

The Royal Shakespeare Company, formed by Peter Hall in 1960, began with and then built up a formidable group of actors; performers such as Spriggs were ideally suited to the company's ensemble ethic. Beginning in good supporting roles such as Mrs Vixen in Peter Wood's convict-ship production of The Beggar's Opera (Aldwych, 1962) she was also part of the company as a Charenton asylum-inmate in Peter Brook's astonishing mounting of Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade (Aldwych, 1964).

Gradually, both at Stratford and at the RSC's London home at the Aldwych, more significant roles began to come Spriggs's way. She was a wonderfully bedizened Courtezan in Clifford William's exuberantly inventive The Comedy of Errors (1965) and then made a major impact in Hall's revelatory Hamlet (Stratford, 1965) with David Warner's unusually young Prince; Spriggs's Gertrude, a sexually driven but weak woman drifting in events beyond her control, beautifully traced the arc of the character's moral decline. She was also outstanding at the company's London base, in a season of new work, as a redoubtable colonial matron in David Mercer's The Governor's Lady (Aldwych, 1966).

Both Mistress Quickly in Henry IV Parts I and II and her pragmatic nurse in Romeo and Juliet (both Stratford, 1966) revealed her gift for truthfully earthy comedy wedded to a fierce loyalty. In Hall's magisterial production of Albee's A Delicate Balance (Aldwych, 1969), set in John Bury's echoing hieratic space, Spriggs was amid a powerful company – Peggy Ashcroft, Sheila Hancock, Michael Hordern – giving a blazing portrayal of the lost, drunken sister Claire.

Another Spriggs RSC landmark came with Ronald Eyre's joyous rediscovery of Dion Boucicault's Victorian comedy London Assurance (Aldwych, 1970; Palace, New York, 1975). The energy – like a burst of ozone – with which she charged the country woman-huntress Lady Gay Spanker and her deep, teasingly fond affection towards her gentle, scholarly husband Adolphus ("Dolly" to her) were key elements, alongside Donald Sinden's magnificently self-deluded dandy and Judi Dench's resourcefully bespectacled heroine, in the play's triumphant success.

Later RSC appearances included a commanding Lady Britomart in Major Barbara (Aldwych, 1970), a mature Beatrice, touchingly vulnerable as she fell, surprised, into love in Much Ado About Nothing (1971) and an awesome Queen Mariana in Peter Barnes's epic drama of Spanish court intrigue in The Bewitched (Aldwych, 1974).

When Hall moved to the National Theatre, Spriggs appeared regularly on the South Bank. Along with Maria Aitken (as Elvira) she managed to break through the somewhat costive rigidity of Harold Pinter's production of Coward's Blithe Spirit (1976) to come up with a fresh, intriguing performance; as Madame Arcati, Coward's busy medium, she found a delightfully practical briskness which utterly avoided the fey.

Hall's The Country Wife (1977) was another stiff production, with Albert Finney adrift in Restoration Comedy as the rampant Horner, but again Spriggs shone as a gloriously lubricious Lady Fidget. By contrast, her enduringly patient wife to Michael Gough's dying trade-union official in Arnold Wesker's Love Letters on Blue Paper (1978) was one of her most touching performances (it deservedly won her a Society of West End Theatres Best Supporting Actress Award).

Later stage work included J.B. Priestley's When We Are Married (Whitehall, 1986) with a lustrous cast including Prunella Scales and Patricia Routledge, again under Ronald Eyre. Spriggs – large-scale and capable – and Rosemary Harris – bird-like and a-twitter – made a good pairing as the benevolently murderous sisters in Arsenic and Old Lace (Chichester, 1991).

Throughout her career Spriggs was in heavy demand for television work, often in period drama (she wore costumes extremely well). Her major success was perhaps in the long-running series Shine on Harvey Moon (1982-85) as the warm-hearted matriarch Nan, but her range covered worlds as diverse as that of Middlemarch (1994), The Glittering Prizes (1976), Strangers and Brothers (1986), Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1990) and an especially fine version of Angus Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1992).

On the big screen her first excursion was for Peter Hall when he directed a less than happy version of Henry Livings's play Eh? as Work is a 4-Letter Word (1968). Few worthwhile movie roles came her way for some time but she was in strong form as Mrs Jennings in Emma Thompson's Oscar-winning version of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (1995). More recently she had a good cameo role as the Fat Lady in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001).

Alan Strachan

Elizabeth Jean Williams, actress: born Buxton, Derbyshire 18 September 1929; married first Kenneth Spriggs (one daughter; marriage dissolved), second Marshall Jones (marriage dissolved), third 1978 Murry Manson; died Oxford 2 July 2008.

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