Of unblemished beauty and coquettish grace, Renée Asherson, who has died aged 99, was a most delightful figure on the English stage. She rose quickly to playing opposite Gielgud and Olivier, as well as her husband Robert Donat, and was compared to both Vivien Leigh and Celia Johnson for her emotional range, sweetheart looks and dramatic force.
Although her career maintained its momentum over the years, it never sustained its prominence, perhaps because her courtly demeanour became less fashionable, but even in old age, with her husky, honeyed voice and wispy beauty, she was a game player, underused but irresistible.
The daughter of a businessman and of German-Jewish descent, Dorothy Renée Ascherson almost never was: her parents had planned to honeymoon on the Titanic, but her father’s providential attack of appendicitis saved their lives. She was born in Kensington, attending Maltman’s Green Girls’ School in Gerrard’s Cross, Buckinghamshire and finishing schools in France and Switzerland. She suffered from anorexia in her teenage years, but to her parents’ surprise and concern, with a newfound confidence enrolled at the Weber-Douglas School of Singing and Dramatic Art.
After voice coaching from the legendary Bertie Scott, she made her stage debut at 20 as a walk-on in Romeo and Juliet at the New Theatre, in which Olivier and Gielgud alternated as Romeo and Mercutio. She build up a strong catalogue of performances at Birmingham Rep before arriving in the West End for Lottie Dundass at the Vaudeville in 1943, a full-throttle thriller of back-stage strangulation.
But her early encounter with Olivier had put her career in the fast lane, cast as Katherine in his film of Henry V. (There were rumours that he chose her because he feared that Vivien Leigh would overshadow him). Robert Donat was enchanted by her performance. At this point he was on a strident personal campaign to restructure his life after a failed marriage and heavy financial losses. As well as drawing up a daunting list of edifying pursuits, he jotted down the qualities he would look for in “the perfect woman”, which included being “patient, calm, constructively critical and of intellect superior to mine… but not too much”.
He cast Asherson as a Cockney billetee in the Northern comedy A Cure for Love in 1945, in which he played an 8th Army sergeant who goes through some “puzzling amatory experiences” upon his return from the Middle East. It was a hoot and a hit, though the film version four years later was hampered by his ill-health (he suffered from chronic asthma), and flopped.
In 1946 Asherson played Juliet at the St James’s Theatre, where critics were struck by her charm and her feel for the verse. Others were praised, “but it is Renée Asherson’s evening”. Olivier wanted her to join him at the Old Vic but she chose to form a partnership with Donat. “Though pretty, she has strong reserves of emotional fire,” said one critic of her performance as Beatrice to Donat’s Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing at the Aldwych the following year. In 1949 she held her own as Stella to Vivien Leigh’s Blanche in Olivier’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire, its London premiere, and in 1951 starred alongside Celia Johnson and Margaret Leighton in The Three Sisters, both again at the Aldwych.
She married Donat in 1953, the newspapers calling her “devoted, tactful and understanding: she gave up her own career to be his nurse-companion”. But his illness taxed the marriage to breaking point, and although there was hope of a reconciliation in 1958, Donat died before it could happen. He left her nothing in his will, and Asherson threw herself into her work, which was now, as she admitted, for money and no longer simply for love. She never remarried, and had no children, but was the aunt of the former Independent writer, Neal Ascherson.
Her time with Donat had been something of a blind alley compared to the opportunities Olivier had offered her, and although she worked like a dog for the next half-century, she never became the star she had seemed destined to be. Her work was pleasingly diverse: she had a nice line in thrillers such as Agatha Christie’s Unexpected Guest (Duchess, 1969), and flexed her comedic muscles in The Country Wife at Chichester in 1969, prompting a critic to gush, “who will readily forget her dainty, fastidious virtue as Alithea, shining with bewitching fragility in this roistering, raffish scene?”
The same year at Chichester she starred with Alastair Sim in Pinero’s The Magistrate, and in 1970 appeared with Peggy Mount in a revival of Priestley’s When We Are Married at the Yvonne Arnaud, Guildford, where, if her accent was occasionally a little slippery, she compensated for it with “her touching pathos in her scene of remembrance of dreams long past”.
Among a plethora of film and television roles, two deserve special mention: Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori (1992), and best of all, a wonderfully funny, romantic and lusty 1993 dramatisation of Mary Wesley’s Harnessing Peacocks, in which she played a country widow still bewitched by memories of life as a Twenties flapper and of her long-lost only love, played by John Mills. Merrily twinkling with naughtiness, she joyfully evoked Eleanor Roosevelt’s charming epigram: “Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art”.
Dorothy Renée Ascherson (Renée Asherson), actress: born Kensington, London 19 May 1915; married 1953 Robert Donat (died 1958); died Primrose Hill, London 30 October 2014.
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