Culture Trips

‘How many husbands have I had? Not enough!’ Vanessa Redgrave meets Miriam Margolyes | Theatre

Theatres around the UK have been kept dark by Covid, and it could be months before they are able to open. So we’re celebrating the stage by bringing together some of our greatest actors to share highs and lows from their careers, what they have learned from performing and how they feel about theatre’s precarious future. Vanessa Redgrave and Miriam Margolyes, mates for 50-odd years, start the series off with a chat about nerves, Chekhov and Barbara Windsor. The Guardian’s stage editor, Chris Wiegand, listens in.

Miriam Margolyes: I’m in Italy, doing a lot of voice work. I’ve rigged up a little studio, in the back stable of my farmhouse, using Ikea curtain rails covered with duvets. I crouch in the middle with a microphone and computer.

Vanessa Redgrave: I’m in an area where there’s very little signal, so I have to go up to London to do my voiceover for Call the Midwife. Even leaning out of my bedroom window, I haven’t got enough of a phone signal for it to be acceptable professionally.

MM: I was supposed to be in the Christmas number of Call the Midwife, but I was too frightened of Covid, so I said: “I’m not coming.” You know I’m the Mother Superior?

VR: Are you? I ought to know …

MM: Yes, you bloody well should!

VR: I’ll ask the lovely producer I work with for a wholesome clip of Miriam Margolyes as the Mother Superior.

MM: It’s about the only time in my life I’m wholesome!

VR: Well, you’d better behave if you’re the Mother Superior.

MM: There’s been a sea change there, all right. I remember when we met, Vanessa. I was a member of the Workers Revolutionary party, and so were you. I met you at Equity meetings and demonstrations with Frances de la Tour and Tom Kempinski. I came from a very middle-class Jewish background, always Tory-voting. And then at university, I was changed into somebody with a heart. I’ve never looked back!

VR: Darling, that’s super! We did The Threepenny Opera together in 1972.

MM: I knew I was in the right business, seeing you in rehearsal. It was a tense, difficult time, but you transformed that rehearsal room. That’s when I saw really great acting.

VR: That’s awfully nice of you.

MM: You weren’t the only one that was good! There was Annie Ross and Barbara Windsor. I just adored Ba. I was her understudy. Ba loved you; she said: “I know she talks posh and all that, but she’s really nice!”

Vanessa Redgrave as Polly Peachum in The Threepenny Opera.
Vanessa Redgrave as Polly Peachum in The Threepenny Opera. Photograph: Donald Cooper/Alamy

VR: We were a right old gang, weren’t we?

MM: Do you remember, V, when you talked to your ex-husband Tony [Richardson] about Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams when we did it in 1988? And he said: “I think you should play her as Italian.” That was an amazing experience. You just said: “I’m going to try something different tonight – I’ve always played it southern before, but I think she’s Italian, and I’m going to play her Italian.” And you did – and, ever after that, she was Italian.

VR: Some people were quite shocked …

MM: I love it when it’s dangerous! We should frighten ourselves. I’m always frightened because I’m scared of failure. Of not being good enough. I’m sure we all feel that. After a length of time in the theatre, people expect you to be good. So there is the burden of expectation. You must get that?

VR: No, I don’t get scared. I’ve been in so many situations that are scary – in the theatre and far away from the theatre. I’m just glad to be trying to fill the shoes and skin of a character. Orpheus Descending was a wonderful play; the kind one longs to be in.

MM: You’re better in your attitude than I am. I suppose to be frightened of failure is just an expression of extreme egoism.

Jean-Marc Barr and Miriam Margolyes in Orpheus Descending.
Jean-Marc Barr and Miriam Margolyes in Orpheus Descending. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

VR: I don’t think so. I think it’s very scrupulous of you, in the best way.

MM: It is exciting when you can forget yourself. That’s what happens in the best moments when you’re on stage – you’re not you, you’re the person you’re playing. I feel so sad now for all those young drama students. Suddenly there is no theatre.

VR: It will be impossibly hard for most because of the lack of financial support – not only for drama students but the myriads of wonderful creative people, and I count the technical people among them. I don’t really like the division into creatives and technicals. There are all those people whose work was primarily in the West End, and they have no shows – like a trumpeter who I asked to join us outside the National Theatre when we called for some of the people like Netflix to rescue British culture. Last year, I went up to Manchester to get together with [Manchester mayor] Andy Burnham and his team; I went with a wonderful violinist, Jennifer Pike. The idea was to ask the press to help communicate what we mean when we say: support the arts. I asked her to play a piece by Vaughan Williams, The Lark Ascending. It was a favourite of my mum’s. I met Vaughan Williams once. That’s the advantage of being 84. I had tea with him and my mum. Anyway, after Jennifer played, she said: “This is the first time I’ve played for an audience for months.”

MM: We’ve forgotten how to be an audience. We’re all at home, streaming movies. That excitement of being in a room with other people, experiencing the same moment, being part of what I call the golden thread between the stage and the audience. Will it happen again? Will it be safe for people to be in the same room with other people?

VR: The last play I went to see was last year; Beat the Devil, with Ralph Fiennes, by David Hare, about when he got Covid. My God, was Ralph brilliant.

MM: I’m frightened to go to the theatre. Other people have become the danger. You get the virus from other people. Have you had the vaccine?

VR: I’ve had the first jab. But the government isn’t listening to the scientists.

MM: They’re absolute nitwits! I’ve never been governed by such a crowd of corrupt incompetents in my life. I’m absolutely furious about it. And this whole Brexit thing is affecting our business, too. Musicians are not able to get jobs in Europe. It’s catastrophic. I want to grow old feeling optimistic and grateful, but it’s not happening. I am growing older, angry and disappointed. I’m getting further and further to the left. Usually, when you get older, you go further to the right.

VR: Well, make sure you keep a good diet, darling – keep the anger fuelled!

MM: My darling I have to lose weight. I’ve been trying to lose weight all my life. I’m still a rotund little Jew. That’s what I am. But, you know, I’m trying!

VR: Chris, I think we should have a bit of an intervention here!

CW: OK – what have you admired about each other’s careers?

MM: I’ve admired Vanessa! I don’t expect her to admire me, I’m not in that league.

VR: I do admire you! But I can’t say I admire you because of your choice of parts or your career. I admire the way you work with a company and how straightforward you are, which is something I treasure.

MM: That’s just a personality thing. I find it difficult not to be transparent. What I admire about Vanessa is that she is able to combine extraordinary technical ability with complete truth. That’s very rare. She doesn’t act; she just is. And she startles you.

VR: Well, may I say, you’re the same. It’s true of any good actress. By the way, Guardian, could you stop calling actresses “actors”?

MM: Yes, I’m an actress! On my passport I’m an actress.

VR: Anyway, I think when push comes to shove, we both have transparency.

MM: I hope so. I never expected in my life that I would ever talk to Vanessa Redgrave and that she would ever be a friend of mine because she has been for so long on a different pinnacle from most actors. But when you get to know her, you see this extraordinarily gentle – and fierce by the way – human. She’s a cook, a mother, a colleague, a fighter, a joiner, a carer. She’s a huge human being.

Vanessa Redgrave (Olga), Lynn Redgrave (Masha) and Jemma Redgrave (Irina) in Three Sisters in 1990.
Vanessa Redgrave (Olga), Lynn Redgrave (Masha) and Jemma Redgrave (Irina) in Three Sisters in 1990. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

CW: Are there characters you’ve both played? You each did The Cherry Orchard, didn’t you?

MM: Yes, I did mine at Theatre Royal in York [in 1999] and Vanessa’s was at the National [in 2000].

VR: We did it in the Cottesloe first and that was perfect. Then it transferred to the Olivier and it was too much.

MM: Well, that’s too big for it. I loved The Cherry Orchard, it was a wonderful experience. I’ve never played any other Chekhov roles. I’m sad about that, but glad I got the chance to do it. You’ve played them all!

VR: I wish I had! I played Olga in The Three Sisters [in 1990].

MM: Chekhov is my favourite writer.

VR: Mine too, from classical theatre.

CW: What’s so great about Chekhov?

VR: What’s so great about Chekhov? You tell us! Yeah … go on!

CW: Well … I like the melancholia and the humour together. What’s it like to play in Chekhov?

VR: Chekhov writes directly from life.

MM: There’s something about the Russian character that means, I think, that emotion is very reachable – they don’t have to dig deep for it as I believe the English do. We bury our emotions. Theirs are very available. He was able to show that turning on a sixpence: from laughter to tears, rage to love.

VR: And farce! The farce of life.

MM: He was able to go with you through the human experience. It’s all there. The Russian actors whom I saw do Chekhov were able to do that. It wasn’t emoting. They were able to reach their innermost bits very easily. It wasn’t a struggle to get there. I think I’m good at that sort of thing because I’m Jewish. And Jewish people are a bit like Russians – it’s all there, just under the skin, too much sometimes, of course.

VR: Did you see the wonderful Uncle Vanya last year, with Toby Jones?

Toby Jones and Richard Armitage in Uncle Vanya in 2020.
Toby Jones and Richard Armitage in Uncle Vanya in 2020. Photograph: Johan Persson/Johan Persson/ ArenaPAL

MM: I saw it on TV – it was fantastic. It gave me joy again. I do think Toby is a wonderful actor. And he lives in Stockwell! Quite near me!

VR: Stockwell brings to my mind my first husband’s second wife. I liked her very much. She lived in Stockwell.

MM: How many husbands have you had, Vanessa?

VR: Oh, not enough. But I’ve got a lovely second husband, Franco Nero.

MM: Yes he’s lovely.

VR: He’s still making films and keeping an orphanage going in the hills outside Rome. He’s done that since before I met him. I’ve got a small film company with my son Carlo, and we’re working hard to get financing. It’s always the most difficult part.

CW: You’ve both acted on screen and stage. What’s the difference in how you approach them?

VR: I’ve learned so much from film-making. Plays have always tended to be logical from beginning to end. So you can sort of see what’s coming even if the playwright manages to surprise you, which we all know is a good idea. But life is quite different from how a playwright has to put it down on paper. When you’re filming, it’s different. You can’t be thinking: oh what happened before? It’s no use thinking like that. You have to be in the moment, nowhere else. That’s how life happens. That influenced my approach to theatre – to not think: oh, yesterday so-and-so did this and that made me feel extremely angry. Because life isn’t like that.

Tom Hickey and Miriam Margolyes in Endgame in 2009.
Tom Hickey and Miriam Margolyes in Endgame in 2009. Photograph: Donald Cooper/Shutterstock

MM: I’ve always felt more at home on stage than in front of a camera. I’m not truly interested in the process of filming. The minute you get on stage, the terror leaves you – it’s in the wings. Then you become the character. And you’ve got that other element – the audience – who you can’t see, but you feel with every pore in your skin. You hear them, smell them, and yet you’re still inside your character. When you feel that you’re explaining the character properly, showing what should be shown to the audience, and you feel them drinking in what you’re offering, it’s the most extraordinary feeling of joy and gratitude. I just don’t get that from the camera. I’m happy to be in films and I enjoy them, but the transcendent joy for me is on the stage.

VR: What is so special about theatre, to those of us in the audience and those of us who have had any time on the stage, is that each second is unique. It hasn’t been done before and it’s not going to be done again. Of course, it’s all been done before, and if it’s a success it’ll be done again and again and again. That’s superficially. But if you go into it deeply, what you are actually experiencing is that wonderful moment of knowing it’s as near to real life as you get. And learning from it all is wonderful – learning more about the weirdness and glory of humankind.

MM: There’s nothing like it. It’s better than ice-cream!

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