Make-believe is something quite hard to reconcile with this most grittily grounded and politically aware of actresses. Or with the socially engaged play in which she is currently appearing. The Inheritance is an epic by Puerto Rican-American Matthew Lopez — Redgrave describes the 40-year-old as “like a new planet; the new America: Trump can’t beat it” — a moving, clever, intricately woven (and very, very long) piece based around EM Forster’s Howards End about the Aids epidemic, love, loss, pain, social exclusion, human consequences. Redgrave is the only woman in a huge young male cast to whom she pays sincere tribute — as she does to its director Stephen Daldry. It’s a stunning piece, and when she discovers that I spent the full six and a half hours the previous Saturday watching both parts I and II, she exclaims with genuine delight: “Oh, you did! Good, that’s very good!”
I wonder for a moment whether her own comment about theatre-going makes it all right to say — this production aside — that I tend to prefer the 90-minute-no-interval sort of play, but I decide against it.
As she is a regular at San Lorenzo, the staff are attentive but self-effacing, and the few other lunchers are probably too accustomed to famous faces, in this celebrity haunt, to be so rude as to stare. Two women at the next table spend an extraordinarily long time discussing chairs for a wedding reception. Redgrave knows immediately what she would like to order: some fried baby artichokes, which we can share, she suggests, and a large minestrone. Or, she asks me attentively, would you rather have the zucchini? I suggest both; she says that would be too much.
She chats to the waiter in easy Italian (she tells me that she gave her acceptance speech earlier this year for the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in Italian, to some consternation). When he shrugs in elaborate apology that the artichokes haven’t arrived that day, she switches us decisively to the zucchini fritti instead.
I ask for the minestrone too, and since it’s Monday, one of only two days in the week when she isn’t on stage, we each decide on a glass of wine. “I always go for the plonk. There’s a word for plonk,” she laughs, “it’s Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Though actually I’ll just have the house red, and we’ll see what they come up with.”
Then, very courteously, she starts to interview me. There are polite questions about work — “You cover all the arts, but not literature? How come? Did you go to university? What did you read? English, did that include foreign literature?” — and often interjecting with, “Do say more, I’m interested.” In a clever sideways move, she quickly finds out my exact age. I feel thoroughly, but gently, sized up by the bright blue eyes.
In an effort to turn the questioning round, I ask Redgrave whether she finds her role in The Inheritance a gruelling schedule. She is after all 81, and has suffered from ill health related to years of heavy smoking. “No, but I get very frightened. I play so late on, in part II, there is time for all the fears to creep in — which is no bad thing.”
And then, in a way that I’m rapidly coming to see as typical, she veers seamlessly away from talking about herself into wider issues, and suddenly we are deep in discussion about the implications of poor education about Aids, the plight of gay people in Russia, never mind African countries, and much more. Once she cuts across one of her own points with: “Actually I hadn’t quite thought of it like that before — this is the nice side of being interviewed ... ”
A delicate plate of zucchini strips, lightly battered and fried, has arrived in front of us, together with a small basket of warm bread. “Fatto in casa?” Redgrave asks the beaming waiter — though I think she knows it is indeed homemade. I eat most of it.
I return to the question of directors: I’ve noticed that each time she mentions a play or a film, it’s the director she remembers. In all her conversation Redgrave is very courteous but very careful — clearly she has been singed by press interviews in the past, and is on record criticising both personal intrusions and some rather crude attacks on her political activism. But when occasionally she slips in a disparaging remark about the superficiality of “the media”, her good manners prevail and she quickly checks herself so as not to offend me.
“When you get to my age, you’ve worked with some wonderful people and inevitably you’ve worked with some not-so-wonderful people ... I don’t know how to put it without making an opaque public criticism. There’s too much going on to worry about for people’s feelings to be hurt. But you get to work with some people who don’t really know what they’re doing, or how to do it. For me, that’s very, very difficult. I can’t help seeing that mistakes are being made. And that’s not taken happily.
“What’s remarkable about Stephen [Daldry] — and I only know one other director who did this and that was Tony Richardson [her first husband] and he died — everyone feels they are being guided but you feel completely free and happy, you can concentrate all the more because there’s a light-hearted joyous atmosphere. Even though I’ve done an awful lot of serious plays, tragedies and so on.”