Actress Vanessa Redgrave.
Actress Vanessa Redgrave.
Image: Getty Images / Vittorio Zunino Celotto

When Vanessa Redgrave walks on stage in The Inheritance in London’s West End, some five hours into this two-part theatrical marathon, the audience bursts into applause. Just because she is there. But sitting in the Monday quiet of South Kensington’s San Lorenzo restaurant, where we meet for lunch, she makes light of her celebrity status. “Oh, there must have been a lot of Americans there that night. Americans always do that, clap the star when they appear. They’re very old-fashioned with their Broadway customs, in some ways.

“But you feel a pressure to work harder, to get the audience to drop all those thoughts about seeing the stars and instead to think about what’s really going on. And you have to try to persuade them to turn the volume down, it’s always so loud. The whole of theatre-going America seems to have something wrong with its ears.”

San Lorenzo is a favourite of hers, and we sit at a quiet round table that she has chosen in the restaurant’s cosy glass extension, with olive trees, vines and geraniums in pots outside the glass evoking Italian sunshine even on a dull London day. But she almost suggested, she tells me, that we meet in Gaby’s Deli, the fabled Jewish eaterie on Charing Cross Road, almost the last cheap and delicious place in London’s Theatreland — because of the sad news that it is closing its doors.

“Goodbye to the last bit of reality and hello to trash — again,” she says. “Another place reduced to shoddy trashdom.”

It was an immediate flash of the fiery campaigning spirit that so many people associate with this venerable actress, at 81 a leading light of the British cultural scene for nearly six decades. After a brilliant RSC debut in 1961, in 1966 Redgrave played The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in the theatre and became one of the faces of Swinging London when she starred in the two hippest British films of the 1960s (or possibly ever) — Karel Reisz’s Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, and Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Across the decades since then, her credits in both film and theatre attest to one of the great careers.

And she doesn’t seem to slow down: a new film of The Aspern Papers, in which she stars with her daughter Joely Richardson, will soon be released and she is just starting recordings for the eighth series of the British television smash-hit Call the Midwife, which has brought her voice to millions.

At the same time — and perhaps uniquely in her profession — she has maintained a passionate political activism that has ranged from the extreme left to, these days, a less radical — but still outspoken — position. Right now it is the migrant crisis that most occupies her. I’m looking forward to some lively debate. I’m also rather scared.

We start talking about the theatre and some of her mightiest roles — of playing in Long Day’s Journey into Night on Broadway, for a run of 17 weeks in 2003, she says that each night “felt like about 10 hours, although it was only four”. And sure enough she disconcerts me almost right away when she declares, with a straight look from those mighty blue eyes, “I don’t like going to the theatre much.”

“Theatres are strange places to have plays performed in,” she laughs. “I like mountainsides and places like that. I like make-believe, you see. And it’s hard to mix make-believe — a silly expression I know — with the mechanics of going to the theatre.”

WATCH | Vanessa Redgrave's most recent film, The Aspern Papers, trailer:

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.”

Theatres are strange places to have plays performed in. I like mountainsides and places like that. I like make-believe, you see

Redgrave comes from an illustrious theatrical dynasty: daughter of famous actors Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson, both her siblings (Corin and Lynn) were also actors. She pays warm tribute to the lovingness of her mother and to her highly cultured upbringing, with Yehudi Menuhin among other close family friends. Her two daughters, Natasha (who died in a skiing accident in 2009) and Joely Richardson followed her into the profession, as has her granddaughter Daisy Bevan. Her niece is the actress Jemma Richardson; Liam Neeson is her son-in-law. Perhaps it is this that makes her mention family members as if they are public figures: when I ask about her own first foray into directing last year, with a documentary about the refugee crisis entitled Sea Sorrow that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, she replies: “I was very much guided by my producer Carlo Nero, he’s a real movie maker.”

That would be Carlo Nero, her son with her second husband, Italian actor and producer Franco Nero. Together with Carlo, she set up a production company, Dissent Projects, for the ambitious travels involved in a documentary that sees her in front of the camera as much as behind it.

The minestrone arrives, steaming bowls full of prettily coloured vegetables. “Oh this looks so good!” she exclaims with great relish, although she eats very slowly and very little.

For someone with such a luminous past career, she lives very much in the present, preferring to talk about the latest government policies on the refugee crisis, or the disgraceful treatment of soldiers, or visiting Kosovo for the liberation, or Canada’s work on landmines, or Donald Trump, than her own glories. Although she has won almost every award and accolade her profession has to offer, and starred in countless landmark productions, she punctuates her conversation with comments such as “Of course, my experience is limited” and “I’m not an expert in anything”.

Yet there’s no uncertainty about her views. She became known for her outspoken political commitment from the 1970s, when she joined the Workers Revolutionary party with her brother Corin — although now she says that communism was “built on lies”. When I ask about her early attraction to Marxism she explains that she was “hungry for education” (she twice mentions that she didn’t go to university) and understanding about the dialectical materialist approach. In 1977, she got herself into very public political trouble. Violent threats followed her funding and narration of a documentary entitled The Palestinian, largely about the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and when making her Oscar acceptance speech for her Best Supporting Actress role in Julia, the same year, her reference to extreme Zionist factions was very badly received by an industry that does not welcome such outspokenness.

My soup is long finished, hers is only half eaten; when the waiter comes to inquire, she waves her plate away, busy as she is talking about Marxist philosopher Evald Ilyenkov. We decide to pick at some cheese: dolcelatte with walnuts, and pecorino with pear. And I’m in urgent need of a double macchiato.

Back to politics. When I ask Redgrave about those days, and whether (as some have said) her political stance affected her career and made her anathema in Hollywood for some time, she deflects the question into an anecdote.

“This is how I see it, I don’t mind how other people see it — here’s an example — my brother and I and some others in the Workers Revolutionary party brought a libel case against The Observer: we finally got it into court and I was working in a wonderful production of The Lady from the Sea at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, so I had to be in court in London in the day and then had to run to the station to get up to Manchester. I think I put in some strong performances.

“I prefer to use that as a specific example rather than approaching it in the way the media usually do. Which is superficial. Completely superficial.”

The restaurant is empty now and it’s time to go, but we are still enjoyably talking — about the future, not the past. Her documentary Sea Sorrow, and ways of distributing it, and furthering the campaign for refugees, are at the front of Redgrave’s mind. It stands on its own, she says — but it is also very much a “campaigning” film.

“Do you realise our governments are repeating almost exactly what the Chamberlain government did in the ’30s, which was refusing visas to save refugees from the Nazis? It was a disgrace, a disgrace. It freezes my blood, what is happening now. I feel such anguish. I know an awful lot of history: I’ve put in lots of study to try to get across what we are saying. And that each of us is responsible, if we don’t do what little we can do. That little means a lot. I’m still working away ... ”

- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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