Sunday, January 19, 2020

Alan Strachan – ‘Secret Dreams: A Biography of Michael Redgrave’

Michael Redgrave as Ernest Worthing clattering his teacup against its saucer as he proposes to Joan Greenwood’s Gwendoline Fairfax in Anthony Asquith’s The Importance of Being Earnest has long been one of my favourite moments in film. It’s so nervous, and so perfectly controlled. Gwendoline, of course, is not nervous at all: she has been expecting this, and encourages the moment to its crisis with austere amusement. Ernest (if we leave aside immense wealth, which for these purposes I think we’d better) has only feeling and sincerity on his side and, as will soon become apparent, his birth is wanting. If he is not quite the gentleman he seems, neither is Redgrave’s acting as English as it seems, as Strachan argues in the epilogue of his biography:
despite the brilliant technical sheen of its acting the British theatre of the mid twentieth century was fashioned from theatre itself rather than from reality. In effect, at that time life was used rather than created in the acting on British stages and screens.
        However, at the very core of Michael’s being as an actor […] was the impulse to start from the living natural processes of which the actor must be conscious. This almost sacerdotal belief, which led showmen such as [Tony] Guthrie or actors schooled and happy in the easy West End world’s attitude of ‘just say the lines and don’t bump into the furniture’ to describe Michael at times as ‘difficult’ or over-serious, was grounded in what he took from Stanislavsky and Saint-Denis, based on the latter’s insistence that in all acting the key question should always be ‘Why?’ rather than ‘How?’. The base conviction was that the starting point and development of any part in any play was never the individual role in isolation but the unfolding of a whole course of events and the evolving relationship of each role to the others within the course of the actions in the play, taking place at a specific time and under particular conditions. (pp. 543-4)
He goes on to quote Vanessa Redgrave on working with her father:
At each and every moment he would be listening to and looking at the other actors on the stage, as if for the first time, and allow the events, what they did and said, to activate his actions, thoughts and words. (p. 544)
This is a theatre-centric biography by a theatre director (who directed Redgrave in The Old Boys in 1971), which I found more absorbing as it progressed; possibly because of its subject’s struggles in later life, with anxiety following horrendous treatment by Laurence Olivier during the first season of the National Theatre in 1963 (Olivier plays villain twice in this book, as he also spikes the guns of Redgrave’s planned film of Antony and Cleopatra by pretending to be about to film it himself), and after that with Parkinson’s Disease. It navigates his sex life well, treating a string of extra-marital relationships with men as manifestations of his bisexuality, about which he was honest with his wife, Rachel Kempson, before they got married. It doesn’t claim that this had no effect on their own relationship, or that it didn’t cause considerable pain to Kempson, but it is clear that their marriage was no sham, and that this arrangement worked, for the most part. He didn’t tell her until decades later about a serious relationship during their marriage with another woman, Edith Evans (Lady Bracknell in the 1952 film of Earnest, though the affair was in the 1930s), and it feels much more appropriate to call that an affair. There is a vast quantity of cameos, and it’s the kind of book which enriches and is enriched by other histories of the period, I think. Orson Welles and Fritz Lang are both skewered: the former for the laziness of the Mr Arkadin script; the latter for being a prima donna director trading on his own myth (although the importance of his 1920s films to a young Michael is also stressed). Having recently read Micheál MacLiammóir’s amazing Put Money in thy Purse, an account taken from his diaries of the filming of Welles’ Othello, it was interesting to read of the (I’d always assumed) Irishman:
A genuine spellbinder, MacLiammóir – originally Alfred Wilmore from Kensal Rise – had arrived in Ireland at twenty-eight where he fell in love with [Hilton] Edwards and all the seductiveness of the Celtic Twilight, staying on to reinvent himself and to reject England. (p. 434)
Sensible fellow.

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