Vanessa Redgrave, by contrast, has lived her entire life looking outwards, engaged with her art and with the world. Even so, I’m growling to myself as I leave her flat that this was a perfect bit of casting. Because the admirable Vanessa Redgrave, who has used her fame to speak for those whose voices are not heard, sat outside prisons, stood on picket lines, campaigned for refugees and travelled the world for UNICEF, is also very difficult.
The flat is comfortably overstuffed; the Oscar sits on a bookshelf among a cosy clutter of other memorabilia and walls of books, and a maquette of a stage set occupies one table-top. ‘‘What play is this from?’’ I ask. When I bend over, I can see the boughs of fruit trees across the top of the stage. “The Cherry Orchard. As you can see,” she says sharply. There follows an hour during which she parries every question I ask with scepticism or a brisk correction. She is not, as you may have thought, an activist. “Who describes people that way? It’s a lazy formula, I would say. Sorry, that’s just my opinion.” I ask whether she feels her political outlook has changed since she was a leading light in the Workers Revolutionary Party. There is a delicately frosty beat of silence. “Is that the subject of our interview?” she says at last.
Redgrave complains, with justification, that interviewers who come to talk to her for ostensibly other reasons are always zeroing in on her Trotskyist period, when she was in her 30s. She has stated firmly and many times since that she is committed to human rights under any kind of government and that, while she may have strayed from that path in the past, she is convinced now that “politics is about divisions’’ and thus ‘‘negative, period”.
“I’ve been a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF for, oh, at least 30 years,” she says now. She was actually appointed in 1995: a long time ago, anyway. “But all the questions don’t come about that, you see. So a little tick-tock in my mind says, ‘Hello, why not?’ Do you see what I’m saying?’ The media is counter-progressive”, she says, so a hostile purpose is to be expected. “It’s interesting, also, because I’m an actress.” That she is. I recall some of her vibrant film and stage performances as markers in my own life. First came Camelot (1967), with Redgrave luminous as Guenevere even on our black and white television, romanced by Franco Nero – with whom she would have a son, Carlo, now a film producer, and marry 40 years later – as Lancelot. I remember writing a whole page in my diary about Karel Reisz’s Isadora (1968) as a romantic 13-year-old; was it possible to one day be so wild and free? Blow-Up (1966), Michelangelo Antonioni’s enigmatic portrait of swinging London, was a university discovery.
Later in life, she brought one of my favourite books, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1997), to shimmering life and stole scenes in smaller parts in films such as Foxcatcher (2014). She’s always been there, a thespian North Star. I am able to tell her, the first thing I ever saw in London, the day after I got off the plane in the spring of 1986, was Redgrave with Timothy Dalton in a terrific interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew. Redgrave is pleased by that. She even hugs me when I leave, very sweetly.
By that time, however, I’m reeling from a surreal exchange we have had about her controversial – as I saw it, apparently mistakenly – support for the Palestinians’ fight for a homeland. I ask how she managed to tough out being branded an anti-Semite, a painful slur for someone whose politics were forged at the end of the war against fascism. “I have never been accused of that,’’ she says. ‘‘Who are you thinking of?” I’m not accusing you, I start to say. “No, but who?”
It’s an extraordinary question. Redgrave bankrolled and starred in a documentary called The Palestinian in 1977; an American cinema showing the film was bombed. When she was nominated for best supporting actress at that year’s Oscars, Jewish Defence League demonstrators protested outside. Undeterred, Redgrave thanked the Academy in her acceptance speech for refusing to be cowed by “Zionist hoodlums”.
It is an industry truism that these words put paid to her Hollywood film career for decades. A few years later, she sued the Boston Symphony Orchestra for lost earnings and violating her civil rights after they cancelled her scheduled engagement to narrate Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, bowing to pressure from their subscribers. But nobody has ever described her as an anti-Semite? “To my knowledge – and of course, I have to say to my knowledge, no. But I’m not infallible, so maybe you know of someone who has.”
Fortunately, we have the perfect intermediary in this weird war of words: her dog, delivered to the door about 10 minutes after I arrive by a dog-walker. Zeppelin is a poodle-Pomeranian cross, a dead ringer for Hairy Maclary who spots me as the sucker who will embrace anything on four legs that says woof.
“I’m a sucker too, when it’s appropriate. Now I don’t feel it’s appropriate,” Redgrave says. She’s being stern, but this time she’s also laughing. She bought the dog with her daughter Joely for her grand-daughter, but they lent her back when she had the heart attack. Redgrave fishes round for the right expression for a support dog. “I just found out from a meeting with accountants that the English Revenue don’t recognise that, but it is recognised in every other way. I can’t claim tax off for her very expensive life.”
Before her health problems kicked in, Redgrave endured a terrible sequence of bereavements, beginning with the shocking loss of her elder daughter Natasha after a skiing accident in March 2009. Redgrave’s brother, Corin, had his own heart attack and died in April 2010, then her sister Lynn – also an accomplished actress, who rose to fame in the ’60s in Georgy Girl – died of breast cancer the following month. I am not going to ask her to go over that ground again, but she has said grief ‘‘is a very strange country that does strange things to your mind’’.
After the heart attack, she said she had a renewed urge to cleave to her family, spending as much time as possible with her grandchildren. “I thought I appreciated everything pretty well,” she told an interviewer at the time. “That I cared about my profession, my family, the seasons, nature, flowers, science, art. All of it. But compared to how I notice and appreciate things now? Before this, I didn’t care at all.”
She also gave up the cigarettes that had nearly killed her. She has said she is left with only 30 per cent lung function – although, quoting this, I should add that she has also denied it. That’s how she rolls, but she certainly had a terrible time of it. She is still a striking woman – tall, broad-shouldered and beautiful – but her voice intermittently wanes into faintness as she speaks. She is so skilled, however, that she can work around it. Just one year after her stay in hospital, she was back on stage at the Almeida playing Queen Margaret in Ralph Fiennes’ very fine Richard III. Another terrifying matriarch; she was marvellous.
When it came to Mrs Lowry, she says she fixed not on the woman’s obvious cantankerousness, but on the fact that she had played the piano well enough to think she could be a concert pianist. Perhaps I don’t know this, she says, but Manchester’s industrial wealth supported musical excellence, including a renowned symphony orchestra.
“If there was just enough money for her to have a little allowance, and to spend her allowance on going to concerts, I imagine she would have got inspired to play music as well as she could,” she says. “Then various events conspired, as they do, to rob her of her dreams and so I imagined that her being robbed of dreams had created a huge – what shall we say – a tangle in her psychologically.” She is no expert, she says; that’s one of her refrains. “But I could imagine very vividly her longing, because music assists longings, creates longings, soothes longings, engenders longings in anybody and everybody.”
Later, she tells me a long story about working with a musician who taught the cast to make sounds by knocking stones together. She and her sister were part of an all-women cast in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot performed on an island off the coast of the former Yugoslavia that was, she says, a women’s concentration camp in the ’60s under Tito. “We set Waiting for Godot among what’s left, which is stone, heaps of stone and rubble. Of course, we talked to survivors. Very terrifying, with its own particular terror, which is to say it was physically horrifying, with torture and beatings and everything, but then there were some nasty particularities as well.” There are many of these digressive stories, apropos of very little but evidence of a life teeming with tremendous doings. “I’m rambling,” she says intermittently. “You have every right to stop me.” But who would want to?
It strikes me that when Redgrave entered the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in 1954 to become a Shakespearean actress, there was a general sense that the world was on an upward, progressive trajectory. Her parents were Labour supporters who were thrilled in 1945 to have helped elect the government that would set up the National Health Service and nationalise the railways.
Redgrave often says she was and remains inspired by hearing the Declaration of Human Rights read aloud on the radio in 1948. The times have certainly changed since then, as an election likely to confirm Boris Johnson as prime minister looms and the best hope of arresting climate change rests on a children’s crusade.
Vanessa Redgrave, however, keeps beating on, a boat against the current, optimism undimmed. “I don’t think the issue is optimism or pessimism,” she chides me. “It’s not a mood. What is optimism? A state of mind? I know what can be achieved under the most unlikely circumstances. I know it from examples in my own life. I know it from my reading. It’s not pessimistic to see a whole lot of things that are happening and know they are horror, because they are. It’s not optimism to detect that there are possibilities of change, because change is inherent in everything; otherwise there would be no life.” She stops for a moment. “You must stop me rambling on,” she says with asperity. “But you set me off.” There’s really nothing to be said about that. Better, I think, just to tickle Zeppelin behind the ears and let the moment pass.
Mrs Lowry & Son opens on November 28.
Stephanie Bunbury joined Fairfax after studying fine arts and film at university, but soon discovered her inner backpacker and obeyed that call. She has spent the past two decades flitting between Europe and Australia, writing about film, culture high and low and the arts.