VANESSA Redgrave has built an international reputation for brilliant performances in plays and films and for espousing controversial political causes. Now 82, she’s not stopping.
Her latest venture, Vienna 1934-Munich 1938 – a family album, is on stage as part of Bath Theatre Royal’s summer season, until 3rd August. You couldn’t describe it as a play, and you couldn’t deny that in lesser hands it would not have found its way to the Ustinov stage.
But the actress and director comes from probably the most famous theatrical family in the country, and its genes and tentacles have spread through artistic society for almost a century.
The evening’s subtitle is the clue. Vanessa Redgrave has sifted through the extensive archives – albums, diaries, notebooks and jottings – to distill a story of love, passion and politics that follows her ancestors through five years immediately preceding the Second World War.
And why? Perhaps because her unquenched passion means she can’t let the parallels between the situation in 1930s Europe and today go unremarked.
The show opens with a chat between Vanessa and her audience, handing round some of the documents she used for her researches. Most of it is covered in the programme notes, but not all.
Drawing from Michael Redgrave’s notebooks, and those of his friend, the poet and painter Stephen Spender, the next scene shows Spender and his lovers Tony Hyndman and Muriel Gardiner, an American heiress whose work involved helping Jewish socialists escape the Nazis.
Later we meet Michael Redgrave and his son, Vanessa’s younger brother Corin, and then her mother Rachel Kempson, uncle Nicholas Kempson, and finally the Nobel prizewinning writer Thomas Mann.
All of these are brought to life on stage by three actors, Lucy Doyle making her impressive professional stage debut, the versatile Robert Boulter and the extraordinarily powerful Paul Hilton. Both Boulter and Hilton were in the cast of Redgrave’s last London play, The Inheritance, where Hilton played EM Forster in the massive work.
The story introduces many other figures from the past, some of them just names to a modern audience.
The warnings are plain to see and the links (even if they might connect Dame Edna Everage to WH Auden and Neville Chamberlain) are chilling.
Vanessa Redgrave has enraged many critics in her time, from her use of her 1977 Julia Oscar speech to call the Zionists to account for their treatment of the Palestinians to her family’s espousal of the Workers Revolutionary Party, whose name alone caused fear and ferment in the conservative ranks of both main political parties.
It might be said that this play’s purpose is to allow an audience, drowning in Brexit, the international growth of right wing movements and Trumpist America, to hear Thomas Mann’s 1938 speech “This Peace”. It magnificently and electrifyingly ends the evening, and Paul Hilton’s mesmerising delivery left the audience silent.
It is not a play, but it is an evening of insights, snippets of family memories with a great actress and it is a wake-up call.