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Our leading lady, Vanessa Redgrave
VANESSA Redgrave is near enough royalty in the theatre world.
The daughter of the late Sir Michael Redgrave, her birth in 1937 was announced by Laurence Olivier during a performance of Hamlet. Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams called her “the greatest living actress of our times”.
She has appeared in more than 80 films, made scores of appearances in the West End and on Broadway and won, well, pretty much every award going – an Oscar, an Emmy, a Golden Globe, a Tony and the Screen Actors Guild Award. Most recently, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science broke with convention to make its first European tribute to her.
Now 75, one might expect her to be taking time out to rest on those laurels. But that doesn’t appear to be in her nature. “The further I go [in acting] the more I learn that I still have a long way to go,” she tells The Argus in the Circle Bar of the Theatre Royal Brighton.
Ms Redgrave has just made her first public appearance as guest director of this year’s Brighton Festival, a role she describes as a great opportunity. “I’ve acted a lot in England but this is the first festival I’ve really been a part of and I think I’m very lucky.”
Brighton has long been a special place for her; she recalls watching her father perform in the Theatre Royal and has performed here herself on several occasions. She has also attended numerous trade union conferences and political rallies in the city. Activism has always run alongside Ms Redgrave’s acting career.
Since 1995, she has been a Unicef Goodwill Ambassador and has lent her weight to many other causes besides, from the release of inmates at Guantanamo Bay to protesting against the eviction of travellers at Dale Farm in Essex. Even at the age of six, she recalls “I got it embedded in my mind that you had to look after everyone and I wished I was old enough to do that.”
Her influence on this year’s Brighton Festival programme is evident in the number of events with a political or social message. Can We Talk About This? Is dance company DV8’s examination of the pivotal events that have shaped multicultural policies, while A World I Loved is a stage interpretation of Arab woman Wadad Makdisi Cortas’ memoirs, which Ms Redgrave will narrate.
She also highlights Be Outraged!, an event arranged by Carlo Nero (her son with actor Franco Nero whom she “married” in a non-legally binding ceremony in 2006) and economist Richard Jolly from the University of Sussex’s Institute of Development Studies.
The discussion will look at the alternatives to the banker-dominated crisis currently gripping the world. “They are outraged about what has been going on in the past which has inflicted poverty on many countries and about [the UK’s] austerity programme which I’m also outraged by because it’s pulling the carpet from under so many people’s feet.”
But Ms Redgrave sees the Festival primarily as a means of uplifting people during difficult times.
“The arts go deeper than other forms of communication and they don’t go in a straight line and that’s how it should be,” she tells The Argus. “They give people a spirit and energy and the ability to draw new breath.”
In conflict situations, arts are crucial in keeping people’s spirits up, she adds.
“Of course, we’re not under bombing and shelling here in Brighton. But things are very hard in the UK. People can’t even turn their gas fires on because of the price. But if you can listen to the radio and hear a beautiful piece of music, or if you can come to some of the many free events at the Festival, then it helps us all, not only to feel together – because we do these things communally – but also to feel better.”
Ms Redgrave has had to weather numerous storms of her own in the last few years. In 2009, she lost Natasha, her daughter with first husband Tony Richardson and the wife of actor Liam Neeson, to a skiing accident. Her brother Corin, who suffered a heart attack while campaigning with Ms Redgrave at the Dale Farm site, died in 2010, followed a month later by her sister Lynn. Family is evidently very important to the actress; while son Carlo told the Brighton Festival launch audience about his film The Killing Fields, Ms Redgrave looked on adoringly.
Her other daughter, the Hollywood actress Joely Richardson, is hoped to appear with Ms Redgrave in a BAFTA Festival event celebrating her mother’s career and life and Ms Redgrave has also spoken of her hopes that her five grandchildren will join her in leading the Children’s Parade, which traditionally opens the Festival.
Despite her stature, she is a warm and distinctly un-starry presence as she chats to journalists and TV crews in the Circle Bar, happy to get stuck in with this new strand to her career.
“Still today, as when I was first a leftwing student and began to get work as an actress, I feel so lucky to have met the people I have and the people I’m meeting today – [Arts Council England regional director] Sally Abbott, [journalist and Brighton Festival chair] Polly Toynbee, The Argus… “It’s wonderful what the Festival does in giving people real contact with each other. I love that.
“I think it’s better than Champagne!”