"An actor is in the eye of the beholder, isn't she?" Lynn Redgrave remarked last March while on a publicity visit for her autobiographical one-woman show, Shakespeare for My Father, which starts June 2 at the Alley Theatre. Best known for her Oscar-nominated title role in the 1966 film Georgy Girl, this two-time Tony and Emmy nominee and founding member of Britain's National Theatre conceived and wrote the much-praised, widely traveled play. "Performances are locked only in the memory of those who see them," she said. "And this sense of how fleeting acting is, how we're just locked in people's memories and in their stories -- the play is a lot about this, about tracing, trying to pin life down."
Part of Redgrave's desire to take note of her life stems from the unfortunate fact that her father, the great actor Sir Michael Redgrave, didn't. After his death, the actress came across a journal the universally beloved thespian kept throughout his adult life; his entry for March 8, 1943, recounts a luncheon, a rehearsal, an air raid on London, everything that happened that day -- except, that is, for her birth. The play, an accumulation of poignant family anecdotes, amusing backstage stories and pertinent passages from Shakespeare -- with Redgrave playing all the roles, from herself to her father to Noel Coward to Maggie Smith to Richard II to, of course, Cordelia , the anguished daughter in King Lear -- turns out to be a search for an enigmatic father as well as for a neglected self.
"I was an extremely lonely child, didn't go to school until I was six, and lived in an area where there were no other kids on the street. My brother [Corin, an actor] and sister [Vanessa, the celebrated and controversial actress] were at school because they were older. So I literally had no contact with other children until I was six. And school was a bit of a distance, so friends didn't come over very often. I didn't really make friends. I had trouble making friends." And with a father who was a force onstage but a cipher at home, "I lived a great deal of the time inside myself."
Literal sustenance became metaphoric. She'd fill herself with food, since she was starved of affection. "I certainly do come from a long line of addictive personalities. My father was a drinker. His parents were drinkers. In my case, it didn't really take the form of alcohol." In her own case, she describes overeating as "comforting -- but of course it felt terrible the minute you thought about it."
It was a battle for this one-time Weight Watchers spokeswoman to manage food. "I went through many years of following the latest diet or just plain starving myself. For years I just ate one meal a day -- I knew how self-destructive I was being. The change really all came around with the birth of my third child. I ate well during my pregnancy and during nursing because I knew I had to stay healthy. And when I took in the miracle of having a healthy baby, that I was actually prepared to go back to my old ways suddenly seemed appalling. I'd say the last three, four years, it's not even a matter of control. I now feel free."
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Shakespeare has also liberated her and strengthened family ties: "My family gave the impression, even to ourselves, that we were close and that we talked, but the fact was that there were a great many areas in which we all acted a great front. You don't have to have an acting family to do that. I think lots of families do that. There were certain subjects that were simply not discussed, certain subjects you wouldn't even dream of discussing. This play, it set us free with each other." For, as in every family, "they knew their stories, but they didn't know mine."
Theater is indeed in her blood: the story Redgrave tells spans from her great-great-grandfather Cornelius, a ticket-booth hawker in 1820s London, to her daughter Kelly Clark and nieces Natasha and Joely Richardson (Vanessa's daughters) and Jemma Redgrave (Corin's daughter), all actresses. She tells about her grandfather Roy, whom she never met. After she had tracked down his unmarked grave in Australia, her father decided to mark the tombstone with only one word -- Actor. A most touching moment in this memoir-as-play comes during Redgrave's final hospital visit to her father, who's dying of Parkinson's disease: his mind tenuous, he thinks the curtain around his bed is a grand stage drape and asks his daughter, "How's the house?"
His final exit led to her commanding entrance -- because in the Redgrave dynasty, of course, the play's the thing.
Shakespeare for My Father previews June 27 and opens June 8 to run through July 3 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Travis, 228-8421.