There is no doubt Vanessa Redgrave can spin a good yarn. Daughter to Michael, sister to Corin and Lynn and mother to Joely and Natasha, there is little doubt she has been everywhere and met everyone. Name drops throughout the evening include Noel Coward and Al Pacino. It’s a combination you can’t imagine has been linked too many times, but with Redgrave, the boy from the Bronx and the golden child of English Theatre, all coming into her radar, somehow seems fitting. Her golden career has seen her win Emmy’s, Tony’s and Oscar’s (with an Olivier and BAFTA Fellowship to boot) and she has brought a lifelong commitment to political activity to bear with a late foray into Documentary Film Making.
This preamble is to explain why I’m sure Jonathan Church had little doubt in putting on a show curated, written and starring this now 82-year-old legend. Yet it pains me to say, the whole evening ends up committing one of Peter Brook’s deadly sins of theatre; it is stultifying;, a close to three hour, rambling evening that bombards the audience with long passages of diary entrances and doesn’t even let the poetry that is dotted throughout the evening come fully alive.
What may have worked as a leisurely memoir, consumed over a period of a few weeks fails to ignite. What Redgrave has done is to take the period between 1934 and 1938 and crafted snippets of three different stories, taken from books, diaries and letters that take us through the early rise of Fascism, all the way through to the Munich agreement and beyond. Some of these have a personal attachment, her father knew the poet Stephen Spender- shared a lover in fact in Tony Hyndman- who had a relationship with Muriel Gardiner who bravely took part in anti-fascist activities including offering her home as a safe house. Her Uncle Nicholas was a midshipman in the Royal Navy and wrote movingly in his diary of Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Abyssinia. Yet some only have a tenuous link, her father had a collection of the writers Thomas Mann’s work so the evening concludes with the long speech he gave to a Madison Square Garden audience in 1938 about how the Munich agreement had seen Europe cave into the rise of Nazi-ism.
You can see the effect she was trying to achieve, but however much her mere presence as the narrator of the evening gives the night some star quality and however fine the three actors; Robert Boulter, Lucy Doyle and Paul Hilton, are, the evening just doesn’t ever take off. The few moments when the night comes alive when the three performers gather around the piano to sing Brecht and Weill’s Alabama Song, for example, show what a different take on the evening could have achieved.
A misfiring lamp, some cues being swallowed up by AV, suggest an evening that isn’t fully synced together. It’s a stuttering evening that just doesn’t come together. Maybe the inevitable book will be better.
Vienna 1934-Munich 1938 plays at the Ustinov Studio until the 3 August.