7 April 2010 | Corin Redgrave (1939-2010)

Cambridge University 1958-61

At Cambridge, beneath Corin’s austerely handsome face and tall body, anger brewed. He didn’t laugh at silly things as much as the rest of us: but he could tell a story well, with killer punch-lines. If his eyes sometimes looked beyond you coldly, the argument was hot. A minor example: older sister Vanessa paid him a visit at King’s College and the three of us walked along the avenues by the River Cam. I idly asked “What’s that tree?”. Immediately he pronounced: “It’s an oak, Ian.” I knew he was wrong and showed him the evidence of a fallen leaf which was not oak-shaped. “Ah, that’s because it is an unusual type of oak; one you haven’t seen before.” I protested and he persisted. Perhaps sensing some verbal violence, Vanessa took my arm and quietly said: “Corin is always right , you know.” I wasn’t sure she meant it.

Amongst us stage-struck undergraduates, Corin trailed awesome family glamour. Sir Michael, his father, was up there with Olivier and Guinness. My step-mother never forgot his early acting at Liverpool Playhouse in the '30s, where he met his lady Rachel Kempson. From the Old Vic stage, on the night of Vanessa’s birth, Olivier/Hamlet announced to the audience, “Laertes has a daughter. A great actress has been born.” Too right, guv’nor. Only later did we learn that playing Orlando in As You Like It, Michael had fallen in love with his Rosalind, Edith Evans. Corin is the name of a shepherd in the play.

As a student, Corin was not yet at ease with acting, as if he was waiting to be good, rather than trying. He danced and sang winningly in the musical Love’s Labours which he co-wrote. His father came to see us all make our London debuts when we transferred to the old Lyric Hammersmith for a week. Corin was a clear-sighted director of actors and disciplined, with brilliant theatrical insights. One of his notes, I’ve applied in every part since: “Only ever pause before an interesting word.” He never talked politics and I assumed he would run the National Theatre, one day. As it was, his professional acting was distinguished and clear even the last time I saw him onstage reprising his reading of Wilde’s De Profundis at the NT.

In the '60s and '70s, the principles and aims of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party were obscure to me and I was never tempted nor invited to join my friends who supported them. When we were both elected to the Actors’ Equity Council in 1971, Corin on behalf of WRP was at constant loggerheads with the mainly right-wing old-timers, prolonging our weekly meetings and votes with his adamantine views. He told me that the regional theatres where I’d been apprenticed for three years, should close rather than accept subsidy from commerce. I saw his point but I didn’t, like him, expect an imminent uprising of the workers nor armed revolution in the UK. In the meanwhile, he advised me that a furled umbrella was the best defensive weapon in a dangerous street. At other, later times, his political stances were easier to sympathise with: against Guantanamo Bay, in support of the rights of Travellers, encouraging international relationships between artists. His speeches were taut, clear and challenging. Corin always seemed right, you know.

In the spring of 1961, when we should all have been revising for final exams, he adapted two of Shakespeare’s plays about King Henry 6th and cut them into one. I played Henry. One rehearsal he gave me an unforgettable note. I was about to ask a question but he got in first: “Now you’re not going to tell me that the line that’s bothering you is “out of character”. Human beings spend their lives acting out of character.” Maybe most of us do but Corin, even after his heart attack five years ago, was always in character: a passionate, alert citizen, a would-be dragon-slayer, a super-intelligent intellectual, a worker. Two months after the rigours of Henry 6th, he effortlessly landed a first-class degree. — Ian McKellen, 7 April 2010

Hjalmar (Ian McKellen) and Gregers (Corin Redgrave) in Ibsen's The Wild Duck

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