Diana Rigg on her cruellest reviews, Game of Thrones and why English actors are the best in the world
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As the actress brings her solo show, No Turn Unstoned, to the Royal Free, she tells Alex Bellotti about why critics are so valuable, her recent TV resurgence and why theatre remains her first love.
The role of criticism came under scrutiny recently at Cannes Film Festival, when Matthew McConaughey’s latest film debuted to a chorus of resounding boos. While his co-star, Naomi Watts, suggested a blackout on reporting such reactions could ensure films receive a fairer chance upon release, the man himself took a more laissez-faire approach, declaring that “anyone has as much right to boo as they do to ovate”.
Over the course of her career, Diana Rigg has resolutely belonged to this school of thought – even if it has meant enduring her own humiliation. Despite finding big and small screen success in The Avengers, James Bond and, more recently, Game of Thrones, the actress has suffered her fair share of criticism; most infamously when a nude stage appearance in 1970’s Abelard and Héloise led American critic John Simon to describe her as “built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses”.
“It’s very hurtful at the time,” the 76-year-old admits. “Good or bad reviews – actors for the most part say they don’t read them, but the fact of the matter is that if you do, they affect you. Even the good ones affect you, so in a sense we shouldn’t really read them at all.”
Nonetheless, on June 21 at the Royal Free Hospital, Rigg will be doing just that when she performs her solo show No Turn Unstoned. Based upon her 1983 book of the same name, she will be recounting some of the cruellest and wittiest quotations from critics throughout the history of drama to help raise money for Keats Community Library.
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Across the night, few of history’s most famous thespians escape mention. Whether it’s Katharine Hepburn (“She ran the whole gamut of emotions, from A to B” – Dorothy Parker) or Richard Briers (“He played Hamlet like a demented typewriter” – W.A. Darlington), Rigg draws upon a plethora of material “donated” to her by actors, not to get her own back on critics, but to celebrate them.
“It started at a dinner where we were all sitting round and the subject turned to criticism,” she says of the book’s origins. “People read their bad notices which got a laugh and proved very cathartic, and as I came away, I thought, ‘Maybe there’s a book in that.’
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“I did a lot of research on early theatre, going back in 500 BC when Thespis seemingly founded our profession. I noticed that in fact it is criticism that brings the past and present together, not success. The book was by no means tilting my lance at critics; in fact I sort of say how important good critics are because they resurrect wonderful past performances.”
Having taken the show to the Edinburgh Fringe last year, Rigg is looking forward to breaking up her current television commitments with a return to the stage. One of No Turn Unstoned’s most enjoyable aspects is that it allows her to connect with her audience personally, particularly during a Q&A session at the end.
“Audiences are brilliantly behaved these days for the most part – we’ve even got a law for mobile telephones, which audiences are asked to switch off. In the old days, they did some terrible things; I came across a case in America where a dead sheep was thrown on a stage.
“In criticism in early Rome, a lot of the actors were slaves and they got beaten if they forgot their lines. They got a drink if they did well.” So some things never change? “Exactly, and that’s what I mean.”
Of her television commitments, Game of Thrones is undoubtedly the show that has introduced Rigg to a new generation. Playing the part of Olenna Tyrell – the plotting grandmother of opportunistic Queen Margaery (Natalie Dormer) – her venomous performances over three series has earned her two Emmy nominations, the fan nickname ‘Queen of Thorns’ and even led to the writers penning extra scenes for her that weren’t in George R. R. Martin’s original novels.
Rigg insists she has “no idea” why they cast her, but says “the writers are brilliant – what they do, I think, is write specifically for the actors in the part”.
Considering her previous success with the ‘60s ITV show The Avengers, she’s always been ahead of the curve in realising television’s potential, but does she now believe it’s in the midst of a golden age?
“It seems to have more opportunities for actors, doesn’t it? The fact of the matter is that I know Game of Thrones isn’t English, but for the most part English television is the best in the world. Our character actors – aside from our lead actors – I think are also the best in the world, which is why an awful lot of them are in Game of Thrones.”
American programmers do seem to be casting English actors for lead roles in nearly every new show. “Yes! And why? Because we turn up on time, we know our lines and we don’t demand a 150ft Winnebago. We’re grateful!”
In a recent interview with the Telegraph, Jane Fonda suggested that it’s as hard as ever for actresses over 50 to find good work – especially for those once known for their youthful beauty.
Rigg however admits she can’t subscribe to such ideas personally, having been afforded a host of substantial parts – particularly on stage – even into her 70s.
“Do you know what? I’ve been so lucky, I really have. At 50 I was doing Medea and I was doing Phedre. I was playing some really, really meaty parts. I can’t complain, but I do sympathise with the actresses who feel that when they reach maturity, the parts aren’t there.
“I just thank my lucky stars that I’ve had a career which has spanned an awful lot. Film-wise I haven’t been wildly successful – in fact I’ve hardly done any films except when I’ve filmed for television, but that’s not a huge regret of mine because I love the theatre more and I’ve spent most of my life there.”
Is this because it offers a chance to connect with the audience face to face?
“No, it’s because they come to believe; it’s a kind of communion. They spend pots of money in the West End these days and they probably have to travel up, which will cost them, so we have to do our best to serve them wholeheartedly because they’ve come to believe us.”
Diana Rigg performs No Turn Unstoned at Peter Samuel Hall, Royal Free Hospital on Sunday June 21 at 7pm. Tickets are £15; call 0207 431 1266 or visit keatscommunitylibrary.org.uk