'Shakespeare for My Father' revives a memorable age of theater
Jane Farnol, the director of Lynn Redgrave's memory play, "Shakespeare for My Father," counted herself lucky to have seen the celebrated actress on stage in two of her final roles before she passed away last year. But the actress' autobiographical account of her life, situated as it was in a family of outstanding acting talent, is not without a discernibly downbeat side.
One gets the strong impression that her play (actually a 90-minute monologue) has a subtext: living in the shadow of two other notable talents in her clan; her illustrious father, the actor Sir Michael Redgrave; and her sister, the brilliant actress Vanessa Redgrave.
This reviewer can vouch for the impact that Sir Michael made upon audiences. I had the good fortune to see the actor in a 1955 production of Jean Giradoux's "Tiger at the Gates," a portrayal that held the audience spellbound. A seasoned film actor, Sir Michael distinguished himself in definitive roles in such movies as Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes" (1938), the horror flick "Dead of Night" (1945), "The Browning Version" (1951), and "The Importance of Being Earnest" (1952).
But like his compatriot, Sir Laurence Olivier, the actor was even more impressive on stage than in film. He was, in fact, among that stellar group of Brits who galvanized the theater of a bygone era: Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson, Burton, Quayle, Guinness, and O'Toole.
Lynn Redgrave's script has a plaintive, sorrowful theme: the inaccessibility of her father during her younger years. Sir Michael was so involved in his numerous acting projects, he became for his daughter a parent who "was lost" behind his ever-shifting face. One receives the strong impression that Lynn's life involved a continuing effort to get his attention, a possible motive behind her following in the footsteps of her father's career.
Curiously enough, and aside from its sparingly wrenching moments, the monologue is more sprightly when the playwright doesn't recapitulate the need to bond with her father. As if she were momentarily diverted from her preoccupation with family, she describes a rehearsal of a play in which the director, the "reigning enfant terrible of the West End," Noel Coward, has to contend with a fussy and temperamental Dame Edith Evans (who can't get her lines right), while an amused Maggie Smith and Lynn Redgrave watch the delicious goings-on.
Susan Pettibone as the playwright acquitted herself well in the role, although some of the dialogue was on occasion lost. Noteworthy moments in the portrayal, however, abounded, like the reenactment of Cordelia's reunion with her father in Shakespeare's "King Lear," a reconciliation resonating with a Sir Michael on his deathbed telling his daughter Lynn that "I love you."