Tony Award-nominated Corin Redgrave -- son of famed actor Sir Michael Redgrave, brother to Vanessa and Lynn, and uncle to Joely Richardson and Natasha Richardson -- plays the tyrannical warden in the pungent, early effort by Tennessee Williams, Not About Nightingales, having its Broadway premiere at the Circle in the Square Theatre, to June 27. The British Redgrave, 59, whose identity in the U.S. is overshadowed by his sisters' personalities, struts malevolently through the grim 1938 play, found by Vanessa and staged prior to Broadway in London and Houston by director Trevor Nunn. His accent drips with Southern cruelty and his eyes flash with the madness that would so ignite Williams' later characters. He talked to Playbill On-Line about creating his monstrous character, shedding him at night and looking to other roles.
Playbill On-Line: I like the audience configuration for Not About Nightingales at the Circle in the Square space: Being that close, with the audience on two sides, creates a wonderful tension -- intimacy and claustrophobia.
Corin Redgrave: It manages to combine intimacy -- because you have audience sitting very close indeed, close enough to reach out an touch -- with just enough distance to give an epic size to some of the scenes. That's a rare combination in a small theatre.
PBOL: It does allow a kind of film acting quality, because we're so close.
CR: When the audience is so close, the acting is under close scrutiny. Therefore, it has to be real, it has to be believable in the way film acting has to be without losing its dimension.
PBOL: Your Southern accent is so rich and accurate. What did you draw on? How familiar are you with American dialects?
CR: Not very, so this is really a work of constructing something from its most basic elements. We're very lucky in London that we have Joan Washington, who is a dialect coach, and she's brought to the study of accents and dialects, and different noises people make, a sort of Professor Higgins-like scientific mind and ear.
PBOL: Is she British?
CR: Yes. She's married to the actor Richard E. Grant. She's got the extraordinary ability to deconstruct the way we talk into its basic building blocks of sound. But that sounds rather dry and technical, and it is technical, but it's enriched with a very considerable attention to the reasons, historical or geographical, as to why people talk the way they do. That's terribly helpful to you, not only from the point of view of accuracy but acting. The difficult thing for any actor doing a sound that is different from one's own, is that you are forced to listen to yourself. You cannot not listen to yourself. But listening to oneself is, as everybody knows, not a good recipe on the whole for performance because it makes the person very turned in and introspective and not attentive to the other actors and the situation around them. What Joan does is to combine this sort of deconstruction of sound with a very lively study of the people and the background -- even the economic conditions and so on. That helps you enormously in building up the character and gives you confidence [to speak it]. PBOL: Did you and Joan and director Trevor Nunn determine where your character, "Boss" Whalen, was from?
CR: Originally, from West Virginia. He's migrated through a number of different positions in the prison system, but he's actually from West Virginia. It's a West Virginia accent that's "civilized," and I don't use the word in a derogatory sense to West Virginians, because I love that sound: It has very much to do with poor and harsh conditions under which many West Virginians did live and do live. When I say "civilized" what I mean is it's a slightly more urbane version of the typical West Virginian hardscrabble sound.
PBOL: What was your first impression of the play when Vanessa brought it you? It's more raw than later Williams. He wrote this when he was 25 or so.
CR: The play has a dedication to [defense attorney] Clarence Darrow. That, somehow, is a window on the sort of attitude that Tennessee Williams brought to the events that he's studying. The sheer panache of the production has perhaps temporarily obscured [the strength of the script]. Instead of seeing it as a perfect marriage of production and play, people understandably think the production has compensated the play's weaknesses. Well, the play does have one or two weaknesses. Even the greatest plays of Shakespeare have one or two, if one wants to be harsh. First of all, [Williams] was constructing a play that was based on newspaper reports that he was reading at the time. Imagine [it] in the hands of an ordinarily-gifted young student dramatist and see the difference between such a hypothetical effort and what this great poet dramatist brings to it. I don't think he spent one night in prison -- he may have done after a particularly rowdy party or something. He's never been in prison, but he understands, intuitively, prison attitudes. When Jim says, rather disparagingly, "love is something that's done in dark corners around here," that is a real poet's insight that goes far beyond knowing what they had for breakfast...
PBOL: Well, he lived in his own prison, didn't he?
CR: Absolutely. And then he makes it a metaphor for world events at the time, of the spread and rise of fascism. It's something he understands extraordinarily well. There are three or four playwrights in this century who have sort captured the essence of what is fascism. Because he's not a political playwright, although in a broad sense he is, he goes to the emotional and psychological truth of it. Whalen's outlook and his methods are those of fascism in a way.
PBOL: The poetry is much more raw than we get in later Williams. Do you think that's because he was young or because we're in a raw environment -- a prison?
CR: I think it's because we're in very raw space and he's doing something much more than he does in later plays, which is to consciously inhabit the minds of people who are talking in certain kind of demotic language of everyday speech patterns. He's probably writing more poetry at this time in his life than any time subsequently.
PBOL: Is it more fun to play a monster?
CR: There is something very satisfying and possibly therapeutic about acting all these terrible things out. In a way, it's sort of liberating. It allows you to reach in very dark areas.
PBOL: Does the assaultive nature of the production get to you? The fights, lights, whistles, shouting, sirens? Are you exhausted at the end?
CR: Completely, completely. It sticks with my body, it doesn't stick with my mind. I just shed it. But it's sort of in my body 24 hours a day.
PBOL: What advice did you take from your father?
CR: I take from him the way he approached his work, which was very thorough. He was very influenced by Stanislavsky. For a long time he was thought to be Stanislavsky's representative on earth as far as Britain was concerned.
PBOL: Is it a source of pride that your family keeps going on and on, acting-wise, that you're a part of one of the century's great theatrical families?
CR: In a way, yes. It's not something that's deliberately perpetuated. It just happened, it evolved that way.
PBOL: When Natasha, of Broadway's Cabaret and Closer, was a little girl, did you see she would be something one day?
CR: Yes. She had much of the same qualities, I think, that Vanessa had as a young girl. Her father, Tony Richardson, encouraged both girls, both her and Joely. He saw them as performers right from the moment they were born.
PBOL: Is there a role you can't wait to get your hands on? You're a couple of years away from Lear.
CR: (Laughs.) I don't think I'm a couple of years away, I think I'm right there now. I'd love to play Lear. Timon of Athens, I'd love to play, too. Otherwise, I want to play, and I hope I shall next year, Higgins in Pygmalion.
PBOL: Who is one of your favorite people in theatre today?
CR: Mark Rylance, who is the chief actor and artistic director of the Shakespeare Globe on London. I think he is the finest actor in the world. I would see him do anything at all -- good, bad, indifferent.
-- By Kenneth Jones