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An Appreciation: Corin Redgrave, actor and humanist

April 6, 2010 |  1:27 pm

Of all the illustrious members of the Redgrave acting dynasty, Corin Redgrave, who died Tuesday in London at 70, was probably the least well known in the States. Yet like his father, Michael, his sisters Vanessa and Lynn and his late niece Natasha Richardson, he shared the family’s prodigious endowment of histrionic power and empathic intelligence.

These qualities informed not only his work on stage and screen but also his political commitments, which were held as passionately and publicly as those of his big sister Vanessa, with whom he founded the Moving Theater Company, an organization dedicated to producing socially engaged plays.   

I saw Redgrave onstage in 1999 and 2000, in roles that could hardly be less alike — evidence, it seems to me, that the secret of the family gift isn’t so much technical or ideological but humanist. Only an actor with an ethic of faithfully rendering the diversity of our moral lot could have done equal justice to these divergent characters. 

As the sadistic warden In “Not About Nightingales,” a lost early Tennessee Williams play that had been "rediscovered" by Vanessa when she was researching her role in Peter Hall’s production of “Orpheus Descending” in the 1980s, Redgrave offered one of the most convincing portraits of brutality I’ve ever seen on Broadway.  Nervous and perspiring presumably from swatting away his conscience, this Southern bureaucrat of torture kept plowing sinisterly forward, justifying his actions by continually imagining the retaliatory viciousness of others. 

Redgrave’s performance in Trevor Nunn’s production, an actor's flesh-and-blood appraisal of the banality of evil, earned him a Tony nomination as well as an Olivier Award for the London staging. It also connected different facets of Williams’ playwriting — the lyrical tragedies populated with ruthless rednecks and the ferocious social dramas which sparked the imagination of this young dramatist and were eventually sublimated into his less explicitly political masterpieces.

My only other Redgrave performance came a year or so later at the National Theatre in London, and it was the antithesis of what was on display in New York. Playing siblings with Vanessa in Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” Redgrave offered a flamboyantly ineffectual Gaev to Vanessa’s equally impractical and self-dramatizing Ranevskya, both threatened with the loss of their majestic homestead.

A portrait of academic caprice, he provided a gentlemanly comic fizz to Nunn’s revival. And in those final elegiac moments with Vanessa, when the characters are scattering after the sale of the estate, the hope and heartbreak were superbly balanced and textured. For a brief moment, art and life seemed to blur as the Redgraves' fictitious brother-sister counterparts abandoned a cherished past for an unknown future.

Long an advocate of nuclear disarmament, Redgrave became an outspoken opponent of the Iraq war. And in causes both small and large, controversial and less so, he was never chary about voicing his convictions. Moderation wasn't his metier. But blessed with a largess of fellow feeling, he kept up the family tradition by making fervent use of it onstage and off.

--Charles McNulty

follow him on Twitter @ charlesmcnulty

Photo: Corin Redgrave, left, and his sister actress Vanessa Redgrave walk to the Supreme Court in Washington. Credit: Ron Edmonds/AP