(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/18.)
Laurence Olivier wasn’t exactly famous for his generosity towards rival actors. But even he was moved to write in his autobiography that Michael Redgrave’s Uncle Vanya was “the best performance I’ve ever seen in anything”. Olivier may, of course, have been swayed by the fact that he himself directed this renowned Chekhov production at Chichester in 1962-63 and played alongside Redgrave in the role of Astrov. But I’m tempted to agree with Olivier’s verdict, and anyone who wants to make up their own mind can catch Redgrave’s performance in the production on DVD.
I had been fascinated by Redgrave long before his Uncle Vanya. I had seen him play Hamlet, Antony and Benedick on stage, and been mesmerised by him on screen in movies such as The Browning Version and Dead of Night. No actor was better at portraying divided souls whose intellect and emotion always seemed to be engaged in furious conflict. Only years later, when reading Alan Strachan’s marvellous biography of Redgrave, did I realise how much the actor’s capacity to play tormented figures was connected to his own bisexual nature.