Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Exhibition Review • THE REDGRAVES: a family on the public stage

Michael Redgrave c.1920 © V&A

Michael Redgrave c.1920 © V&A

A crowded reception at the Theatre Museum on Tuesday night launched a new exhibition based on the personal archive of Sir Michael Redgrave, which was acquired for the nation thanks to grants of £153,500 from the Heritage Lottery Fund and £50,000 from the Friends of the National Libraries.

Liz Forgan, speaking on behalf of the Heritage Lottery Fund, expressed her pleasure in ensuring the preservation of this material and hoped that its record of the Redgraves’ life and times would be an inspiration to other theatre people to see the value of collecting their own material, and not just those in such an elevated position in the profession. Geoffrey Marsh, the new director of the Theatre Museum, reminded his guests that it was his predecessor Margaret Benton, not he, who had been responsible for ensuring the archive came to this museum.

Corin Redgrave, speaking on behalf of the family, talked of the lives of his predecessors, however eminent, as being ‘mostly hard, often neglected and almost always underpaid.’ His wife, Kika Markham, and his children, as well as other members of the family accompanied him. His daughter Jemma read out messages from her cousins Natasha and Joely and her aunts Lynn and Vanessa, who are all currently working in America.

Among the many theatre people I spotted in the crowded room, and moving through the exhibition afterwards, were Simon Callow, Edward Petherbridge, Mark Rylance, Richard Briers and publisher Nick Hern.

The exhibition is not just about Sir Michael. The Redgraves have followed in the wake of the Keans, the Kembles, and the Terrys in being a family of players who have established themselves at the top of the profession. Although it is the late Sir Michael Redgrave whom most people think of as the founder of the ‘dynasty’, he already came of theatrical stock. His father, Roy Redgrave, was a barnstorming actor playing in theatres such as the Britannia and the Hoxton; his mother was an actress, her father an actor and playwright, and his paternal grandfather a theatre ticket agent. The material on show ranges from playbills for the Britannia and of Roy Redgrave in The Ticket-of-Leave-Man at Sadler’s Wells to letters written by Lynn and Vanessa to their father, videos of his grandchildren’s most recent performances, and interviews with the family.

Exhibition curator Susan Croft told me that in planning the exhibition they had set out ‘to use the family story and their theatre work to illuminate the social and political history of the time from the “penny gaffs” of Victorian England to contemporary performances in the West End and abroad’. ‘It also,’ she added, ‘shows how the Redgraves have used their public profile to speak out against censorship and injustice.’

I shall have to go back to see it without the press of people and when it is possible to hear the video soundtracks. It is clearly a fascinating display with everything from letters, programmes, posters, books and scripts to designs, costumes, models and press coverage as well as extracts from film and television, and videos of stage performances.

Tom Howard © July 2003

Originally published on R&V 10-06-03

Postscript: The Theatre Museum was closed in September 2006 due to a lack of funds and the artefacts returned to the Victoria & Albert Museum, of which the collection has always been a part. Sadly, as I’m sure you know, three members of the Redgrave family have since died — Natasha, Lynn and Corin.

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