Dame Diana Rigg

Definition

Theater

  • (1938 - ) British actress. Rigg was born in Yorkshire but spent most of her childhood in Jodhpur, India, where her father managed the state railway. She later boarded at a school run by the Moravian Brethren, where she discovered both an interest in the theater and the pronounced rebellious streak that has characterized her career. After training at RADA, she made her professional debut (1957) in Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle and worked in rep. Growing recognition came during her time with the Royal Shakespeare Company (1959 - 64), when her roles included Helena in Peter Hall's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Cordelia in the famous Paul Scofield King Lear (both 1962).

    In the mid 1960s Rigg's career took an unexpected turn when she auditioned, more or less on a whim, for a part in the TV spy drama The Avengers - a programme she had never seen. As the glamorous secret agent Emma Peel, Rigg became an instant star and is still fondly remembered as one of the most potent icons of the era (a recent US poll voted her the sexiest TV actress of all time). For Rigg, however, the show was not a happy experience and she later took some pains to avoid "the sexy label". Although the 1970s saw her working mainly in film and TV, she returned to the stage in National Theatre productions of Stoppard's Jumpers (1972), Macbeth (1973), and The Misanthrope (1973). Another stage appearance, with Keith Michell in Abelard and Heloise (1970), caused controversy with a brief nude scene - the first to feature a leading British actress. It was one critic's likening of the naked Rigg to "a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses" that provoked the actress, years later, to publish No Turn Unstoned, an anthology of the most memorably damning reviews in theater history.

    After a fairly quiet decade in which she concentrated on raising her daughter, Rigg relaunched her stage career in the early 1990s with a series of roles that confirmed her as one of the country's great actresses. This run of triumphs began at the Almeida Theatre with productions of Dryden's All For Love (1990), in which she played Cleopatra, and Euripides' Medea (1992), which transferred to the West End and subsequently to Broadway, winning Rigg a Tony for best actress. It continued with award-winning performances in Mother Courage (1995) and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1996) and a highly praised Ph├Ędre (1998), again at the Almeida. Rigg received a different sort of award in 2003, when she accepted major damages from two newspapers that had described her as an embittered woman who despised British men.

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