The actor Rachel Kempson – widow of Sir Michael Redgrave and mother of Vanessa, Corin and Lynn – has died aged 92. Known affectionately as “the matriarch to a dynasty” (a title she usually rejected), for many commentators the skills she brought to negotiating the often volatile strands of her family were quite as outstanding as her long and distinguished acting career. It was true, though, that her own abilities as an actor for stage, television, film and radio were often overshadowed by those of her husband and their illustrious brood.
Born into a conventionally middle-class family in Dartmouth, Devon, Kempson was the daughter of the principal of Dartmouth Royal Naval College, and originally faced strong family disapproval to going on the stage. But once she had seen Dame Sybil Thorndike playing the role of Katherine of Aragon, in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, the die was cast. She was determined to achieve her aim and, after taking various odd jobs, finally got her wish and went on to win a part scholarship to Rada.
Kempson’s first stage appearance was as Hera, in Much Ado About Nothing, in the 1933 Stratford-upon-Avon season, followed by Ophelia and a Juliet which those who knew her still describe as “incandescent” – a quality in a sense she never lost. Even in later life, as one friend put it, “however old she was, she brought a quality of youthful gaiety”. Also in 1933, Kempson made her first London appearance, as Bianca, in The Lady From Alfaqueque.
The following year, while working at the Liverpool Playhouse, she met and fell in love with the young Michael Redgrave. They married a year later, beginning a partnership that endured for 50 years until his death in 1985, and successfully weathered the storms of his bisexuality. Kempson’s loyalty was a key to their marriage.
As her autobiography, A Family And Its Fortunes (1986) revealed, she remained modest about her own considerable talent, and, in the early years, allowed domestic demands to take precedence. Friends said that her family always came first in her life. None the less, with her fine-boned, classically English looks – a likeness inherited by her children and grandchildren – and her easy elegance on stage, she was seldom out of work.
In 1936 she appeared with the Old Vic Company, and later joined John Gielgud’s season at the Queen’s Theatre. In the 1950s, she appeared regularly at Stratford (she played Regan to her husband’s Lear in the 1953 season) and continued to play a variety of roles in the classical repertoire throughout her life. Like many of her generation, she also had the courage and flexibility to reinvent herself with the rise of the new wave, joining George Devine’s English Stage Company in 1956, the same year that John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger made its appearance.
Not that the transition was without mishap. One night in 1972, while appearing in Osborne’s A Sense Of Detachment, Kempson jumped into the stalls to administer some well-chosen slaps to two members of the audience who had been heckling. Afterwards, regretful, she admitted that it wasn’t the sort of thing to do, “but once in a blue moon, you do”.
Uncharacteristic in one sense, in another this action was typical of a certain headstrong streak and a fierce sense of loyalty which, once given, remained for a lifetime. That passionate openness also informed her best work. Playing Polena, the lovelorn housekeeper in George Devine’s production of Chekhov’s The Seagull at the Royal Court in 1964 – in some estimations, among one of the best – Kempson played it, as one friend put it, “with her heart flying”.
In the 1960s and 1970s, she continued to work steadily, appearing in Julian Mitchell’s highly successful West End adaptation of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s A Family And A Fortune (1975), Alan Bennett’s The Old Country (1977), with Sir Alec Guinness, and a number of popular British films of the period – among them Tom Jones (1963), Georgy Girl (1966), which starred her daughter Lynn, The Charge Of The Light Brigade (1968), with her daughter Vanessa and son Corin, a movie made by her then son-in-law Tony Richardson, and The Virgin Soldiers (1969). “She really came into her own in later years,” according to a friend. “A typical role was that of a slightly down-trodden woman who knew her place. But Rachel also had a quite considerable sharpness. She had a great sense of fun as well as tremendous warmth.”
A favourite role of Kempson’s was apparently that of Dionyza, in Pericles, in the 1958 Stratford season, when she also played Lady Capulet and an “enchanting” Ursula in Much Ado. This is a role traditionally of calculated evil, and many of her friends were surprised at the depth she achieved. “I loved playing it”, she confessed afterwards, “it’s my only opportunity to show the other side.”
In her 70s, Kempson took on more eccentric, scatty personas. She appeared as Julia Shuttlewaite in a glittering West End revival of TS Eliot’s The Cocktail Party in 1986; two year later, she was Maria Vasilyevna in Uncle Vanya (with Michael Gambon, Greta Scacchi and Jonathan Pryce); and the following year she was Volumnia in Corin Redgrave’s production of Coriolanus at the Young Vic.
Among many television series and plays, she appeared in Elizabeth R, Jewel In The Crown, Love For Lydia, The Bell, The Black Tower, Uncle Vanya and Lorna Doona, and late in the 1980s won a Bafta best actress nomination (for her television performance in Kate, The Good Neigbour.) On radio, she was a memorable Hester in The Forsyte Saga. Her last film was Deja Vu (1998), in which she played the mother of Vanessa.
Though her acting career inevitably slowed, Kempson continued to appear, often alongside Corin, on a number of occasions at poetry recitals. Until she became too frail and moved to live with Vanessa, she was a keen and creative gardener, turning her home in Hampshire into a haven where family and friends could always go for support in troubled times.
In 2000, Kempson sold the Redgrave family archive for £200,000 to the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden. Vanessa, Corin and Lynn survive her. Among her grandchildren are the actors Joely and Natasha Richardson, and Jemma Redgrave.
Rachel Kempson (Lady Redgrave), actor, born May 28 1910; died May 23 2003