Friday 11 September 2020

Diana Rigg's Greeks and Romans: An Appreciation

Diana Rigg of Doncaster, whose first name (Enid) she wisely decided against using, died yesterday. She was a hugely popular figure both in the theatre world and amongst the public. Her mesmerising 1992-1994 performance as Euripides’ Medea, directed by Jonathan Kent, transferred to Broadway, where she received the Tony Award for best actress. Her thoroughly cerebral Medea changed my interpretation of several of the scenes in this deathless tragedy. She was extraordinarily intelligent and approached genius in her feeling for verse forms.

As my own tribute, I’ve collected some pictures from most of her other Greek or Roman roles, broadly defined. Her Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra at the 1985 Chichester Festival was said to be a masterclass in the precision delivery of iambic pentameters. She had learned her craft cavorting wittily in the woods as Helena during the pre-nuptial theatricals of Theseus and Hippolyta in Peter Hall’s Beatnik film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1968 (alongside Judy Dench and Helen Mirren, no less).

In 1975 she won high praise for her scintillating whiplash delivery of Tony Harrison’s demotic rhyming couplets in his Phaedra Britannica, which relocated Racine’s Phèdre to India in the run-up to the 1857 revolt. It was only a matter of time before she played Racine’s own Phèdre at the Albery Theatre in 1998, although I preferred her creepy, mordant Agrippina in the accompanying production of Racine’s Britannicus.

But I will always cherish most my memories of her astoundingly glamorous Clytemnestra In the notorious 3-part Oresteia, under the new title The Serpent Son, which the BBC broadcast in 1979. Having brought a vast new audience to Greek tragedy because they had loved her so much in television shows, especially The Avengers, she acted everyone else off the screen. This is saying something when Helen Mirren played Kassandra and Sian Phillips was the Head Fury.

I had just arrived at university and loved the show—she managed to find some humour even in the terrifying Clytemnestra—but it was deplored by all my Classics tutors, who nevertheless watched every minute, as slightly steamy conversations with them accidentally revealed. I think she would have relished this information. So sad to see her go.


  1. I loved The Serpant Son. Some of the costumes looked a bit iffy (Agamemnon certainly), but it was wonderful.

  2. Excellent tribute to a worthy subject. Thank you for the referrals to even more of her great work I can now seek out.