Kempson, Rachel (1910—)

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Kempson, Rachel (1910—)

British actress and matriarch of the family Redgrave. Born in Dartmouth, Devon, England, on May 28, 1910; daughter of Eric William Edward (a headmaster) and Beatrice Hamilton (Ashwell) Kempson; attended St. Agnes School, East Grinstead, and Oaklea Buckhurst Hill; studied for the stage at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art; married (Sir) Michael Red-grave (an actor), in 1935 (died 1985); children: Vanessa Redgrave (b. 1937); Corin Redgrave (b. 1939); Lynn Redgrave (b. 1942).

Selected theater:

made stage debut as Hero in Much Ado About Nothing (Memorial Theater, Stratford-on-Avon, April 17, 1933); subsequently played Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and Ophelia in Hamlet ; London debut as Bianca in The Lady from Albuquerque (Westminster, November 8, 1933); Ariel in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Olivia in Twelfth Night, Princess in Love's Labour's Lost (Stratford-on-Avon, 1934); Christina in Two Kingdoms (Savoy, October 1934); Anne in The Witch and Stella in The Sacred Flame (Playhouse, Oxford, February 1935); Naomi in Flowers of the Forest (Liverpool Repertory Company, March 1935); during the 1935–36 season appeared as Yvonne in Youth at the Helm, Eulalia in A Hundred Years Old, Anna of Bohemia in Richard of Bordeaux, Anne in The Wind and the Rain, Viola in Twelfth Night, Agnes Boyd in Boyd's Shop, Victoria in A Storm in a Teacup; Princess of France in Love's Labour's Lost (Old Vic, September 1936); Celia in Volpone (Westminster, January 1937); Maria in The School for Scandal (Queen's, November 1937); Jane in The Shoemaker's Holiday (Playhouse, November 1938); Jean Howard in Under One Roof (Richmond, March 1940); toured as Naomi in Family Portrait, Naomi in Noah, and Mrs. Bradman in Blithe Spirit (June 1940–February 1942); Faith Ingalls in The Wingless Victory (Phoenix, September 1943); Lucy Forrest in Uncle Harry (Garrick, March 1944); Marianne in Jacobowsky and the Colonel (Piccadilly, June 1945); Charlotte in Fatal Curiosity (Arts, December 1946); Chris Forbes in Happy as Kings ("Q," January 1947); Dr. Rosamond Long in The Sparks Fly Upwards ("Q," October 1947); Joan in The Paragon (Fortune, May 1948); Violet Jackson in The Return of the Prodigal (Globe, November 1948); title role in Candida (Playhouse, Oxford, May 1949); Queen Margaret in The Saxon Saint (Dunfermline Abbey, August 1949); Hilda Taylor-Snell in Venus Observed (St. James's, January 1950); Katie in Top of the Ladder (St. James's, October 1950); Maman in The Happy Time (St. James's, January 1952); joined the Shakespeare Memorial Theater Company, 1953, and during the season appeared as Queen Elizabeth in Richard III, Octavia in Antony and Cleopatra, and Regan in King Lear; Mrs. Thea Elvsted in Hedda Gabler (Lyric,Hammersmith, September 1954, and tour of Holland, Denmark, and Norway, 1955); with Dublin Gate Theater Company, appeared as Theodora in Not for Children (Belfast, April 1955); joined the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, April 1956, and appeared as Cora Fellowes in The Mulberry Bush, Mrs. Ann Putnam in The Crucible, Evelyn in The Death of Satan, Miss Black Panorbis in Cards of Identity, and Mrs. Mi Tzu in The Good Woman of Setzuan; with the Shakespeare Memorial Theater Company, Stratford-on-Avon, 1958 season, appeared as Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet, Dionyza in Pericles, and Ursula in Much Ado About Nothing; toured with company in Moscow and Leningrad as Lady Capulet (December 1958); Mary in Teresa of Avila (Vaudeville, October 1961); Polina Andreyevna in The Seagull (Queen's, March 1964); Martha in Saint Joan of the Stockyards (Queen's, June 1964); Chorus in Samson Agonizes, and Lady Mary in Lionel and Clarissa (Yvonne Arnaud Theater, Guildford, June 1965).

Selected filmography:

The Captive Heart (1946); A Woman's Vengeance (US, 1948); Georgy Girl (1966); The Jokers (1966); Out of Africa (1985); Stealing Heaven (1988); Déjà Vu (1998).

The name Rachel Kempson is sometimes lost among the more recognizable names of the famous theatrical family Redgrave: Sir Michael Redgrave (1908–1985), Kempson's husband, and the three children, Vanessa Redgrave , Corin Redgrave, and Lynn Redgrave . Kempson was born in 1910, the daughter of Eric Kempson, a schoolmaster who taught science at Rugby and later became headmaster at the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, and Beatrice Ashwell Kempson , a beautiful, difficult woman who suffered bouts of melancholia throughout her life. Rachel studied for the stage at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and made her stage debut in 1933 at the Memorial Theater, Stratford-on-Avon, as Hero in Much Ado About Nothing. That season, she also turned in admirable portrayals of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and Ophelia in Hamlet. In 1935, as her career was on the upswing, she met and fell in love with Michael Redgrave, with whom she was performing in a season of repertory in Liverpool. Michael, who had worked as a journalist and a schoolmaster, was just getting started in the theater at the time. At Rachel's suggestion, they married a year later and joined the Old Vic Theater Company in London, where they appeared together in Love's Labour's Lost during the 1936 season.

Like many actresses, Kempson's career was interrupted for the birth of each of her three

children, and she may have also been eclipsed by her husband's growing popularity. In her autobiography, Vanessa Redgrave writes that although her mother was always in demand, "she did not really come into her own until television in the 1960s brought her a range of parts that no theatrical producer has ever had the foresight to offer her." Kempson, however, did enjoy a respectable career, playing numerous supporting roles in major London productions and on tour. From 1945, she also appeared in occasional films, including Georgy Girl (1966), which starred her daughter Lynn, who was nominated for an Oscar and won the New York Film Critics Best Actress award for her touching performance of the plump ugly duckling of the title. Kempson's television credits include roles in "Conflict," "Man and Superman," "Howards End," and "Uncle Vanya."

Vanessa Redgrave characterizes her mother as a modest woman who never believed she was beautiful or a very good actress. However, she cites Kempson's performance in a small production of Shaw's Saint Joan (1954), as particularly memorable, calling it "brave, eager, direct, and very moving." In Vanessa's eyes, Rachel Kempson remained magical even as an old woman. "I saw her early this year," she writes toward the end of her autobiography, "using her cane to get onto the platform for a recital. She laid the cane down, that gentle profile lifted, and the years vanished from her face and body. Fourteen-year-old Juliet stood before us." In 1998, mother and daughter co-starred in an independent movie, Déjà Vu, directed by Henry Jaglom.


Hartnoll, Phyllis, and Peter Found. The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theater. Oxford and NY: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Redgrave, Vanessa. Vanessa Redgrave: An Autobiography. NY: Random House, 1994.

suggested reading:

Kempson, Rachel. Life Among the Redgraves (autobiography). NY: Dutton, 1986.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts