Dame Diana Rigg, shown here with the late Sir Ian Holm, an exceptionally fine actress who passed away yesterday, is inescapable to any fans of genre films or television from the past sixty years. Even if you’ve never seen the series she was most famous for, the 1960s Avengers, you’re bound to have seen her in a horror movie like Theatre of Blood or a fantasy TV series like Game of Thrones or Doctor Who. I loved her in those but I especially liked seeing her in film and television productions of Shakespeare. She’s in two great ones—the 1968 A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the 1983 Lawrence Olivier production of King Lear. They’re my favourite filmed productions of both those plays and she’s part of the reason.
She may be compared to Helen Mirren or Charlotte Rampling as an actress who excelled at conveying cleverness and discernment. But she also had a sort of benevolent mischievousness about her. Or, when she played villains, a malevolent mischievousness. So strong was the compulsion she inspired to be on her side of an issue she could add nuance to characters who are usually regarded as simply villains. In her role as Regan, one of Lear’s daughters in the 1983 film, she successfully brings the audience into Regan’s perspective a little bit, her fatigue at the antics of her father and his men giving the audience some insight. Indeed, it must have been an imposition on her household.
Paired with Helen Mirren as the two bedevilled human women in A Midsummer Night’s Dream she’s very sexy and gives the impression of honest bafflement. The role could, and sometimes is, played as a sort of bimbo and Rigg was never that. Which is not a knock against her skill or on anyone who chooses to play a character as dim witted. Rigg was so good and beautiful at being smart it would have been a shame to waste. And wasted her talents certainly were not.