It was an interesting prospect to write about Dame Diana Rigg’s Edinburgh Fringe debut (at the age of seventy-six), in which she muses on the role of the theatre critic. No Turn Unstoned is, as Rigg describes it, purely intended as a form of ‘entertainment’ but it’s more of a lecture, or reading, than anything else. The atmosphere is genial and convivial. Rigg narrates perched on a stool, occasionally turning to her notes for guidance, speaking to the audience as though to friends over a meal at home.
Rigg is by far at her best when not needing to be reminded by her notes.
No Turn Unstoned is based on Rigg’s 1982 book of the same name in which she canvassed hundreds of her fellow actors, searching for the worst reviews in the history of the profession. Her research led her as far back as ancient Greece and Rome and the earliest dramatists. Rigg traces for us the art of criticism from 540 BC to today, interspersing the historical background with choice stories and quotes, either from her own experience, or those that she heard which had particular appeal. This history is informative, and occasionally interesting – we learn that even Shakespeare had his detractors, and that critics have often been proven wrong by the public response to a play (e.g. Ibsen’s Ghosts) – but often lacking warmth and enthusiasm.
Rigg is by far at her best when not needing to be reminded by her notes. When she takes her glasses off and shifts her weight to the edge of the stool, you know you’re about to be given an interesting, moving, funny or juicy anecdote about her many years in the profession. It is in these moments that her passion for her craft and for her fellow thespians really comes across. We learn what it was like to work with the greats, from Olivier and Gielgud to Vanessa Redgrave and Elizabeth Taylor. Rigg doesn’t spare herself, either, recounting her harshest reviews and her disastrous attempts at prompting with delight at her youthful inexperience.
Interestingly, Rigg includes no good reviews from the critics, and though she speaks witheringly of them at times, she does also offer them some defence, claiming that criticism is an integral part of the theatre, and that the English know that failure is an important part of success (unlike the Americans).
For anyone interested in the history of British theatre, this is an entertaining hour – Rigg has not failed us there – full of wonderful, priceless stories about the theatrical profession and those who practiced it. When Rigg is really swept away by a particular memory it can be magical, but sadly these moments aren’t quite frequent enough.