EDINBURGH — Every actor can recall their worst review; but most try to keep them under wraps. Dame Diana Rigg (Lady Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones), on the other hand, has put on an entire stage show to celebrate the crushing moments when a critic has absolutely hated your performance.
Inspired by a boozy dinner with fellow actors where the stars had shared their most awful stories in exchange for a laugh, Rigg decided to collect the tales more widely. Years ago, she began asking people for their anecdotes. “The responses came pouring in from English actors and actresses,” she said. When she wrote to some American stars the response was less fulsome. “The famous…and secure wrote back,” she said. “I don’t think Americans recognize that failure is one of the steps to success, and if you examine your failure you will learn from it and grow from it. They didn’t seem to like to admit to it.”
One of the few Americans to respond was Charlton Heston, with whom she had starred in Julius Caesar in 1970. “His bad review was something about him playing a part like a block of wood. Not far from the point,” she told The Daily Beast, laughing. “I mean handsome, but…”
Speaking after her one-woman show in Edinburgh, Rigg, 76, said there was no point in reading your reviews if you were working on stage because you’d soon find out what people thought anyway. “It’s Catch-22 because even if you don’t read your reviews you know whether it’s a good or a bad one when you reach the theater. You can tell—apart from anything else, the audience doesn’t come.”
Rigg, who became Lady Olenna Tyrell in 2013, began her career with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon in the 1950s. After more than half a century of roles that stretched from Lady Macbeth to a Bond girl, Rigg became the only genuine knight in the cast of Game of Thrones; she was appointed as Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1988.
Her vast experience means the rest of the cast frequently ask for advice. “Young actors in Game of Thrones all ask me questions about, ‘How have you survived?’ ‘How come you’re still here?’ I tell them: If you want longevity in this profession you must do theater, because theater audiences are the most loyal. They’re not aware; build a CV in the theater, then you will have a long career. Film spits you out when you are 35 to 40. Television, I don’t know—theater is the answer.”
That doesn’t mean Rigg thinks working on stage is easy. During her lovingly crafted show No Turn Unstoned (based off her 1983 book of the same name), she revels in some of the most mortifying reviews ever written. This is how one critic described J.B. Priestley’s play When We Are Married: “It would make an ideal treat as a night out for your despicable in-laws. Send them a couple of tickets—and then meet them later at the theater restaurant for a blazing row.”
Long before Anthony Hopkins won the Oscar for Silence of the Lambs, he was a regular on the London stage, but his Macbeth at the Old Vic in 1972 did not impress everybody. One critic concluded that he lacked gravitas: “This cocky genial fellow sometimes sweats apprehensively and occasionally bellows but frequently he gives the impression that he is a pork butcher about to tell the stalls a dirty story.”
Rigg, of course, had her fair share of uncompromising critiques. She recalled with fondness one of the more forthright directors at the Royal Shakespeare Company who would always return to his productions after they had been running a few months to iron out any of the affectations introduced by ambitious actors who wanted their roles to stand out. “John Dexter would say, ‘Right, I’ve called you together to take out all your improvements.’”
The director wanted her to show a softer side during a production in her first year on the stage: “He said to me, ‘Diana—you are as vulnerable as the north face of the Eiger.’”
Another unusual note came from Sir Laurence Olivier, a legend of British theater, who sat impassively while Rigg did an early rehearsal of Macbeth. He remained silent at the end and then approached her to say: “You weren’t wearing a brassiere during that run-through were you, Diana? Very disturbing.”
Those responses may have been cutting but at least they were in private. Her most brutal public put-down came on Broadway. “Lest I be accused of cowardice I’ll tell you about my worst notice, which came about on account of a nude scene I did,” she said. “The critic wrote: ‘Diana Rigg is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses.’”
“I survived,” she said. “We do survive.”