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Legendary Actor Vanessa Redgrave Calls Cancellation of Rachel Corrie Play an “Act of Catastrophic Cowardice”

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A New York theater company is coming under criticism for backing out of an agreement to stage a play based on the life of U.S. peace activist Rachel Corrie. The play’s producers are calling the decision censorship. Corrie was killed in Gaza nearly three years ago when she stood in front of an Israeli bulldozer set to demolish a Palestinian home. We speak with actor and activist Vanessa Redgrave. [includes rush transcript]

Rachel Corrie was 23 years old when she was crushed by the bulldozer. The play, entitled “My Name is Rachel Corrie”, is based on her writings before her death. James Nicola, artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop, said “In our pre-production planning and our talking around and listening in our communities in New York, what we heard was that after Ariel Sharon’s illness and the election of Hamas, we had a very edgy situation. We found that our plan to present a work of art would be seen as us taking a stand in a political conflict, that we didn’t want to take.”

Last night we spoke with Oscar award-winning actress and activist, Vanessa Redgrave.

Vanessa is one of the most famous of the legendary Redgrave acting dynasty. She started her acting career opposite her father, Sir Michael Redgrave. Her children are Natasha Richardson and Jolie Richardson. Her son-in-law is Liam Neeson and heer brother is the equally outspoken Corin Redgrave. Her sister is actor Lynne Redgrave.

During her acting career that spanned some 47 years she has served as UN goodwill ambassador and was a founding member of International Artists Against Racism.

In 1977, Redgrave funded and narrated a documentary film on the plight of the Palestinian people. That same year she starred in the film Julia, about a woman murdered by the Nazi regime in the years prior to World War II for her anti-Fascist activism. She won an Oscar for her performance. At the awards ceremony she spoke out on behalf of Palestinians, an Oscar acceptance speech that is referred to even to this day.

  • Vanessa Redgrave, actor and activist.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Last night, we visited the home of Oscar Award-winning actress Vanessa Redgrave and talked to her about the situation. During her acting career — it has spanned some 47 years — she has served as U.N. Goodwill Ambassador, was a founding member of the International Artists Against Racism. Vanessa Redgrave is one of the most famous of the legendary Redgrave acting dynasty. She started her acting career opposite her father, Sir Michael Redgrave. Her children are Natasha Richardson and Jolie Richardson, her son-in-law Liam Neeson. Her brother, equally outspoken, is Corin Redgrave; her sister, actor Lynne Redgrave.

In 1997, Vanessa Redgrave funded and narrated a documentary based on the plight of the Palestinian people. That same year, she starred in the film Julia, about a woman murdered by the Nazi regime in the years prior to World War II for her anti-Fascist activism. Vanessa Redgrave won an Oscar for her performance. At the awards ceremony she spoke out on behalf of Palestinians, an Oscar acceptance speech that’s referred to even to this day. Well, last night we spoke with her at her home in London, just before she went into the hospital this morning for an operation, about the postponement of the play My Name Is Rachel Corrie.

VANESSA REDGRAVE: Well, I expect your viewers know that My Name Is Rachel Corrie was supposed to be opening in New York at the New York Theatre Workshop in the week beginning March the 20th, and the Royal Court Theatre, who are the producers of My Name Is Rachel Corrie, were raising money for the 50,000 pounds that was their share of the production, and Alan Rickman had underwritten it, and suddenly, the New York Theatre Workshop said something strange over the phone to the Royal Court, like maybe we’ve got to postpone this because we have consulted with a number of groups in New York City and we just don’t think — and then, I believe, from some other emails I’ve heard, the New York Theatre Workshop referred to “contextualization,” which nobody what that means.

But the basic thing is that — what’s horrible about it is that, first of all, the text of this production — because it isn’t a play — was taken from Rachel’s diaries. Rachel was a fantastic young American girl, who any country, anybody of any faith or race should be just so proud and thrilled that the human race can produce a girl like that. So the entire text was taken, edited from her diaries by Alan Rickman, who directed, and Megan Dodds, playing Rachel, and performed at the Royal Court Theatre to overwhelming critical wonder, let alone acclaim, and to all of us who went to the see the place once, twice or more.

And the theater was full of young people, full of young people who hadn’t been to the Royal Court Theatre before, but had the idea that this was a play about a young girl and therefore it might have something to do with something they might care about. In fact, I was with Alan one night in the Royal Court bar downstairs, and there were loads of young girls, and, of course, they were all coming up to Alan and saying, “Well, you know, we didn’t know what to expect, but this is really — this is extraordinary, extraordinary,” because they hadn’t even, some of them, been in the theater before, any theater before, let alone the Royal Court Theatre before.

And Rachel, as anyone who’s seen this production, based entirely on her diaries until she was killed trying to defend these Palestinian lives, who were in this house, that an Israeli army bulldozer was heading for to demolish, and Rachel knew they were in the house, and so she just stood in front of the house like all the international volunteers have been doing and like some wonderful Israeli human rights people who I know have been doing, and the bulldozer kept coming, and her back was broken and she died.

And it was canceled, although they used the word “postponed.” But we all know in the theater that if you use the word “postponed,” you mean “canceled.” Let alone that there were jobs at stake, let alone that money that was at stake, the main issue, and now it’s important in a blacklisting kind of time where we are, but the terrible thing was that it was silencing that girl, and she was killed to be silenced. These volunteers, they stand, whether Israeli or American or from whichever country they were coming, in her case, American, they stand in front of a house or some children or a building to prevent the families being shot at and the houses being demolished, and they crawl out and wave white flags.

So, her voice was silenced by an IDF bulldozer, a Caterpillar bulldozer, but then the Theatre Workshop in New York, they not only then silenced her by canceling this production, but at the end of the production, there’s a little, little moment from a speech that Rachel made when she was ten years old at a school ceremony, and the children must have all been told to prepare speeches about what they cared about in the world, and Rachel made this speech about world poverty and the misery that poverty causes and her wish and desire and belief that the world could and would end poverty, and that this must be done. So the New York Theatre Workshop also silenced that little girl, too, who is speaking for everybody all over the world, whoever they are. It’s a very, very bad situation.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this play did not — this production did not cause controversy in London?

VANESSA REDGRAVE: Oh, I suppose behind the scenes it did. In fact, I know it did, because the Royal Court Theatre were getting various letters and phone calls and so on, but you know, I mean, that’s normal. What are we all about? Supposed to be a democracy where people can say what they want and make a phone call or write a letter saying, “I don’t agree” or “This is awful” or whatever, but the Royal Court quite rightly didn’t pay any attention at all, and the audiences packed in.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the argument that in this time of, I guess they had said, the Prime Minister Sharon in a coma and the Hamas election, that they didn’t think it was the proper time?

VANESSA REDGRAVE: Is that what they said? I hadn’t read that. Is that what they said?

AMY GOODMAN: I think there was some mumbling about that.

VANESSA REDGRAVE: Oh, well, I’m sure there’s a hell of a lot of mumbling behind, but it doesn’t matter. I mean, the essence of life and the essence of theater is to communicate about lives, either lives that have ended or lives that are still alive, beliefs, what is in those beliefs, and this was an extraordinary young girl. It wasn’t — she didn’t take sides, although she went to defend Palestinians. It isn’t about taking sides. It’s about defending human life. That’s the basis of all human rights. That’s the basis of what every country proclaims it stands for.

I don’t know of a single government that actually abides by international human rights law, not one, including my own. In fact, violate these laws in the most despicable and obscene way, I would say. But to cancel a play, and it wasn’t really a play, to cancel a voice, because it was her voice, is an act of such catastrophic cowardice, because we are living in times when people are quite fearful enough about speaking out, for losing their career or, you know, whatever, and I think it’s — people in the theater, in film, radio, television, dance, music, we have to do what we must do.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think times have changed since you won the Oscar about a quarter of a century ago and spoke out for Palestinians then?

VANESSA REDGRAVE: Oh, yes. Times have changed, alright. The human rights movement, the nongovernmental organizations, the U.N. agencies have got stronger and stronger. There are communities all over the world who work with human rights groups. In contradistinction to this wonderful development, you have governments that are violating human rights. Now, if you have an artistic enterprise that then moves in and opens the door for all the censorship-directed policies of any government, then that becomes a conduit for silencing of an awful lot of people who have got things to say about many other things. So I’ve never known —- I must say, in my experience, I had the support of Jewish communities. I had the support of American Actors Equity, because, you know, efforts were made to silence me along the way, and I had to, you know, go to several court cases, in fact, and I did. I sued, and it was in the suing that the truth came out -—

AMY GOODMAN: Who did you sue?

VANESSA REDGRAVE: — that, actually, there’s many more people want the freedom to communicate, as long as it’s not blasphemous and destructive in a rotten way of other people, in other words, racist. I mean, those cartoons, for instance, that have shocked us all were racist. They were fascist in character, the cartoons of the Prophet with a bomb on his head. I mean, that’s a very rightwing paper, Jyllands-Posten, and it’s not surprising that they published those cartoons as a sort of provocation. We have got these sort of fascist kind of things happening in the world, and we don’t need any more of them.

However, the play, because the New York Theatre Workshop canceled, there’s a producer in London, and it’s going to open in London at a major West End theater, My Name Is Rachel Corrie, and the press night’s March the 28th. So, while every attempt has been made to suppress by governments, I think we’ve got that reminder of what Shakespeare said, “The truth will rise, though all the earth o’erwhelm it, to men’s eyes.”

AMY GOODMAN: Vanessa Redgrave, the last time we saw you was in New York. You had come with a delegation, and you were headed to Washington speaking out about the detainees at Guantanamo. You were with your brother, Corin, as well, I believe, Moazzam Begg’s father —

VANESSA REDGRAVE: Mr. Azmat Begg, and the lawyers of some of the European prisoners in Guantanamo.

AMY GOODMAN: Moazzam Begg has since been released, but many others remain. What has come of the movement that you have helped to found?

VANESSA REDGRAVE: Well, we were just a small hard-working part of it. Those lawyers everywhere, not only the wonderful American lawyers, like the Center for Constitutional Rights, like the American Civil Liberties Union, but many, many big firms have poured in to assist, because they are so horrified at what is being done in Guantanamo Bay, and the same is true, I would say, in a different way here in England, because we not only had a whole number of U.K. citizens in Guantanamo Bay, but we still have British families who have got U.K. fathers, brothers, sons, who are held in Guantanamo. So we have a particular responsibility to free them.

Long, long ago we said, “If they have done anything wrong” — this is what Moazzam’s father said, “If he has done anything wrong, let him be brought back and tried here in the U.K.” But, of course, they hadn’t done anything wrong at all, and Guantanamo Bay was an interrogation center where torture is practiced, and when they went on hunger strikes starting last August — I think there’s only two or three left now, they were force-fed and force-feeding is a torture, too, and it’s despicable that, in my view, that our government, the British government, has been complicit in these men being seized in the first place and then rendered from wherever to Afghanistan and then to Guantanamo.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you seen Moazzam Begg since he has come home?

VANESSA REDGRAVE: Oh, yes, of course. Yes, and we’ve marched together with the mothers and sisters and wives of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners.

AMY GOODMAN: Cherie Booth, the wife of the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has spoken out against torture. What is your response to that?

VANESSA REDGRAVE: To what? Torture or —

AMY GOODMAN: To her, the wife of the Prime Minister of Britain speaking out. Does that surprise you?

VANESSA REDGRAVE: Well, she’s saying the right thing, but you know, it’s not quite the issue. She has the right, and she has exercised that right to say her mind. I haven’t read that she said this, but I believe you, anyway. She is a human rights Q.C. practicing in the bar. She would adhere to human rights law, but we have this phenomenon in which a very strange language is being used that is the product of brains that have convinced themselves that the United Nations is an impediment in our times, that international human rights law is an obstacle, that Amnesty International, that the United Nations Rapporteur on Torture, that even the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbor, that magnificent Canadian who presided over the Rwanda war crime tribunal and also Yugoslavia, that these are “pressure groups,” was the word used by our Home Secretary in August, and are transmitting and fueling a xenophobia in Britain with various statements that are made to certain media that can be absolutely counted upon for front-page xenophobic alarms, and so on and so forth. It’s a very, very bad time.

The good thing is that there’s more support for Amnesty International, for Human Rights Watch, for our own U.K. civil liberties organization, which is called Liberty, than there has ever been before, ever, ever, ever before.

AMY GOODMAN: Vanessa Redgrave, you also have been focusing on the issue of Chechnya, and you have made a film, Voices of Dissent. Can you talk about that?

VANESSA REDGRAVE: Yes, well, this is a 47-minute documentary, based primarily on an extraordinary Soviet dissident, an absolutely heroic guy called Vladimir Bukovsky, who was one of the young people in the 1960s who were inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as was Nelson Mandela, as was Martin Luther King. And that generation of young Soviet people who campaigned for human rights in the Soviet Union were sent to gulags, they were beaten up in the K.G.B. cells, that’s the old Soviet intelligence services, for those young people of today who don’t know what that was, and who were sent to the infamous Secret Services psychiatric prisons, where they were tortured both physically and psychologically. And it was thanks to Amnesty that a number of these dissidents, including Vladimir Bukovsky, were saved and brought out.

So, through the voices of dissidents and of Russians today, and also Mr. Zakayev, who lives here and who has political asylum here in the U.K. and who was the main representative of the former president, Maskhadov, who was murdered by the Russian special forces in Chechnya last year, we tell in 47 minutes, thanks to Bukovsky and Mr. Zakayev and some of these wonderful Russians, we hear their view of today and how today happened and that the war against Chechnya was used to bring the real old K.G.B. secret services and the military and intelligence back into power both in the Kremlin and in the army and in business and even in culture, and the war in Chechnya helped that to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Vanessa Redgrave, Oscar Award-winning actor, speaking to us at her home last night in West London.

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