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Zoe Caldwell - An Obituary

Zoe Caldwell – actress, director

Born September 14, 1933; died February 16, 2020

Zoe Caldwell, who has died aged 86, was a major classical actress, who played a stream of powerful women across three continents. Her work took her from her native Australia to the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK, and to America, where she won four Tony awards. Her second saw her named best actress in the title role of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1968), Jay Presson Allen’s stage version of Muriel Spark’s iconic Edinburgh-set novel about a mercurial school-mistress. Caldwell took over from Vanessa Redgrave in a production directed by Canadian-born Robert Whitehead, who Caldwell married.

Caldwell’s first Tony win came two-years earlier for Tennessee Williams’ Slapstick Tragedy. Her other two followed later, in another title role as Medea (1982), and as operatic diva Maria Callas in Terence McNally’s solo play, Master Class (1996). At Stratford she was Bianca to Paul Robeson’s Othello and Cordelia to Charles Laughton’s Lear. She appeared as Bianca opposite Edith Evans in All’s Well that Ends well, and alongside Laurence Olivier in Coriolanus. Caldwell’s fellow ingénues in the RSC company included Redgrave, Eileen Atkins and Albert Finney, with whom she had an affair.

In America, Caldwell played Ophelia in Hamlet and Natasha in Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. In 1967 at Stratford, Ontario, Canada, she was Lady Anne opposite Alan Bates’s Richard III, and made a fearless queen of the Nile in Antony and Cleopatra. Caldwell also appeared in a Canadian TV film of Macbeth (1961), playing Lady M opposite Sean Connery as her equally doomed husband.

As a director, Caldwell oversaw James Earl Jones in Othello (1981) at the Winter Garden in New York. She was invited to run the American Shakespeare Theatre in Connecticut for two seasons, and directed Christopher Plummer and Glenda Jackson on Broadway in Macbeth (1988). Caldwell later directed Eileen Atkins and Vanessa Redgrave in Vita and Virginia (1995), a play devised by Atkins based on the letters between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. Caldwell’s formidable demeanour on and off stage saw her lead from the front.

Zoe Ada Caldwell was born in Hawthorne, Victoria, and raised in Balwyn, a suburb of Melbourne. Her plumber father Edgar was originally from Bolton, Lancashire, and her mother Zoe (nee Hivon), a taxi dancer in a local ballroom. Caldwell was only two when she appeared in a grass skirt in a concert, and, after taking dance and elocution lessons, made her professional debut aged nine as one of the Lost Boys in a production of Peter Pan. As a child, she also worked on radio and in amateur theatre.

After graduating from the Methodist Ladies’ college in Melbourne, in 1953, Caldwell joined the Union Theatre as part of the first professional fortnightly repertory theatre company in Australia. The company would later become the Melbourne Theatre company. Caldwell toured as Eliza in Pygmalion, and played Viola in Twelfth Night opposite Barry Humphries as Orsino. Humphries told Caldwell about a character he was devising called Dame Edna Everage, who Caldwell suggested he should play himself.

Caldwell joined The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, set up in Sydney to celebrate the visit of Queen Elizabeth, and played Ophelia to Paul Rogers’ Hamlet. This led to Caldwell being offered a contact with Glen Byam Shaw, the director of the 1958 season at Stratford-upon-Avon, where she played bit parts before touring Russia with Michael Redgrave’s Hamlet.

Caldwell made her London debut at the Royal Court in 1960 in Lindsay Anderson’s production of Christopher Logue’s Trial by Logue, before appearing in Tony Richardson’s production of The Changeling and Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist play, Jacques. In Canada, she played Pegeen Mike in a 1961 production of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World.

Returning to Australia, she played Saint Joan at the second Adelaide Festival in 1962. By 1965 she was in America, where she played Millamant in Congreve’s The Way of the World and Grusha in Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, both in Minneapolis, where she met Whitehead. Caldwell made her Broadway debut in 1965, replacing Anne Bancroft for three weeks in John Whiting’s play, The Devils. Back in London, Caldwell played Lady Hamilton in Terence Rattigan’s A Bequest to the Nation (1970), the same year she was awarded an OBE.

On television, she played Sarah Bernhardt in Sarah (1971) and Madame Arkadina in The Seagull (1978). On film, she appeared in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and a year later played the title role of Lillian in William Mace’s play about Lillian Hellman.

Caldwell’s autobiography, I Will be Cleopatra: An Actress’s Journey, was published in 2001. Two years later, she appeared as a guest in The Right Size’s Morecambe and Wise tribute, The Play What I Wrote, and provided voices for the TV cartoon, Lilo and Stitch. In 2004, she appeared in Jonathan Glazer’s psych-horror, Birth (2004), with Nicole Kidman, then in 2011 in Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. As had been the case for more than half a century, Caldwell remained a powerful and imposing presence throughout.

She is survived by her two sons, Sam and Charles, and two grand-children. Whitehead pre-deceased her in 2002.

The Herald, March 26th 2020



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