Zoe Caldwell was already a star in her native Australia when she arrived in Britain in 1958 to join the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. A recipient of four Tony awards, she went on to establish herself as one of the leading classical actors of her generation while also excelling in new work.
Born in Hawthorn, Victoria and raised in Melbourne, she was a precocious performer, first appearing on stage at two years old. Her professional debut as one of the Lost Boys of Peter Pan followed when she was nine and in 1953 she joined Australia’s first rep company, the Union Theatre Repertory Company (now Melbourne Theatre), in its inaugural season.
While appearing with the recently formed Elizabethan Theatre Trust, she was invited by Glen Byam Shaw to join the Stratford company in 1958. There she blossomed, appearing alongside Michael Redgrave’s Hamlet, Laurence Olivier’s Coriolanus, Paul Robeson’s Othello and as Cordelia to Charles Laughton’s King Lear.
She was praised by The Stage for her “considerable variety and resource” as Helena in As You Like It opposite Edith Evans’ Countess.
In the early 1960s at London’s Royal Court, she was seen in Christopher Logue’s Trials by Logue, Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling and Eugène Ionesco’s Jacques before returning to Australia to take the lead in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.
In 1965 she made her Broadway debut, standing in for Anne Bancroft in John Whiting’s The Devils. Returning the following year, she earned her first Tony award in Tennessee Williams’ double-bill Slapstick Tragedy, despite a run of only seven performances.
At the Stratford Festival in Ontario, 1967, she gave a defining career performance as Cleopatra to Christopher Plummer’s Antony, while back on Broadway, a second Tony rewarded her “subtly mannered… true, insinuating, revealing” take on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Her early West End swansong came in 1970 as Lady Hamilton to Ian Holm’s Nelson in Terence Rattigan’s A Bequest to the Nation at the Haymarket Theatre.
She added to her cache of Tony awards as Euripides’ Medea (1982) and the opera diva Maria Callas in Terrence McNally’s Master Class (1995).
Last seen on Broadway in 2003 guesting in the Morecambe and Wise tribute The Play What I Wrote, the same year she appeared in Melbourne Theatre Company’s revival of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit.
Developing a second career as a director, her credits include Richard II (Ontario, 1979), Othello, with James Earl Jones in the title role and Plummer as Iago (Winter Garden, New York, 1981), a troubled Macbeth with Glenda Jackson and Plummer on Broadway (1988) and the Off-Broadway premiere of Eileen Atkins’ Vita and Virginia (1994), starring Vanessa Redgrave.
Her television appearances included Mrs Patrick Campbell to Barry Morse’s Shaw in Jerome Kilty’s Dear Liar (1964), Sarah Bernhardt in the Waris Hussein-directed Sarah (1971), Madame Arkadina in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull (1978) and Medea in the 1983 TV adaptation.
On film, she was seen in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), voiced the Grand Councilwoman in a number of Lilo and Stitch films, and took her leave in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, directed by Stephen Daldry in 2011.
Married to the theatre producer Patrick Whitehead from 1968 until his death in 2002, she was appointed OBE in 1970, received the American Shakespeare Guild’s Gielgud award in 1998 and published an autobiography, I Will Be Cleopatra, in 2002.
Zoe Caldwell was born on September 14, 1933 and died on February 16, aged 86.