Peggy Ashcroft and John Gielgud in The Seagull

Peggy Ashcroft and John Gielgud in The Seagull

Even in her early ingenue roles in a series of fairly nondescript West End plays, Peggy Ashcroft attracted the attention of, amongst others, John Gielgud. The qualities remarked upon repeatedly in association with Ashcroft's acting are honesty, lightness and simplicity. In the Daily Telegraph she was described as having 'an uncommon charm and ability'. Her first entrance as Desdemona to Paul Robeson's Othello in 1930 prompted Gielgud to remark, 'it was as if all the lights had suddenly gone up'.

She is pictured here as Nina, with Gielgud as Trigorin, in a 1936 production of Chekhov's The Seagull which was directed by the Russian Komisarjevsky, to whom Ashcroft had briefly been married. Nina is a stage-struck young girl, a part easy enough for a young actress in the first three acts. But many fail in the difficult fourth act, when she returns broken by her experiences. The Observer thought Ashcroft's performance 'perfect in its growth from ... dewy innocence ... to the pale, storm-pelted desperation of the last [act]'.