At a time when people like Prince Philip looked as though they would live forever and the world was a little awed at the sight of that stark yet grand military funeral at Windsor Castle, with the Queen – who has reigned since Churchill was prime minister and Stalin ruled Russia – mourning her 99-year- old consort, it was sad that Helen McCrory, one of Britain’s finest actresses, should have been snatched from us at just 53. She was Narcissa Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Aunt Polly in Peaky Blinders and gave a performance of dazzling credibility in Stephen Frears’ The Queen. Like Helen Mirren as Her Majesty she seemed to turn into the real-life figure she played. Then, just recently, we saw her as an especially slithering and wicked Prime Minister in David Hare’s Roadkill.
I, however, will always think of her as one of the great ladies of the English stage. She played Rosalind in Shakespeare’s magical forest play As You Like It (one of the greatest of his deeper and more humane comedies) and she shared the stage with Dominic West (from The Wire) as her lover Orlando and with Sienna Miller as her girlfriend Celia. It was that moment when the world was captivated with Jude Law’s romance with Miller and crowds gathered to watch the star pay homage at the stage door.
However, on stage, at Wyndham’s, it was Helen McCrory who ruled, She was a throaty, perfectly poised Rosalind, one of nature’s comediennes with a lyrical intensity as well.
The woman who played the title role in the 2000 BBC Anna Karenina in fact did everything on stage. She played Lady Macbeth, she played Nina the fluttering forlorn heroine of Chekhov’s The Seagull at the National. She played Euripides’ Medea again at the National in a production which incorporated choric dance from Australia’s Lucy Guerin.
When I interviewed her she was doing Rattigan’s Deep Blue Sea. She was an unpretentious down-to-earth woman and at the time we spoke she looked like playing the greatest role an actress can aspire to, Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, a destiny she did not live to enact, alas.
I remember her telling me, self-mockingly, how she had once toured Spain in a Declan Donnellan production of that Spanish Renaissance classic Fuente Ovejuna and how the cast of Britishers had laboured mightily to master that quintessential Spanish dance move the flamenco. At the curtain the entire Spanish audience performed it in flawless unison. The London theatres have been closed for a long sad year. We will miss Helen McCrory. May the earth lie light on her.
By the grace of God, some of the great ladies of the stage do last forever though it was hard to be captivated, at least at a short glance, by Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit that’s streaming on Amazon Prime. Now it’s a matter of fact that despite the great Noël’s disgruntlement, the gold standard when it comes to Blithe Spirit is David Lean’s 1945 film with Rex Harrison, the greatest actor in the history of the world at this kind of light comedy, as the haunted writer and Margaret Rutherford as Madame Arcati the medium who runs her seances like a hockey mistress. It was a case of Lean resting for a moment – with great zest – before the labour of his Dickens masterpieces (Alec Guiness as Fagin, John Mills as Pip).
This TV Blithe Spirit is directed by the admirable Ed Hall (son of Peter who started the Royal Shakespeare Company). His all-male Shakespeares with his Propeller group were a highlight of two Perth Festivals. He also does mainstream and mainstage classical theatre: he once did a Boromir/Moneypenny Macbeth with Sean Bean from Lord of the Rings and Samantha Bond from the James Bond films.
Dame Judi is not ideal as Madame Arcadi. It’s a bit like when she did Lady Bracknell in the film re-make of The Importance of Being Earnest and people exclaimed: ‘They got the wrong dame!’ meaning where was Dame Maggie Smith? It’s not necessarily that Smith is a greater actress but this kind of comedy has her name on it. Besides, Dan Stevens (the juvenile lead in Downtown Abbey) is not a high comedian in the Harrison mould as, say, Hugh Grant is.
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