Helen McCrory, In Admiring, Awestruck Memory

We Remember a Great Actress Taken Way Too Soon

By: Apr. 19, 2021

Helen McCrory, In Admiring, Awestruck Memory

This one hurt. No death of course is easy to absorb, especially one as premature and shocking as that of Helen McCrory, whose surrender to cancer late last week, age 52, came like the most brutal and sudden of thunderclaps. The announcement was made via Twitter on Friday by her husband,
Damian Lewis, and I doubt I'm the only one who reacted with moist-eyed disbelief, and not only because the couple were familiar, and welcome, faces in our north London neighbourhood.

It seemed only yesterday that I had seen her in the ITV adaptation of the James Graham play Quiz, lending a peppery authority to the role of the Ingrams' defence barrister, Sonia Woodley. Or as the prime minister, thank you very much, opposite Hugh Laurie in Roadkill: a nice promotion for an actress who had previously played a PM's wife, Cherie Blair, in the film The Queen.

But for all her renown on screen as the formidable Aunt Polly (pictured above) across five seasons of Peaky Blinders and as Narcissa Malfoy (Draco's mum) in the last three Harry Potter films, the stage is where I first encountered McCrory and, over very nearly 30 years, came to regard her talent with something approaching awe. In a country that generously allows women of the theatre to flourish for as long as
they are willing (look at Glenda Jackson playing Lear in her 80s), McCrory gave every indication of a greatness already apparent but also still untapped. What's more, if Judi Dench could become a proper movie star in her 60s, why couldn't the comparably throaty McCrory absolutely follow suit? Already an OBE, McCrory surely had any number of titles and accolades still to come.

It's among the joys of being a theatre critic that you get an early glimpse of gifts that a wider public only discovers later. And so it was in the mid 1990s when this young actress, not long out of the fierce environs of London's Drama Centre, made her National Theatre debut in the title role, no less, of Arthur Wing Pinero's period comedy Trelawny of the 'Wells'; that production was followed a year later by a second John Caird-directed revival, The Seagull, in which she appeared as Nina alongside Dench, as if to hint directly at an eventual passing of the mantle.

Her performance as Rose Trelawny won her third prize in the Sunday Times/National Theatre Ian Charleson awards; to warm up for it, she recalled in an interview last year with The Guardian, she would play football in Doc Martens with the stage crew. Her total lack of "airs and graces", as the writer of Quiz, James Graham, has tweeted, was evident at every turn. A friend once witnessed her, while they were relaxing in an Edinburgh cafe, being approached by a young drama student who was due to play
Chekhov's Nina for the first time. Would Helen mind giving some advice? Not at all: McCrory spent the next 20 minutes proffering "notes" to the student. She could not have been more generous - which was, as I later discovered, her way.

Rose was an ingénue part: not a category in which an actress this vital was going to remain long. Lady Macbeth soon followed at the Tricycle, opposite Lennie James, and then, in 1998, the performance in which this fast-rising name seemed fully to have arrived. As the cunningly named Li'l Bit in the 1998 premiere at the Donmar of Paula Vogel's Pulitzer-winning How I Learned to Drive, McCrory played a survivor of sexual abuse who needs to look forward, even as she can't help but look sorrowfully back. McCrory floored John Crowley's production and announced herself as a risk- taker, ready for anything. It was in just that mood, I am told, that she once turned up for a photoshoot with fishnets and a bustier outfit, loads of props and bags of sassy attitude. "Let's do it, let's get a cover shot," she was saying. Which she duly did.

The Donmar also hosted her bravura pairing of Olivia in Twelfth Night and Yelena in Uncle Vanya, in Sam Mendes's farewell repertory season at the theatre he had put on the global map. Mendes last week hailed McCrory as "an astonishing talent, a fabulous person, and an absolute true original". I'm sure no one remembers better than he her first entrance in Vanya, walking silently and slowly into the erotic hothouse of the play, holding Chekhov's characters, and the Donmar audience, in mesmeric thrall.

Since then, I've been blindsided by the danger she brought to her flinty, dungaree-wearing Medea and the limpid passions of her lovesick Hester Collyer in Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea (see trailer above), the play that looked as if it might take her to Broadway, where she alas never appeared. (The Mendes duo did play a New York season at BAM in 2003.) Also at the National, this time in a new play, no one who saw it can forget the ferocity with which she tore into the hippie mum played by Julie Walters in The Last of the Haussmans, for which McCrory received an Olivier nomination in 2013.

Alongside the ever-gathering acclaim onstage, I can report an offstage thoughtfulness and generosity of spirit that will have been evident in a different context to those who saw the heartbreaking video she and Lewis recorded just weeks ago on behalf of the Prince's Trust. I experienced those qualities first hand on, of all nights, 9/11, when I found myself, an American long resident in Britain, at the Almeida Theatre at King's Cross opening night of Chekhov's Platonov. McCrory walked off with the director Jonathan Kent's production as the young widow Anna Petrovna, who is called "astonishing" in the play, and certainly was so in McCrory's hands.

No less remarkable on that surreal evening, which found audience and actors mingling afterwards in search of connection and comfort, was McCrory's kindness to me. Calling my native New York had been all but impossible as that grievous day unfolded. But as the daughter of a diplomat who had access to dedicated phone lines at a time of crisis, might she, McCrory enquired, see about possibly accessing one of those phone lines on my behalf? I declined for the simple reason that I knew my family was safe and well, but the spontaneous generosity of the gesture has stayed with me ever since.

Several years later, she arrived at an academic study abroad programme on which I was teaching to have an informal chat about her Olivier-nominated performance as Rosalind on the West End in As You Like It, with a young Sienna Miller as Celia. Scarcely had she reached the school premises before, rather like something out of the last act of Hay Fever, she and I discovered a good chunk of the class gathered furtively, their bags packed in advance of sneaking off early to Italy for a long weekend. No matter, McCrory made ebulliently clear. Undeterred, she swept upstairs into class, regaling the remaining students, and me, with an hour or more of her characteristic wisdom and wit and warmth.

I mourn the actress whose further stage triumphs I now won't get to see (what a Cleopatra she would have made, or a Ranevskaya), even as I savour the memory of the person I was lucky enough to have met.

Helen McCrory 17 Aug 1968 - 16 April 2021


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From This Author - Matt Wolf

Matt is London theatre critic for The International NYTimes (formerly The International Herald Tribune) and a founder member of The Arts Desk, where he remains theatre editor. Matt has authored severa... Matt Wolf">(read more about this author)



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