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Rufus Norris: ‘In 15 years, I would have loved to have directed Helen McCrory as Prospero’

The Artistic Director of the National – Where McCrory Performed Her Last Major Plays – Recalls the Actor’s Sense of Wickedness and Mischief

Helen McCrory in Medea at the National

Few actors can stand by themselves on the Olivier or the Lyttelton stage and leave an audience thinking: if you are the only thing going on, then I’m happy. Helen McCrory was one of those actors. She appeared eight times at the National Theatre, most recently in Euripides’s Medea and in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, and she had a rare ability to inhabit and communicate what a character was feeling right to the back of the stalls. People talk about actors having natural magnetism but Helen was simply really, really good at what she did. Her death at the age of 52 has left the industry in utter shock.

Helen adored working at the National. We would often meet for a coffee and discuss parts she might play and, like everyone, I was extremely keen to get her and Damian in a production together. She had tremendous range, just at home with new work such as The Last of the Haussmans – Stephen Beresford’s look at the after effects of the Sixties’ in which Helen played the exasperated daughter of a hippie – as with the classics.

She also had tremendous sensuality. She understood that Hester’s tragedy in The Deep Blue Sea is that she is beautiful. Hester has left her wealthy husband for a younger, feckless, alcoholic pilot and her desperate passion for him – and an awareness of what hurt she has inflicted as a result – has made her suicidal. Rattigan was skewering the tragedy of women who are perceived only for their looks but who have this rich inner life going on, and Hester, who is as bright –if not brighter – than both her husband and her lover, knows that her sexuality is the only real power she has.

Helen absolutely nailed the way Hester’s feelings of futility and desperation over this fed into her depression. It was partly what made her so good at period roles. She had huge poise as an actress but it was always about the layers of intelligence beneath that made her so endlessly fascinating to watch. I remember seeing her as Rosalind in As You Like It in the West End in 2006 and it’s a tricky old part but she brought to it a tremendous speed of thought, curiosity and dexterity. She was incredibly sharp brained.

I knew Helen as an actor rather than a friend but I was always delighted to hang out with her. We would often bump into each other at awards ceremonies and press nights and she was just a joy. I don’t mean that in a flippant way, She was simply very smart, very curious and very funny. Yet for all the charm and mischief, underneath all of it she was a massively committed professional. That was always the wellspring of her talent.

She was part of an era of actors who were able to hone their craft on stage in a way that is increasingly harder to do. The exponential rise of the TV networks has helped save an awful lot of livelihoods at a point at which, thanks to lockdown, many actors have faced a huge chasm in their working lives but it’s a worrying moment for theatre. Actors like Helen gained their sheer breadth of craft on stage. Helen could have disappeared into film and TV as well but she was always fiercely protective of making sure theatre was a part of her life.

It’s not necessarily helpful to talk about what there may have been in the future; we should be celebrating what Helen achieved. But I think in her later decades she would have become more delicious and that her sense of mischief would have only deepened. I’ve often thought about what roles I’d have loved to have directed her in, and I think, in about 15 years, I would have loved to have directed her as Prospero.

That mix of playfulness, vulnerability and an awareness of her own power and her absolute command of Shakespeare would only have become greater over time. Great artists tap into a common humanity that allows other people to access it too, and thus to recognise their own traits or flaws or triumphs. Helen had that humanity. It was no surprise to me that she and Damian became so involved in working with the NHS. She had this tremendous awareness of others and she touched the lives of so many people. Her death is a tragedy but, coming at a time when theatre is just starting to come back to life after a dreadful year, it also feels particularly cruel.

Source: The Telegraph

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