Helen McCrory Was a Great Actor — and a Great Human. The Playwright Stephen Beresford Praises his Friend’s Restless, Curious Nature
by Stephen Beresford | The Times | April 22, 2021
There was no possibility of my being interesting. I was too terrified. It was the first day of rehearsals for my first play, and it was happening at the National Theatre. I was about to walk into a room full of people I had long admired: Julie Walters, Howard Davies, Rory Kinnear, Nick Hytner — and, of course, Helen.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” she said, sliding her arm into mine as though we had known each other for 40 years. “I’m terrible at read-throughs.”
She wasn’t. But it wasn’t the extraordinary experience of hearing her breathe life into the character that bound me so closely to her for the next nine years. It was the simple gesture of the hand through the arm. Although we had only just met, she assumed an immediate, intimate connection with me that was both absurd and utterly natural.
Later I would learn what this meant. Helen would attach herself to people with whom she felt an immediate kinship. There was no preamble or courtship. Her decisions were fast, instinctive and invariably correct. She found nothing surprising in these alliances, and she never behaved as though there were any possibility of her advances being rejected. I consider that recruitment by her, on that terrifying spring morning, to have been one of the most fortunate and profitable of my life.
Much has been said, and will be said, on the luminous, magnificent quality of her work. She was, in the truest sense of the word, exceptional. The character she played in my first play, The Last of the Haussmans, was a broken, desperate woman, irreparably damaged by family and the disappointments of her life. On one occasion, during rehearsals, she was relating to her mother, played by Julie Walters, the humiliating story of how she had been duped by a man she considered her lover. As she reached the end of the speech, she did something completely unexpected: she broke into wild, maniacal laughter — quickly, irresistibly joined by Julie.
The two of them laughed and laughed, before slowly landing into a terrible, exhausted silence. Shame had turned into hilarity — then back to shame. It was a moment that, I think, allowed me to glimpse the study behind her genius. A lesser actor might have followed the emotional arc of the scene quite predictably. Helen knew, from a shrewd, careful study of our nature, that human beings behave in strange and unexpected ways, especially in extremis. She had the courage to risk humiliation in the attempt to explore those ways. It was for this reason that, whatever she did, whoever she played, her performances had the remarkable quality of being both surprising and somehow inevitable.
That’s not to say that her restless, curious nature was always a benefit. For Helen, passion and work were indistinguishable, and rehearsals would often be punctuated by enthusiastic provocations.
“I think she’s pregnant.” “She isn’t.”
“I think she’s high on tranquillisers…” “I’m worried that might become a little wearing.”
“I think she should shave all her hair off on stage.” “Certainly. If she can grow it all back by the matinee.”
I remember her telling a young Taron Egerton — whose first job this was, fresh out of drama school — that, contrary to received wisdom, he should always read his reviews.
“Because no one is going to stop you reading reviews until you finally get one that says you’re shit. Then you’ll stop. And really stop, not just pretend to.”
Again, that deep knowledge of human nature. No wonder she was one of the greatest interpreters of Chekhov.
As one of Helen’s chosen kindred spirits, it was not unusual to receive a text out of the blue asking you to accompany her to something.
“Beresford. I need you in Wapping.”
Once, I joined her at a summer party in the gardens of an extraordinary country house. All the other guests were oligarchs, celebrities and senior politicians. “Bit of a rum crowd,” she murmured, squeezing my arm. Just at that moment Jasper Conran passed by. Helen reached out to stop him, and as he turned, I watched him succumb to those extraordinary tortoiseshell eyes and feline smile. She didn’t know him. She just had something she wanted to say — something, judging by the grave, respectful way it was delivered — that she’d been waiting to say for many years.
“I like your plates.”
Her attitude to fame — hers and other people’s — was admirably prosaic. She considered it a necessary but uninteresting side-effect, like bunions for a floorwalker. And since she was always too busy, too active, to watch TV herself, it often surprised her. I remember her look of confusion when the man she had just introduced me to in the outside smoking section of the Baftas was called into the crowd to sign autographs.
“Is he famous? I’ve been sitting next to him all night.”
“It’s Bruno Tonioli, Helen. From Strictly.”
She shook her head from side to side as if trying to make sense of it all.
“Who on earth did you think it was?
She shrugged — God, how I will miss that impish grin, that glorious smirk.
“I thought he was an exuberant Italian prince.”
She kept her illness a secret. The night before she died, her husband, Damian Lewis, wrote, with exquisite grace, to all of us kindred spirits. Helen, he said, would want us to hear it from him rather than anywhere else. It was a last act of heroism.
The following morning he asked me if I would write this piece. Something for her friends. All those other kindred spirits — drawn from every walk of life, and under every conceivable circumstance — all processing the terrible news.
While she was keeping a secret from us, she never knew that I was keeping one from her. While she spent her last weeks with her adored family, I decided that the experience of lockdown had taught me one valuable lesson. That I only really wanted to write for the people I love. Oblivious to her suffering, I was halfway through a play, especially written for Helen, when she died.
That play has been put aside now. Who else could I give it to? If there is one thing that unites both the disparate kindred spirits and the audiences who loved and responded to her, it is the belief that we have lost someone utterly unique. A participator, who understood life’s glorious joke.
She is irreplaceable.
Source: The Times