Helen McCrory’s Radiance, Also in a Haze of Mysteriousness
Onstage, she was unforgettable as apparently tranquil women who trembled with restlessness.
Personally, my initial reaction upon learning of the uncanny British actress Helen McCrory’s death at the age of 52 was that of personal betrayal. She and I were meant to have a long and prosperous future together. I’d be on one side of the footlights and she’d be on the other, as she unpacked the mysteries of the human heart with the elegance and ruthlessness reserved for only a very few theater performers in each century.
I never met her, but I felt as if I knew her — or rather, I felt as if I knew the women she represented with an intimacy that sometimes felt like a cruel invasion of privacy. When London’s theaters reawakened from their pandemic hibernation, she was supposed to be waiting for me with yet another complete manifestation of an unexpected existence.
Ms. McCrory had achieved international acclaim for her dark and exotic screen appearances, including the intensely patrician witch Narcissa Malfoy in the Harry Potter films and the frightening criminal matriarch Polly Gray in the BBC series “Peaky Blinders.” However, she was, for me, above all, a brilliant creature of the stage and a cause in and of herself to make a theater trip to London.
She was often present, playing women of wit and zeal, whose commanding serenity rippled with hints of impending upheavals, masterful performances in Shakespeare, Chekhov, Pinter, Ibsen, Rattigan, and Euripides masterworks. Occasionally, she’d take you to places you never imagined visiting, to depths where poise was broken and dignity was scraped raw.
How happy I felt at the conclusion of these shows, even after a pitch-black “Medea” at the National Theater in 2014, which she transformed into an unflinching examination of clinical depression’s festering nightmare. To be sure, I often felt sucker-punched as well, perhaps because I had not anticipated such an ostensibly self-contained individual unraveling so fully and convincingly. However, that was part of the excitement of seeing her.
I assume that the majority of Ms. McCrory’s fans feel sucker-punched by her passing. Apart from her family — which includes her actor husband Damian Lewis and their two children — few people were aware she was battling cancer. The announcement of her death was a covert operation, similar to that of Nora Ephron (in 2012), who also managed to conceal her terminal illness.
I admire public figures who are capable of taking private care of their final days. Nonetheless, when I learned of Ms. McCrory’s death via Twitter, I screamed “No!” with a repeated obscenity and started furiously pacing the room.
Damn it, Ms. McCrory possessed an abundance of more nuanced, true-to-life portraits to share with us. Consider the loss if Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, or Helen Mirren had died in their early fifties.
Ms. McCrory, like Ms. Mirren, exuded a seductive aura of mystery at first sight. Even in her youth, she had a sphinx-like smile, a husky alto, and an often amused, slightly tired look, as though she had already seen more than you would ever see.
In the early twenty-first century, I saw her as the languorous, restless Yelena in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” a role she was born for (in repertory with a lust-filled Olivia in Sam Mendes’ “Twelfth Night”); as a defiantly sensual Rosalind in the West End’s “As You Like It”; and (again, perfectly cast) as the enigmatic friend who pays
She evoked the erotic worldliness of Jeanne Moreau in those works. It was her default identity during that time period, and one on which she could have coasted for the remainder of her career. She brimmed with wit and intellect, and I imagined her as a muse for the likes of Noel Coward in another age.
However, Ms. McCrory desired to delve deeper. And in less than a decade, from 2008 to 2016, she delivered perfection in three high-octane performances that pierced the marrow of broken and ruinous lives. Initially, she played an electrically separated Rebecca West in Ibsen’s “Rosmersholm,” a freethinking “modern woman” ripped apart by the shackling conventions of a world she could never inhabit comfortably. Then there was her heartbreaking Hester Collyer in Terence Rattigan’s “The Deep Blue Sea,” an upper-middle-class woman devastated by sexual reawakening.
In between, she dared to portray a Medea who had reached rock bottom before the play began. Ms. McCrory portrayed Euripides’ wronged sorceress as a despair-stricken woman who believed she would never, ever feel better in Carrie Cracknell’s unflinchingly harsh production. Depression’s terrible, self-defeating reasoning powered this Medea.
“There is little that can be done to save this lady from her misery,” observed the household nanny (played by a young Michaela Coel). However, it was Ms. McCrory’s gift to take us into the illuminating space between a character and her most intense emotions, and to make us understand where those feelings originate and how they have taken over her.
I never struggled to get a flash of insight when watching Ms. McCrory. When I return to London, it will feel infinitely more lonely.