David Gritten, chairman of the film section of the Circle, which proposed Mirren this year, recalled how he had forsaken his National Union of Journalists picket line in Birmingham to come down and see Dame Helen as the Janis Joplin-style rock singer in David Hare’s Teeth ‘n’ Smiles at the Royal Court in 1975. He listed her many great stage roles, including Gertrude in Hamlet. “I’ve never played Gertrude,” interjected Dame Helen. “You will,” countered Gritten.
Apart from her extensive screen career – which includes three British monarchs and her severe, always surprising, Detective Jane Tennison in seven series of ITV’s Prime Suspect – Dame Helen has played three Cleopatras, with the National Youth Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company (opposite Michael Gambon) and the NT (opposite Alan Rickman), and most recently appeared at the NT as Christine Mannion, a modern Clytemnestra consumed with sexual envy and inconsolable grief, in Howard Davies’ superb 2003 revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra.
Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of the NT, took a break from rehearsing Rafta Rafta, which begins previews next week, to join the critics in paying tribute to Dame Helen. She appreciated the award, she said, “because it comes from you beady-eyed lot”, and she felt as though a pride of lionesses were giving an award to a springbok. She questioned whether she deserved recognition for “distinguished service to the arts” as she had merely been doing her job and paying the mortgage.
- by Michael Coveney (photo by John Reiss)