HARRIET WALTER AND JANET MCTEER IN ‘MARY STUART’ (Photo by Alastair Muir)
The opening night of Frank McGuinness’ play, GATES OF GOLD, at 59E59th Theatre on March 1, was attended by two queens, Elizabeth I and Mary of Scotland, or, I should say, the wonderful actresses who are about to play them on Broadway in Friedrich Schiller’s MARY STUART, Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer. In a so-far lacklustre Broadway season, this play is greatly anticipated, if only for the script and performance possibilities it so richly promises. Of all the female rivalries in history – Marie Antoinette and Mme. Du Barry, Mary Garden and Lina Cavalieri, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer, Olivia De Havilland and sister Joan Fontaine, none can match the endlessly fascinating tale of Bess and Mary. I mean, there’s pure hatred, and then there’s beheading your rival…
HELEN HAYES AND HELEN MENKEN, COSTUMED BY ROBERT EDMOND JONES, IN ‘MARY OF SCOTLAND’ 1933
Maxwell Anderson’s play, MARY OF SCOTLAND, opened on Broadway in 1933, with Helen Hayes as Mary and Helen Menken as Elizabeth. On the first night, Director Theresa Helburn ran backstage, crying, “Where’s Helen? I must congratulate her!” “Here I am,” said Hayes. “No, I meant the other Helen!” Ouch!
FLORENCE ELDRIDGE AND KATHARINE HEPBURN, COSTUMED BY WALTER PLUNKETT, IN JOHN FORD’S ‘MARY OF SCOTLAND’ (1936)
Onscreen, it’s been done with Katharine Hepburn’s quiveringly tremulous Mary to Florence Eldridge’s cackling, crotchety Elizabeth in John Ford’s lavish snooze of an adaptation, MARY OF SCOTLAND (1936). (Ginger Rogers, if you can believe it, was desperate to play Elizabeth and even did a screen test for it. Bette Davis also wanted a crack at it, but later got to play her twice, anyway.) In 1971, Vanessa Redgrave was tremulously quivering in MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS, to Glenda Jackson’s scene-stealing tough old bird of a Bess.
VANESSA REDGRAVE AND GLENDA JACKSON, COSTUMED BY MARGARET FURSE, IN ‘MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS’ (1971)
As for GATES OF GOLD, it’s a very talky and repetitive meditation on death, as flamboyantly gay actor Gabriel (Martin Rayner) very slowly expires, while braying all manner of insult, epigrams and anguished cries at his long-suffering lover Conrad (Charles Shaw Robinson), as well as a sister and young, comely nephew who, it seems, is having an improbable affair with Conrad.
A few lines which pass for wit on a slow night (“Dying is remarkably like being stuck in a traffic jam through Limerick”; “Her dress sense is entirely Canadian”) came as a few drops of welcome rain in an otherwise arid landscape of one rather tiresome and disagreeable old man’s twilight. The peripheral plotlines involving that sister and Conrad and the nephew felt like extraneous, wan padding. Rayner was, however, fully up to the part, and did all he could to inject some outrageous life into the proceedings. Robinson was plain dull and woefully underpowered, though. Their characters were based on long-time lovers, Hilton Edwards and Micheal MacLiammoir (Orson Welles’ early mentor and Iago in his 1952 film of OTHELLO), who founded Dublin’s Gate Theater in 1928. How I wish the play had contained more information about their fascinating theatrical lives than the mere generalities we are given.
The party afterwards was far more diverting, thanks to Harriet Walter, who was a total delight. Things got off to a rocky start when McTeer’s purse fell over the bar railing to the flight below. Ah! the glamour of being a Broadway diva, as she had to run to retrieve it and then make sure nothing in it had shattered.
“So you two queens are really friends, after all?” I said to them.
“Oh, no! We haate each other!” McTeer laughed, all six feet of her and uncanny, spooked eyes.
I told her how much I admired her as Gertrude Lawrence in the BBC film about her lover, Daphne DuMaurier, and asked what it was like to attempt to play such a big, legendary star. “But Janet is a big, legendary star!” Walter loyally interjected. McTeer laughed and said, “We did it for no money and I had only a month to prepare, so a lot of my research was rushed. As for Mary Stuart, I don’t play her as a victim, as some see her, as she’s quite a storng woman with the courage of her convictions.” Those aforementioned physical attributes of McTeer’s made her instantly recognizable at the party, and she was soon set upon by various admirers.
JANET MCTEER AS GERTRUDE LAWRENCE, GERALDINE SOMERVILLE AS DAPHNE DUMAURIER, MALCOLM SINCLAIR AS NOEL COWARD IN ‘DAPHNE’
Walters, on the other hand, seemed to go largely unnoticed, which was divine, as I was able to have a lovely conversation with this never-disappointing, superbly authoritative actress who has given me such pleasure in films like BEDROOMS AND HALLWAYS, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY and Stephen Fry’s delightful BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS. This niece of Christopher Lee and recipient of a 1999 Commander of the Order of the British Empire title told me, “I’m here because I’m a friend of Frank’s [McGuinness]. I thought the writing was quite good and the ending very moving.
“I have a place in Dorset and people recognize me more there because there’s less to do and their faces are not buried in newspapers, whereas, in London, they don’t care at all, which is great, as I would hate to be bothered. I’m very different from the daunting characters I play. They’re not me at all, and if I was ever to play myself onscreen or stage, no one would be interested, I’m sure. I’m rather shy and retiring.
“I trained at LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art), which I think was better for me than going to RADA, less intense and competitive. So many people who went to RADA said they envied me for that reason.”
“It’s been three and half years since we did MARY STUART in London and I’m trying to approach it as a new thing. Although everyone else in the cast is much more up in their lines, I’m trying to go more slowly, reinvestigating things. Elizabeth I is such an iconic figure – everyone seems to have played her recently. But Cate’s [Blanchett] work in her first Elizabeth movie really helped me with the groundwork for the younger Elizabeth, so I feel a lot of the work was done for me. But I hope people don’t just want to see these things for the gowns and pageantry. We’re really trying to invest in them as human beings. Mary and Elizabeth were so similar in many ways, and it’s a shame that they weren’t able to relate to each other more in a real way.
“This is not my Broadway debut, you know. I was here 25 years ago in a production of ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL, as Helena, directed by Trevor Nunn. I love the theatre we’re in now, the Broadhurst. It’s not that big, which I like. I like to be able to be able to look out and relate to everyone sitting there, even in the top balconies, like in the theatres in London.”
EMILY BLUNT AND HARRIET WALTER IN ‘THE YOUNG VICTORIA’
Given her naturally aristocratic bearing, strong presence and elegance, royal parts are never far from hand for Walter and she is to appear in THE YOUNG VICTORIA, starring Emily Blunt as that other formidable British monarch. “I play Queen Adelaide, Victoria’s aunt. Emily is such a good actress, and is playing her as a young and sexier Victoria. It was directed by this Canadian Jean-Marc Vallee who did a film called C.R.A.Z.Y., that was about a young gay boy. It was very interesting and they gave the project to him thinking he would shake the dust off this historical theme, which he certainly did. As completely different as they were, Victoria actually was rather similar to Elizabeth, in that she came to power very early in a dangerous time, although she didn’t live in such a dangerous era with people losing their heads. I hope the film gets a release here, as it’s very British and I don’t know how many people would be interested in it.”
“Are you kidding?” I said. “We are all abject worshippers of royal history here!”
I’ve always loved Walter’s face, with its truly aquiline profile, an important nose and chin, which are real rarities these days: “I’m part Italian, which is why I look the way I do and I don’t ever want to change anything. I’m working on a book about women’s faces and surgery, and have gotten wonderful quotes from many actresses. I was recently at a do where someone who shall remain nameless was supposed to show up and I kept waiting and looking for her. There was this one woman there who was very typical of that surgically enhanced, eternally youthful look – unfortunate – and then I finally realized it was she.”
I said that Liv Ullman once told me that she would never do anything to her face as “I’m much too vain. I want to see what nature does to me on her own,” and Walter said, “I must see her. I admire that and that’s quite a wonderful thing to say.”
THE REAL MARY
THE REAL BESS