She’s been a media darling for 40 years—and a fine actress. As she graces the big screen in the newsroom thriller "State of Play", Irving Wardle (theatre) and Matthew Sweet (film) pick her star turns ...
1968: Cressida in “Troilus and Cressida”, RSC Daughter of an Essex cab driver and descendant of a tsarist field marshal, the 20-year-old Ilyena Vasilievna Mironov made an overnight conquest as Cleopatra with the National Youth Theatre, and was instantly recruited by the RSC. Three years later she notched up her third Shakespearean lead as his most unplayable heroine. Cressida starts as a juvenile tease, vows eternal love to Troilus, then abruptly ditches him for Diomedes when she’s handed over to the Greeks. Make sense of that. Mirren solved it (like Wedekind’s Lulu) by throwing back whatever image the man wants—playmate, romantic, or sexual realist. She was like a fading coal brought back to white heat by the breath of each successive partner. 1975: Ella in “The Bed Before Yesterday”, Lyric Roaring out of retirement to launch his greatest hit at 89, Ben Travers was initially wary of Mirren, with her “gossip-column notoriety”, her public denunciation of the big-spend-ing National and RSC, and her insistence on playing Ella—a child of nature lost in the wicked city—in a platinum wig. But he conceded that he’d never had such an exhilarating time as in Lindsay Anderson’s rehearsals, and he said of Mirren’s Rolls-Royce performance, “That girl plays my stuff like Chekhov”—not that he liked Chekhov much. 1980: Victoria in “The Long Good Friday” It was Mirren’s decision to play Victoria as a Roedean girl, not a Rotherhithe one. In doing so, she added honesty to her performance (Mirren was educated at a smart Catholic girls’ school) and a great chunk of zeitgeist to the picture. She’s a gangster’s consort, possessed of a cheesewire sexuality, pouring the champagne and conducting the diplomacy as Bob Hoskins’s mobster makes plans to turn London’s derelict Docklands into a paradise for bankers and Olympians. The film was completed in 1979, so you can sense Mirren’s character conjuring the 1980s into existence.
1977: Queen Margaret in “Henry VI” parts I, II and III, RSC In taking on this huge role Mirren had to escape the long shadow of Peggy Ashcroft’s youth-to-old-age performance of the 1960s. Emotionally she went through the same blood-stained hoops, but outwardly she played Margaret as a regal Dorian Gray: arriving on the French battlefield as a tough, sexy teenager, and surfing her way to the end on a tide of erotic passion and erotic hatred. Whether cradling the head of a banished lover or favouring a vanquished enemy with a poisonous schoolgirl smile before stabbing him, her face, as Shakespeare says, was “unchanging”.
1981: Title role in “The Duchess of Malfi”, Roundhouse The key to Mirren’s Duchess (which renewed her partnership with Bob Hoskins) is that she hadn’t a clue that she was going to be a tragic heroine. She played at top status from the start—knowing her own power, knowing the man she wants and carrying him off into a blissful marriage, full of tenderness and family games, never doubting that secrecy meant safety. She also thought she knew her jealous brothers, and underwent total collapse at the unmasking of these unhinged homicides. There followed the horrors in the dark, leading irresistibly to a tragic transformation in which she regained her lost power, commanding everything on stage including the acts of her murderers. Awesome.
1989: Georgina Spica in “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” A triumph of form over content, but Mirren is more than another curlicue in Peter Greenaway’s design. Here she is, in heels, strappy dress and hair like spun sugar, as the moll of another gangster (Michael Gambon), who treats her like one of the joints in his fridge. Mirren has a thin little voice and she uses it to eye-watering effect, repeating the catchphrases fed to her by her husband, taking his blows, allowing him to push her by the face through his restaurant. Which makes it all the more satisfying when, with Elsa Lanchester beehive and Servalan feathers, she forces him to eat her lover’s dead flesh at gunpoint.
1991-2006: DCI Jane Tennison in “Prime Suspect” Juliet Bravo only ever had to face the odd raised bushy Yorkshire eyebrow. Everyone has it in for DCI Tennison. How Mirren manages this hostility is the reason why the character became a national institution. Her triumphant face-off with sceptical colleagues looks like a scene of easy feelgood feminism, but she leaves the room hyperventilating and clutching for her fags. Scenes written to show her toughness—peering at the semen-filled ear of a mutilated corpse, while her male sidekick runs to the gents’—were played with an obsessive gleam suggesting something more than cool professionalism. More obvious flaws were added, most of them found at the bottom of a bottle. But the performance never lost its vital ambiguities.
1994: Natalya in “A Month in the Country”, Albery A shock for audiences expecting an evening of suffocatingly well-bred apathy. The expected sight of Turgenev’s heroine languidly suffering the attentions of a sexless cavaliere servente was blown sky-high by Mirren, who knew all about Russian queen-bees, and switched her voluptuous Natalya from passive to active in a violently comic study of hot-house frustration. Brazenly ruling the roost, and trying out a string of noble postures like extravagant hats only to trample them underfoot, this performance achieved a hilarious balance between blind egoism and gimlet-eyed exasperation.
2003: Christine in “Mourning Becomes Electra”, National Eugene O’Neill is always being rediscovered and never more so than in this majestic revival of his American civil war reworking of Aeschylus’s “Oresteia”. As the adulterous, husband-slaying Christine, Mirren cut through the substandard dialogue to the role’s sulphurous core, and produced another masterly study of desire and disgust; extending the melodramatic text to unimagined lengths of aggression and dazzling duplicity, while uncovering an unsuspected vein of social comedy in this famously mirthless writer.
2006: Elizabeth II in “The Queen” The Queen has been played by a gallery of boot-faced matrons—but Mirren’s good looks didn’t hold her back. In fact, they helped keep cartoonishness at bay. She captured some key characteristics with forensic accuracy—the default expression of regal glumness, the way she blinks through those big plastic specs. And she added some of her own, too. (Does the Queen really brush at her skirt every time she sits down, or polish her glasses on her lapels?) But the emotional plot—the slow adjustment of her weary pragmatism—proved Mirren’s star status, and did more for the Queen than any of those dopey fly-on-the-wall docs she uses to remind us she is human.
2009: Cameron Lynne in “State of Play” Mirren plays another imposing woman: the jaded editor in a tale that began on the BBC—when the role was male, played by Bill Nighy. If anyone can boss Russell Crowe around, she can. She also returns to the National in Racine’s “Phaedre”. At 63, she is changing what it means to be 63.