GERALDINE MCEWAN 9 MAY 1932 – 30 JANUARY 2015
Geraldine's was a rare talent. She was both a great dramatic actress and a sublime comedienne. She was also a kind and generous inspiration to younger generations of actors. She was much loved and will be greatly missed.
Sir Kenneth Branagh
It may seem surprising for someone who was married to Hugh Cruttwell, an outstanding principal of RADA, that Geraldine McEwan, who has died aged 82, had no drama school training.
Instead, leaving school at 14, shy but determined, she joined the rep at Windsor Theatre Royal as an ASM. Her acting career began in playing small roles there, until, when Nova Pilbeam cancelled her appearance in an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey at short notice, Geraldine was flung into the leading part. Before she was 20 she was in the West End, transferring from Windsor in a hugely successful farce, Who Goes There? Overnight she was a star. Perhaps it was this early immersion in boulevard comedy that gave her that matchless sense of timing in both comedy and more serious work.
By 1956 she was at Stratford-upon-Avon playing the Princess of France in Peter Hall’s Loves Labours Lost and for the next few years was closely associated with playing Shakespeare. At Stratford she was Beatrice, Ophelia and Marina in Pericles. But her great achievement was as Olivia opposite Dorothy Tutin in Peter Hall’s memorable first production of Twelfth Night. Geraldine transformed Olivia, previously always played as a ‘Grande Dame’, into a capricious young girl, swept off her feet by love for the first time: in this performance, both funny and moving, Geraldine set a pattern which has been largely followed ever since.
Soon after the National Theatre was founded in 1963, Laurence Olivier (with whom Geraldine had played in Osbourne’s The Entertainer) asked her to join the company. Then began a great period in her career, shring leading roles with Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith and Joyce Redman.
Her parts included the iconic figure of the lady in John Arden’s underrated Armstrong’s Last Goodnight opposite Albert Finney; the heroine Angelica in Peter Wood’s production of Congreve’s Love for Love (possibly the greatest production of an English comedy I have ever seen); then came Mme. Chandebise in Feydeau’s great farce A Flea in Her Ear – the brilliance of her playing and incomparable comic timing are unforgettable, as well as her sense as an actor that farce is a very serious business indeed!
In Strindberg’s Dance of Death opposite Laurence Olivier, she used her comic gifts to play Alice with a mordant wit and ironic cruelty. Her command of classical text was notable in her daring and sexually charged performance of Vittoria in Webster’s The White Devil.
After this long and demanding time at the National she played Miss Jean Brodie in a long television series. Muriel Spark thought Geraldine the best of all Brodies.
A variety of roles in the West End from Peter Nichols to Noel Coward followed, and on and off for two years she and I worked on her one person performance Two Inches of Ivory – Scenes from Jane Austen which opened at Nottingham Playhouse in 1981 and then toured the world under the auspices of The British Council. In my long career, I never worked with anyone else who had such care for form and language and such command of detail.
Later television work included The Barchester Chronicles, Mapp and Lucia, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and of course Miss Marple, which made her world famous. Her films were not numerous but mention must be made of her Mother Superior in The Magdalen Sisters – both lethal and absurd.
Her final award-winning performances at the NT were both great and contrasting comic creations based above all on detailed study of the text – Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals and Lady Wishfort in The Way of the World.
Her last West End and Broadway appearances were made in Ionesco’s absurdist masterpiece The Chairs. She and Richard Briers triumphed as a senile couple compulsively arranging chairs for guests who never arrive.
Whilst Geraldine directed occasionally and mostly enjoyed the experience, she rarely which was a pity.
Over these last five years she refused almost every offer of work in order to give herself, for the first time in her life, a new freedom to devote more time to her children and grandchildren and to her friends. She loved football matches, classical music, opera and ballet, painting, reading, holidays and excursions at home and abroad.
She told me that she and Hugh had always promised one another never to accept any public honour. They were offered and politely refused.
Geraldine’s work is both memorable and entirely original. Those of us lucky enough to have seen her on stage will never forget the variety, the vitality, the depth and the joy in her work.
Richard Digby Day