Margaret Tyzack: Award-winning actress who specialised in the theatre but was also acclaimed on television in ‘The Forsyte Saga’
Tuesday 28 June 2011
The long career of Margaret Tyzack, one of the most respected actresses of the British theatre, covered an impressive range, from Shakespeare, Racine, Pirandello and TS Eliot, to modern work from Edward Albee, Alan Bennett and Peter Shaffer
Her latter career saw especially outstanding performances, often as formidable matriarchs, including the redoubtable Mrs Birling in JB Priestley's An Inspector Calls (she played the role twice) and, at short notice, a corrosive Martha opposite Paul Eddington's George in Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
Tyzack's television work wasequally versatile; probably herbest remembered performance was among the legendary cast (Susan Hampshire, Kenneth More and Eric Porter included) of the first television serialisation of Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga.
The London-born Tyzack was stagestruck from an early age, even during her convent education in Forest Gate, from which she went straight to Rada. Following her professional début as one of the Covent Garden bystanders in Pygmalion (Chesterfield Civic, 1951) and further repertory work, she made her first London appearance at the Royal Court as Mag in Alun Owen's Progress to the Park (1959), returning to Sloane Square as the shy Miss Frost, seduced by Richard Harris's swaggering Sebastian in JP Donleavy's version of his controversial The Ginger Man (1959); her delicately touching performance was further admired on a later West End transfer (Comedy, 1962).
A long association with the Royal Shakespeare Company began with a powerful Vassilissa in Gorki's Lower Depths (Arts, 1963). Tyzack then moved to the London fringe for an unforgettable performance in John Hopkins' Find Your Way Home (Open Space, 1970) as a loving wife shocked by the revelation of her husband's secret life; a late, long, confrontational scene with her rival (Alexis Kanner) was hypnotic in the blazing intensity of emotion from both actors.
Tyzack's Virgin Queen in Robert Bolt's drama of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, Vivat, Vivat Regina! had a vital core of tempered steel, as did her implacable Volumnia, more than holding her own opposite Nicol Williamson's anti-hero in Coriolanus for the RSC (Stratford, 1972 and Aldwych, 1973). She also played Portia in Julius Caesar and the vengeful Tamara in Titus Andronicus during that season. Terry Hands' superb RSC reclamation of Gorki's Summerfolk (Aldwych, 1975) included Tyzack's luminous Maria Lvovna.
Replacing an ailing Joan Plowright as the boozing, tough-minded Martha in Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (National Theatre, 1981) Tyzack surprised many with a corrosive, often blackly funny performance with a crucial vulnerable core, winning her a Best Actress Olivier Award. She also replaced Peggy Ashcroft in Trevor Nunn's scrupulous RSC production of All's Well That Ends Well (Barbican and New York, 1983), at her very best as the radiantly benevolent and wise Countess in her scenes with Harriet Walter's Helena.
Her first appearance in An Inspector Calls was at her local theatre (Greenwich, 1983). She later took over in Stephen Daldry's famous National Theatre production on its West End transfer (Aldwych, 1994). She played another blinkered matron, the clenched and unforgiving Mrs Haigh-Wood, mother of TS Eliot's tragic first wife in Michael Hastings' Tom and Viv (Royal Court, 1984).
One of her major successes was provided by Peter Shaffer; his Lettice and Lovage (Globe, 1987 and Ethel Barrymore, New York), featuring one of his contrasted pairings, had the luxury casting of Maggie Smith as the flamboyant National Trust guide opposite a cropped-haired, initially dour Tyzack as her disapproving boss. She crafted superbly the characters' emotional flaw; this performance won her both a Variety Club Award and, on Broadway, a Tony Award.
Appearing again with Maggie Smith, Tyzack – like most of the supporting cast – was disappointingly muted and off-form as Prism in Nicholas Hytner's curiously aimless (and awkwardly designed) revival of The Importance of Being Earnest (Aldwych, 1993). The Aldwych was happier for Tom Stoppard's Indian Ink (1995), a resonant piece with a twin timescale involving Felicity Kendal in the past as an English poetess in the Indian Raj and Tyzack in the Shepperton-set present as her sister helping a thrusting academic's researches.
Later Tyzack stage excursions continued to demonstrate her range. They included an RSC return for a superb portrayal of unbending rectitude in Eliot's The Family Reunion (1999), a simmering revival of Pirandello's rarity As You Desire Me (Playhouse, 2005), with Kristin Scott-Thomas and Samuel Adamson' s exuberant Southwark Fair (National Theatre, 2006).
In John Guare's reworking of the film His Girl Friday (National Theatre, 2006), with Zoë Wanamaker and Alex Jennings as the central journalistic duo, she had a thankless role as the ingenue's mother. Sandy Wilson's musical The Boy Friend (Regent's Park, 2007) provided another less than meaty maternal battleaxe but she had a joyous time in the open air, resplendent in Paul Farnsworth's dazzling outfits, even essaying some dance steps with Ian Talbot as her randy husband.
Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden (Donmar, 2008) saw one of her very finest performances, bringing her another Olivier Award; as the imperious Mrs St Maugham opposite Penelope Wilton's mysterious Miss Madrigal, she had a whiplash authority, spraying Bagnold's mandarin epigrams around the drawing room with effortless, witty command. Her valedictory stage appearance was as the Nurse, unswervingly devoted to Helen Mirren's love-blasted heroine in Phèdre (National Theatre, 2009).
Although the theatre would always remain Tyzack's first love, her film and television appearances were also often remarkable. On screen she had a fine supporting role alongside Edith Evans in The Whisperers, and a striking cameo in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
On TV early in her career she shone in Galsworthy's The Silver Box with an unerringly truthful performance as the housemaid wrongly accused of theft. Her success in The Forsyte Saga led to the series The First Churchills, involving many of the same team; she also stood out in an excellent BBC Classic Serial of Balzac's Cousin Bette. She returned to the small screen as the devious Janine Butcher's maternal grandmother in EastEnders, an initially fearsome dragon manoeuvring her wheelchair rather as Boadicea might have driven her chariot, but sadly ill-health forced her departure from Albert Square before she could complete her scheduled episodes.
Margaret Maud Tyzack, actress: born London 9 September 1931; OBE 1970, CBE 2010; married 1958 Alan Stephenson (marriage dissolved; one son); died London 25 June 2011.
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