Irene Worth

Wednesday 13 March 2002 01:00
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Harriet Abrams (Irene Worth), actress: born Lincoln, Nebraska 23 June 1916; Honorary CBE 1975; died New York 10 March 2002.

Irene Worth was a star both in London and New York, her crowded career including enormous commercial success in work by playwrights ranging from Noël Coward and Neil Simon to T.S. Eliot and Edward Albee. However, as with her great friend and colleague Sir John Gielgud, her career was principally company-based, her work – like his – combining the experimental with the mainstream.

Worth was from the American Midwest, born in 1916 in Nebraska, which may partly explain her pioneering instincts. She received a Bachelor of Education degree from the University of California but her teaching career was short-lived. She made her first appearance on the professional stage working for the great Viennese actress in exile Elisabeth Bergner in Escape Me Never on tour (1942). Rumour suggested that Worth's experience was the inspiration behind Mary Orr's story "Wisdom of Eve" which became the 1950 film All About Eve.

It was with Bergner that Worth made her first Broadway appearance, in the long-running The Two Mrs Carrolls (Booth, New York, 1943), an effective suspense play by Martin Vale (the pseudonym for Marguerite Veiller). Worth made a big impact as Cecily Harden, mistress of a psychopathic artist who is slowly poisoning his wife (Bergner).

Instead of consolidating her American success, the Anglophile Worth came to London to work on her voice and accent, studying with the Central School's great teacher Elsie Fogerty, before making her first London appearance in William Saroyan's Bowery bar-room whimsy The Time of Your Life (Lyric, Hammersmith, 1946) which fell on somewhat stony ground. Her gifts in high comedy shone early – in P.G. Wodehouse's adroit version of Ferenc Molnár's Spiel im Schloss, The Play's the Thing (St James's, 1947), she had a big success playing the fickle musical-comedy star Ilona.

Worth was becoming established as an outstandingly versatile leading player, even although some of her choices – like Arthur Pinero's Iris (Q Theatre, 1948) – were away from the West End limelight, on the then-equivalent of the Fringe, or takeovers such as her appearance replacing Leueen McGrath in Robert Morley's hit of misplaced paternal affection Edward, My Son (Lyric, 1948). For her, it was the part (and the quality of the company) that mattered.

J.B. Priestley's Home is Tomorrow (Cambridge, 1948) gave her a tricky role, handled with delicate shading, as the neglected wife of a UN official, in a distinctly underdeveloped play. And a supposed "star vehicle" by Ronald Millar, Champagne for Delilah (New, 1949), emerged as a witless damp squib, although Worth's performance was widely praised.

The breakthrough to real greatness came with T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party (Edinburgh Festival, 1949, Henry Miller, New York, 1950 and New, 1950 – she took over from Margaret Leighton in the later West End version) in which her driven, doomed Celia made an unforgettable impact opposite first Alec Guinness and then Rex Harrison as Harcourt-Reilly. From this came an invitation to join the Old Vic Company, her early parts including a volatile, saucer-eyed Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream in Tyrone Guthrie's fizzing production (1951), a Desdemona of dignified pathos in a lumpy Othello (1951) and in a tantalising near-miss of a modern verse play, Catherine de Vanselles to Alan Badel's François Villon in James Forsyth's The Other Heart (1951). These strong performances led to further impressive Old Vic work, including Portia (1953) and, most impressively, her steely Lady Macbeth (1953).

It was characteristic of Worth that when Alec Guinness suggested she might join him and Guthrie in the adventure of the first season of the Shakespeare Festival Theatre at Stratford, Ontario (before the theatre was much more than a hole in the ground), she accepted immediately. It was a pioneering season, exploring the possibilities of the thrust-stage created by Guthrie and Tanya Moseiwitch, his designer; its success was due in no small measure to the energy of the leading actors. Worth played a Helena of grave grace and integrity to Guinness's King of France in All's Well That Ends Well and a ferociously vitriolic Margaret in Richard III (both 1953).

Back in London, she generously played an essentially supporting role in A Day by the Sea (Haymarket, 1953) directed by and starring Gielgud, with a lustrous cast including Sybil Thorndike and Sir Ralph Richardson. She followed it by taking herself off to Coventry to join the Midland Theatre Company to play the defiant Argia in Ugo Betti's The Queen and the Rebels, which was successful enough to reach London (Haymarket, 1955).

Another highlight of her comedic career came with the deliriously funny Feydeau farce Hotel Paradiso (Winter Garden, 1956) with both Guinness, as the timid adventurer into adultery, Boniface, and Worth, as his redoubtable big-haired wife, in formidable form.

A rewarding association with the RSC began with a performance of stylish aplomb, like a watchful anaconda, from Worth as the scheming Marquise in John Barton's arrangement of Les Liaisons Dangereuses as The Art of Seduction (Stratford, 1962), followed by another Lady Macbeth (1962) and, crowning an extraordinary year, her Goneril in Peter Brook's revelatory and revisionist production of King Lear (1962). She and Brook struck a chord at once and she was equally strong as the hunchbacked doctor in his precision-sharp production of Dürrenmatt's The Physicists (Aldwych, 1963).

Gielgud and she collaborated again – first in a bottom-numbingly dull version of Thornton Wilder's Ides of March (Haymarket, 1963) with Gielgud as a pallid Julius Caesar and Worth given little to do as Clodia Pulcher. But she was of enormous help to Gielgud, who was undergoing something of a slimming-down period in his acting, when they went to New York to tackle the Chinese puzzle-box of Albee's Tiny Alice (Billy Rose, New York, 1964). The play begins as Albee's best and ends as possibly his worst (even Gielgud could not bring off a windily over-rhetorical final speech of ecstasy) but Worth, playing Miss Alice, was in tremendous, commanding form and her performance won her the 1965 Tony Award as Best Actress.

Her final stage work with Gielgud reunited them both with Peter Brook in his radical re-working of Seneca's Oedipus for the National (Old Vic, 1968), designed by Brook as "a living bridge" between Gielgud's classicism and a more improvisational younger generation's style. Worth's Jocasta was a powerful element in the experiment's success.

All her skills of tact as a company member were needed in the hothouse atmosphere of Coward's trilogy Suite in Three Keys (Queen's, 1966) with a nervy Coward and an insecure Lilli Palmer at daggers drawn. But Coward's return (and farewell) to the West End, although uneven, emerged successfully, helped hugely by all three of Worth's acutely judged performances. Her motor-mouth American social climber in Come Into the Garden Maud in the double bill was a comic tour de force of superlative timing, but even more impressive was her understated dignity as Hilde, wife of a closet-gay writer in Song at Twilight. Again she showed her special ability to suggest a character's past and interior life on stage.

She took risks again, going to the Yale University Theater to play the transformed Io in Robert Lowell's version of Prometheus Bound (Yale, 1967), working again with its director Jonathan Miller on a memorable 1974 Greenwich season (Ghosts, Hamlets, The Seagull) focused on mother/son relationships under the portmanteau title (from Freud) of Family Romances.

Back in New York, she electrified younger audiences with an explosive Princess in Tennessee Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth (Harkness, NY, 1975). Her washed-up Hollywood diva, opposite Christopher Walken's Chance Wayne, was hilarious in its self-obsessed vanity, frightening in its layers of vulnerability and dread.

Most of her best later work was in America. She made a wonderfully contrasted double-act with Constance Cummings in a revival of Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden (Roundabout, New York, 1982). Cummings played the flamboyant Mrs St Maugham as a relic of vanished Imperial Britain, tossing epigrams around the drawing room like hand grenades, while Worth as Miss Madrigal, the mysterious governess, yet again suggested an inner turbulence under the surface calm.

She renewed the chemistry of her partnership with Walken in Coriolanus (Public Theatre, New York, 1988), in Steven Berkoff's stylised, pared-down take on the play. She had previously played Volumnia to Ian McKellen's Coriolanus in Peter Hall's doubtless more spectacular but also less thrilling production (RNT, 1985). Opposite Walken, Volumnia's power-lust and maternal feelings were in much more fascinating conflict.

Worth gave a magnificent performance in Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers (Richard Rodgers, New York, 1991), playing one of his most rewarding characters. Grandma Kurnitz, above whose candy-store the play takes place, is a grim woman of German-Jewish descent, forced to take in her widower salesman son's two boys whilst he goes on the road. Worth's body language – with hair in a stiff steely bun, rimless glasses and a just-perceptible limp, punching pillows whilst making up a daybed as if inflicting corporal punishment on them – was as remarkable as her admirable refusal to soften the character (as happened in the later London production).

Despite a strong start in the cinema – Orders to Kill (1953) – she had few really rewarding movie roles, her fatter parts tending to be in lousy films such as Sidney Lumet's Deathtrap (1982). On television in the UK she had more luck, with roles including Ellida in Ibsen's Lady from the Sea (1953) and an extraordinary rescue job as Rose in Rattigan's Variations on a Theme (1966).

She was always an actor's actor. Even when old age reduced her stage appearances, with mobility restricted, but liquid eyes and a voice of incomparable vibrancy and variety almost unimpaired, virtually every manager and director, and most actors, in London would try to catch her. Her last London stage appearance was with Paul Scofield at the Almeida in September in I Take Your Hand in Mine, a play based on letters between Chekhov and his actress wife Olga Knipper.

Alan Strachan

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