Angela Lansbury and Her London Ghosts
In the West End’s “Blithe Spirit,” Angela Lansbury’s past is always present
Editor’s note: I’m delighted to welcome London critic and reporter Mark Shenton to TDF Stages. From time to time, he’ll file reports on West End shows that have special ties to New York. His exclusive interview with Dame Angela Lansbury is a perfect place to start.
The channels between Broadway and London’s West End can be remarkably fluid, and some artists seem to belong to both communities at once.
This season, for instance, Shakespeare’s Globe traveled from London to score a New York smash with its repertory of Twelfth Night and Richard III, and right now director Michael Grandage is at the Cort Theatre recreating his sell-out West End production of Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, with Daniel Radcliffe in the lead.
In return, The Book of Mormon scooped the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical just last night, with star Gavin Creel also taking the award for Best Actor in a Musical. As Creel told one interviewer, “I’m very much an American to the core, but I really love being here and pretending it’s home!”
Meanwhile, Dame Angela Lansbury has come home at last. Though the 88-year-old legend was born in London in 1925, she hasn’t appeared on the West End in decades. Instead, she’s been starring in plays and musicals throughout the world, including four Broadway shows in the last seven years.
One of those Broadway triumphs has carried her back to London. At the Gielgud Theatre through June 7, she’s recreating her 2009 Tony-winning performance as Madame Arcati in Noël Coward’s 1942 comedy Blithe Spirit. And she couldn’t be more pleased.
“I think it’s one of the best parts I’ve ever had in the theatre,” she says. “Honestly, that is the prime reason I’m here. She’s an extraordinary character. I adore playing it, and I love going out on stage every night to do it. If you’re that happy in a role, you want to repeat it, and what better place to repeat it than London, the place of its origins and of my origins. So here we are, anyway, and I’m terribly excited and very proud to be coming back.”
Dame Angela may have been born in London, but she left when she was still a teenager, and she last worked onstage here back in the 1970s.”Sometimes in life you’re forced to count, and thinking that it’s nearly 40 years since I did a play in London is astonishing really,” she says. The last time she was here, she played Gertrude to Albert Finney’s Hamlet for the National Theatre in 1975, then based at the Old Vic before it moved to its purpose-built South Bank home. “The Old Vic was really a thrilling experience for me at that time,” she recalls. “Being in that dressing room, it was just absolutely alive with the ghosts of all the great actors who had played there.”
Of course, it is the soothsayer Madame Arcati’s role to stir ghosts into life in Blithe Spirit, but there are more personal spirits hovering around Lansbury’s performance at the Gielgud. “It’s an extraordinary experience to be in the theatre that my mother [the Irish actress Moyna MacGill] made her first London professional appearance at in 1918,” she says, referencing a play called Love in a Cottage. “It seems rather interesting that I find myself how many years later coming here, too.”
After all she’s accomplished in her career, one might wonder why Dame Angela is still driven to work so hard. “I have an inordinate amount of energy,” she says. “I have to expand it somehow. I always say that there are two things in life I know how to do—one of them is keeping house and the other is to act. Acting usually takes precedence over keeping house! I’m a person who really needs to be working and doing. I just can’t sit around, so if somebody gives me the opportunity to get up and do, I will go.”
Not that the theatre is ever an easy option: “It is very hard work, and it requires total concentration and devotion to the task in hand,” she says. “It requires complete discipline, which I thankfully have.”
By now, most of the world has honored that discipline and commitment. Earlier this year, Lansbury received her Damehood in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours, and she comments modestly, “I was absolutely flabbergasted. I was really, really thrilled and honored and proud to be included in the honors this year. It’s a wonderful bit of recognition by the country of my birth.”
Mark Shenton is a full-time, London-based theatre critic who also loves having a home in New York City. He is theatre critic for THE STAGE, for whom he also writes a daily online column and regular features. He is London correspondent to Playbill.com and is currently chairman of the drama section of the U.K’s Critics’ Circle. Find him on Twitter @ShentonStage.
Photo by Johan Persson