Like Ms. Mirren, Ms. McCrory, at first glance, exuded a seductive air of mystery. Even in her youth, she had a sphinx’s smile, a husky alto and an often amused, slightly weary gaze, as if she had already seen more than you ever would.
In the early 21st century, I saw her as the languorous, restless Yelena in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” a role she was born for (in repertory with a lust-delighted Olivia in “Twelfth Night,” directed by Sam Mendes); as a defiantly sensual Rosalind in “As You Like It” on the West End; and (again perfectly cast) as the enigmatic friend who comes to visit in Harold Pinter’s “Old Times” at the Donmar Warehouse.
In those productions, she brought to mind the erotic worldliness of Jeanne Moreau. It was her default persona in those days, and one she could have coasted on for the rest of her career. She brimmed with humor and intelligence, and I could imagine her, in another era, as a muse for the likes of Noël Coward.
But Ms. McCrory wanted to dig deeper. And within less than a decade, between 2008 and 2016, she delivered greatness in three full-impact performances that cut to the marrow of ruined and ruinous lives. First came her electrically divided Rebecca West in Ibsen’s “Rosmersholm,” a freethinking “new woman” torn apart by the shackling conventions of a society she could never comfortably inhabit. Then there was her heart-stopping Hester Collyer, an upper-middle-class woman destroyed by sexual reawakening, in Terrence Rattigan’s “The Deep Blue Sea.”
In between, she dared to be a Medea who had hit bottom before the play even started. In Carrie Cracknell’s unblinkingly harsh production, Ms. McCrory played Euripides’s wronged sorceress as a despair-sodden woman who believed she would never, ever feel better. It was the horrible, dead-end logic of depression that drove this Medea.
“Nothing can come between this woman and her misery,” observed the household nanny (played by a young Michaela Coel). But it was Ms. McCrory’s gift to lead us into that illuminating space between a character and her most extreme emotions, and to make us grasp where those feelings come from and how they have taken possession of her.