Acting Class with Meryl Streep: “The Iron Lady” and “Theater of War”

One of the greatest things about The Iron Lady, Meryl Streep’s latest Oscar-ready star vehicle, is the portion in which Streep portrays Margaret Thatcher as she becomes the Thatcher known to the public. It’s a King’s Speech-style rise-to-office transformation that boasts variations on the actress’s dialectic gifts, and sees her usual dramatic strengths harden before your eyes.

Though it’s part of the film’s narrative, the extended sequence – one of much voice-deepening and back-stiffening – is also the metamorphic method of an actor slipped into the evolving persona of a character. This glimpse into Streep’s creative process is a rare opportunity for a viewer, perhaps only before seen in John Walter’s Theater of War, a documentary charting the production and origins of Mother Courage, Tony Kushner’s 2006 Streep-starring stage adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children.

Though most certainly not just about Streep (it’s as good a source as any for a Brecht crash-course), Theater of War gives you unprecedented access to the foundations of Streep’s character creation, access she herself derides in the film for its depictions of the rough and the unpolished.

Speaking in a talking-head interview, Streep says, “I never let anybody see process because process is clunky. Process looks like bad acting. It’s not anything you should let anybody see. It’s like, ‘Show me your new building,’ and then we show you the plumbing and the sewer line.”

Watch a clip of Meryl Streep talking about the process of acting in Theater of War:

Albeit an actress who seems ever-aware of her exorbitant talents, Streep’s comments suggest she forgets just whose plumbing is being laid bare here. True, process may seem clunky if it’s that of your average stage actor, but the process of one of the greatest actors on the planet, presented as raw and as verité as one could hope for, is an event, and one of the key virtues of this fascinating film. Rehearsing in the backstage rooms of New York’s Newman Theatre, a site that preceded Mother Courage‘s ultimate venue of Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, Streep is seen with sweat on her brow and hair in her face, toiling over the grand emotions of her title character while soggy coffee cups are scattered across tables. The whole unkempt scenario humanizes this imperial woman, even while, ironically, she rocks a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Diva.”

Released in 2008, two years after Kushner revived Brecht’s anti-Fascist masterwork in response to the Iraq War, Theater of War is a kind of godsend for those who missed Streep’s four-week, open-air portrayal of the play’s tragic heroine, arguably the Oscar record-holder’s most complete performance. As shown in Walter’s documentary, Mother Courage sees Streep tap into nearly every facet of her craft, as the role calls for sadness, comedy, poignant drama, deglamorization, politically-charged fervor, even singing, a skill of Streep’s that is sometimes eclipsed by her towering gift for mimicry. Scenes of song rehearsal include bits of that sweet roar that comes out when she hits a challenging note, a riff on the brilliant brand of growly hamminess with which she’s always able to transfix.

“I’m the voice of dead people,” Streep says. “I’m the interpreter of lost songs―the person who’s between the audience and the [man] who wrote [the material] years ago.”

Streep has built her career out of being a tremendous vessel, and here, as she helps Walter rise to the challenge of making filmed theater cinematic and attractive, she indeed stands as a vessel for Brecht’s message, his Marxist interests channeled through her potently articulated perspectives. Walter doesn’t skimp on bold statements, linking shots of the production’s own costume and prop makers to remarks about laborers giving others power over them when they sell their work, but it’s Streep’s words that linger at the end of this film, whether she offers them in or out of character.

“I’m not courageous,” Streep recites in a rehearsal and the film’s opening monologue. “Only the poor have courage. Why? Because they’re hopeless. They stagger…bearing the whole great weight of the wealthy on their broad, stupid backs. Is that courage? It must be, but it’s perverted courage. Because what they carry on their backs will cost them their lives.”

Watch a clip of Meryl Streep finding her character in Theater of War:

It’s the kind of talk that introduces a whole new link between this film and The Iron Lady, which also sees Streep playing a woman with piercing views on the poor, but from the very perspective of the great, weighty wealthy―the leader of them, no less. Suddenly there are both similarities and drastic differences between Mother Courage and Margaret Thatcher, making Theater of War the perfect Iron Lady precursor.

The juxtaposition is a testament to Streep’s chameleonic professionalism, and her ability to pour what is needed into the role at hand. One viewing of her turn as Thatcher is ample proof that she was able to find the soul inside a woman so many viewed as monstrous, while also mustering the wholly convincing fury that defined the Prime Minister’s less attractive side. Here, you conversely see the dedication to something far closer to Streep’s own ideals, and as she discusses her decision to take on this transformation, to delve into this actorly process that Walter so graciously shares with viewers, one can’t help but picture the mothers of the fallen soldiers whom Thatcher sent to their deaths in the Falklands War, one of the key segments of The Iron Lady to show Streep at her most adamantly conservative.

“I wanted to make [Mother Courage],” Streep says, “because of the scene we see over and over,  on television, and everywhere: Women just going, ‘Why?’ over the bodies of their children. ‘Why?!?’ That’s the whole thing for me. What’s the end result? Bones in the landscape.”

R. Kurt Osenlund is Managing Editor of Slant Magazine’s blog, The House Next Door. He also contributes to South Philly Review and ICON Magazine and reviews films on his blog

Watch Meryl Streep in Theater of War, free on Fandor with a One Week Pass!

Get a Fandor Free Pass

Did you like this article?
Give it a vote for a Golden Bowtie


Keyframe is always looking for contributors.

"Writer? Video Essayist? Movie Fan Extraordinaire?

Fandor is streaming on Amazon Prime

Love to discover new films? Browse our exceptional library of hand-picked cinema on the Fandor Amazon Prime Channel.