Harman Gala Breaks British for Elizabeth McGovern

Shakespeare Theatre feted the “Downton Abbey” star at Sunday night’s fundraiser.

By: Sophie Gilbert

It might be stretching things a little to say that the government shutdown is making Washington nostalgic for the simpler days of Queen and country, but the mood sure was pro-Britain at last night’s Harman Center for the Arts Gala. The honoree: Elizabeth McGovern, a.k.a. Downton Abbey’s Lady Cora. The emcee: plummy-voiced actor Edward Hibbert. The closing act: Beatles tribute band 1964. The post performance dinner menu: saddle of lamb, Yorkshire pudding, and a trio of desserts including spotted dick (yes, really).

McGovern might be best known these days for starring in the hit British show about a family of landed gentry in the early 20th century, but before she set sail for England just like her aristocratic character she studied classical acting at Juilliard under none other than Shakespeare Theatre artistic director Michael Kahn. “He was one of my teachers, one of my favorites, and I’m not just saying that,” she said. (Kahn himself was recently given the title of honorary commander of the British Empire for his services to the arts by Queen Elizabeth.)

Each year, Shakespeare Theatre celebrates one outstanding performer at its annual gala, awarding him or her the William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theatre in a performance that also cuts a broad swathe across the performing arts. Last night’s event featured standout acts such as 12-year-old cellist Sujari Britt playing Edward Elgar; Joffrey Ballet soloists Fabrice Calmels and Victoria Jaiani performing an astonishing pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain; and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato singing an aria from Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda followed by “Danny Boy,” in honor of the Irish heritage she shares with McGovern.

Four Shakespeare Theatre leading ladies— Hannah Yelland, Colleen Delany, Gretchen Hall, and Miriam Silverman—performed excerpts from some of the Shakespearian roles McGovern has performed during her career, praising her as a part of the “sisterhood.” And in a resounding tribute directed by Alan Paul and choreographed by Karma Camp, a troupe of actors played out McGovern’s life in musical theater, from her origins in New York to her relationship with her husband, British director Simon Curtis. (Their romance was set to “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.”)

There were also words of praise for McGovern from everyone from Pulitzer-winning playwright Bruce Norris to Downton creator Julian Fellowes, who sent a letter recalling the time McGovern, on hearing about the show, informed him “in the gentlest possible language . . . that she was Cora.” Kahn, her former professor, described her as “an actor deeply committed to her craft.”

When it finally came time to accept the award, McGovern told the audience that she didn’t know whether “to laugh, cry, or be sick” on hearing about the musical theater portion of the evening, but that she was enormously happy to be accepting this award, the first she’d ever actually won. (She was nominated for an Oscar at the age of 20 for her role as Evelyn Nesbit in Ragtime.) After growing up in California on a diet of The Hollywood Reporter and People magazine, “discovering Shakespeare saved my life,” she said. Finally, McGovern closed by warning the audience that, like As You Like It’s Rosalind, she intended to “kiss as many of you that have beards as please me.”

Whether she did so at the gala dinner at the National Building Museum after the performance is unconfirmed, but guests such as British Ambassador Sir Peter Westmacott, Senator Patrick Leahy, and Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito seemed to enjoy the dinner regardless.