THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Ellen Terry With Eileen Atkins
Adapted and performed by Eileen Atkins
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Bankside, London SE1 9DT
to February 23, 2014
For a series of 12 Monday nights, accompanying the current run of the inaugural production of The Duchess of Malfi, one of our greatest actresses, Dame Eileen Atkins, presents a virtuoso one–woman show of Shakespeare which will certainly have a life afterwards.
Here we get one great actress inhabiting the role of another as Atkins portrays the celebrated Victorian stage star, Ellen Terry, in a recreation of her lectures on Shakespeare's female characters. In her later years Terry toured extensively delivering lectures on how she believed these great parts ought to be played. "I am able to speak to you about Shakespeare's women with the knowledge that can be gained only from union with them," she declaimed. The same could be said for Atkins. What is extraordinary however, considering the era, was the depth of Terry's own scholarship, which takes these lectures far beyond a mere Masterclass into an astute critical appraisal of the plays combined with a deft psychological insight into the characters. What might have ended up a 70 minute amuse bouche is transformed here into a riveting theatrical event as the excerpts light up the arguments.
Clad in striking blue velvet, waistcoat, trousers and dramatic long coat, Atkins, who amazingly turns 80 in June, cuts an astonishingly dashing figure. The great voice and unbridled enthusiasm are a joy and her interpretations are an object lesson in how to bring clarity and emotional truth to dramatic verse.
Broadly, Terry's thesis was that encountering strong Elizabethan woman had informed Shakespeare's own conception of femininity and that this deep understanding of women was further developed over the course of his plays. In doing so she debunks the idea that the women's roles were in any way secondary and proves her point with excerpts from Beatrice, Rosalind, Portia, Viola, Desdemona, Juliet, Cordelia and Ophelia. Occasionally the observations may be locked in their period, but this is a minor quibble when so many of them remain so insightful.
What unites most of Shakespeare's women, she argues, is their courage apart from a few she summarily dismisses, such as Helena. She challenges the conventional wisdom that Desdemona is some sort of ninny and illustrates her strength of character concluding that there's "something of the nun about her". She makes a strong case too for Juliet's maturity (14 year olds then were not the same as today's) but she does conclude "an actress can't play Juliet until she is too old to look like Juliet". Atkins is mesmerising as the young Juliet, in her single moment of doubt, when she contemplates the horror of awakening in the family vault.
She then gives us a forlorn Lear reunited with his daughter Cordelia in a scene of almost unbearable poignancy and she ends with a sympathetic take on Ophelia, although she warns that there needs to be "something queer about her" from the outset if the role is to work.
She cautions us against getting too attached to any one theory about Shakespeare, pointing out that in his work "the web of life is a mingled yarn". If it is, then Atkins has certainly spun some gold from it.