“An actress’s life is not all beer and skittles,” according to Dame Ellen Terry, the most feted actress of Victorian London. Eileen Atkins, who is playing Terry, may share this view. To play the role of a great actor must be daunting. How can you ever be as great? How can you avoid pastiche? Well, the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a magical interpretation of a Jacobean theatre, is not a bad place to try.
After retiring from the stage, the grande dame lectured on Shakespeare’s women. Here Atkins – a grande dame in her own right – performs “the best bits” from those lectures. We travel from Rosalind (“Oh, lucky, lucky Orlando!”) to Ophelia (“Shakespeare’s only timid character”), via Portia, Desdemona, Beatrice, Juliet and Lady Macbeth (“a delicate little creature, with hyper-sensitive nerves”). Erudite, sympathetic and funny, Terry’s insights are often wise: Desdemona is not a “ninny” – she “has the courage to be unconventional”; and Shakespeare is “one of very few dramatists to have observed that women have more moral courage than men”.
Along the way, we receive a masterclass in acting. “Rarely does an actress fathom” the depths of Cordelia. Beatrice should be played swiftly (“I wasn’t swift enough” – though at least “I was never arch or skittish”). And what of Juliet, so wise beyond her years? “An actress cannot play Juliet until she is too old to look like Juliet.”
The great task, says Terry, “is to learn how to translate [the] character into herself, how to make its thoughts her thoughts, its words her words”. I don’t know if Atkins has approached Terry in this way, but that is the impression that she gives. Here is no pastiche, at any rate. Indeed, she plays Terry with so little embellishment – and such good taste – that rarely do we know where Atkins ends and Terry begins.
For Ophelia, Terry visited the “madhouse” and found the lunatics “too theatrical” for her needs. Atkins ends her night with Ophelia’s mad scene, abandoning herself in the moment – “Good-night sweet ladies; good-night . . . ” It’s a hard scene – very easy to be “too theatrical”. Atkins is sublime.
She is an artist at the peak of her powers. Nothing she does goes for nothing. It’s inspiring. At the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, life is beer and skittles.