I was a student when I first saw Eileen Atkins on stage In 1970, at the Chichester Festival Theatre where she played Elizabeth I in Vivat Vivat Regina, a play by Robert Bolt. While missing most of her career highlights in the following two decades through being abroad, I've seen her more recently in Pinter (The Birthday Party) and in Beckett (All That Fall). And last night, I saw her mesmerising an audience in the new Sam Wanamaker Theatre at Shakespeare's Globe.
Atkins' one-woman show as Ellen Terry, first performed at Chichester in 2012, is a 70-minute acting masterclass. She strides on stage with a shy smile, a slim figure in a timeless blue velvet suit -- trousers, waistcoat and full-length open coat. There's no attempt at an Edwardian look, and an absolute minimum of theatrical aura. The script comes from the lectures which Terry gave on Shakespeare's women after she retired from the stage. In the time available, there's no space for Cleopatra or for the formidable women in the histories; instead she gives a sensitive exploration of Beatrice, Rosalind, Portia, Viola, Ophelia, Desdemona and Juliet. A century ago, before the rise of modern literary criticism (How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?), it was usual to discuss Shakespeare's characters as if they were real people one met on the omnibus, and Terry's lectures are no exception. Nobody knows at this distance in time exactly how Ellen Terry played Shakespeare's female characters, but her insights are quite sharp, on the moral innocence of Desdemona and the chronic fearfulness and anxiety of Ophelia, for example.
It's a multi-layered performance, directed by John Dove, in which Atkins -- who, astonishingly, will be 80 this summer -- gives a series of exquisite cameos. This is not Atkins impersonating Terry, but Atkins herself as Rosalind, as Viola and as Juliet. She's utterly amazing.