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Ellen Terry With Eileen Atkins
Actors take on projects for a multitude of reasons, ranging from a love of the subjectmatter, to a desire to play amuch sought-after part, or even to tell a story which desperately needs to be heard.
For Dame Eileen Atkins, though, her short run at Chichester’s new temporary space Theatre On The Fly is designed to do one thing: frighten her.
“I haven’t done a play for three or four years since I did two plays back-to-back in the West End,” she says. “Since then I’ve been doing small bits in movies and on TV. You don’t really get to exercise and use the muscles that you use in the theatre.
“You have to frighten yourself as an actor. I didn’t knowI was going to get this huge part immediately afterwards, which is worrying the **** out of me!”
She’s referring to All That Fall, an early Beckett radio play which will see her team up with Michael Gambon and director Trevor Nunn at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre in October. The play will see her star as the elderly Mrs Rooney travelling to a railway station to meet her blind husband, and the characters she meets along the way.
“I’d thought, ‘Therewon’t bemany more big parts in the theatre, so make yourself do a one-woman show.’”
The origins of this Chichester solo performance come from Charleston, the Bloomsbury set’s farmhouse haunt which holds its own literary festival each May.
Atkins, a long-time aficionado of Virginia Woolf, regularly performs there as part of the festival’s closing programme, but had hit a bit of a wall this year.
“I had done Virginia Woolf for years, I know them all,” she says. “I told them I couldn’t think of anything to do.
“Lynne Truss was helping organise the festival, and had found this little outof- print book in the library which had four lectures by Ellen Terry.”
Terry was a legend of the Victorian stage, renowned for her interpretations of Shakespeare alongside leading man Henry Irving, as well as bringing the plays of Shaw and Ibsen to London’s Imperial Theatre.
When she went into semi-retirement from the stage, she began touring the world, giving lectures on Shakespeare’s heroines.
The lectures, which were popular in their day, were welcomed as contributing to the study of Shakespeare.
For this one-woman show, Atkins has taken two of the lectures – The Triumphant Women In Shakespeare and The Pathetic Women In Shakespeare – and compressed them into one, weaving in biographical details about their author.
The original lectures combined analysis with classic Shakespearian monologues and scenes, which Atkins has decided to recreate live on stage as part of the show.
“I thought to frighten myself it would be good to at least learn all the Shakespeare in it,” she says.
“I play about ten parts. I will still read the lecture as she did, when she says how a part should be played.
“I do like that after some of the pieces she says, ‘I could never do that properly.’ It will be quite handy for me!
“To be my age and playing Juliet you do think, ‘Is somebody going to laugh?’ but I’ve had a few friends helping me with it and I think we’re beginning to get somewhere with it now.”
She confesses she had nerves about performing the piece the first time at Charleston.
“I had no faith in it at all,” she says. “I was working on Doc Martin [the ITV drama starring Martin Clunes, in which she played his waspish Aunt Ruth] at the same time and telling them, ‘This isn’t going to work’, but they seemed to love it.
“As an actress it’s very difficult to know if people are flattering you all the time. But when I performed it at Charleston it did feel like it held the audience all evening.”
The other aspect of the performance she is concerned about is how draining it will be.
“It’s reminding me of how exhausted I was when I was at the end of [one-woman Virginia Woolf performance] A Room Of One’s Own,” she says.
“I did that when I was in my 50s and it was a very exhausting thing to do.
“I have got to slip into great emotions in Shakespeare – I’m already finding it tiring. But as my agent says, if it works I can do it for ever, as Terry did.”
Atkins confesses she is worried howany Ellen Terry fans might approach her readings of the lectures. She’s seen some footage of Terry in her 60s, when she appeared on film, and is quite pleased by the likeness.
“She did actually look like me in old age, beautiful as she might have been when she was younger,” says Atkins. “I feel a bit relieved, although I have been saying, ‘For God’s sake don’t do leaflets with photographs of her at 17!’”
The lectures themselves were copied down by the girlfriend of Edith Craig, Terry’s daughter, during a performance.
“Knowing it was going to be printed, I think the girlfriend might have made it a lot more literary than she probably said it,” admits Atkins. “You never know with these things what people have done to them. I thought it was a bit dry, so I’ve cut the lectures and edited them myself. I have put in the odd line from her own autobiography and chopped and changed it around. I don’t feel she would be too cross about it – it’s all her words.
“Somebody said to me, ‘She’s a lot more sentimental than you, Eileen!’ I needed to cut some of that sentimentality out. She is wonderfully enthusiastic, which is nice.
“I’m surprised how much I agree with what she says about acting.”
In one example Terry talks about visiting an asylum as preparation for playing Ophelia in Hamlet.
“She says in studying real people who were mad she found they were too theatrical to use on stage,” says Atkins. “It’s terribly interesting – it taught her to use her imagination first and then study reality.
It’s no use bringing reality on to the stage without your own imagination.
I totally agree with that. I’m not an admirer of Mike Leigh and that school – you get a reality show and that’s not art.”
Terry was also writing at a time before Method acting, something Atkins has little truck with.
“Interestingly enough, the whole thing of The Method and total reality has gone out of the window – and I’m glad,” she says. “I’ve noticed that actresses of my time and a bit younger would spend hours discussing their feelings and emotions, whereas the younger ones from drama school don’t these days.
“What I always say when everybody is standing around in rehearsals saying, ‘I think this is what she’s feeling’, is what is the writer saying? Let’s try to getwhat the dramatist is saying without making up these tales about what might have happened.”
Terry and Atkins also share a love of Shakespeare, with Atkins admitting she was quite depressed when she saw the low viewing figures for The Hollow Crown, the BBC’s recent adaptations of four of the Bard’s history plays from Richard II to Henry V.
“The first line of Terry’s lecture is, ‘Shakespeare must be kept up or we shall become a third-rate nation – so said the great Henry Irving, and I agree with him,’” she says. “Those productions were beautifully done, the best I have ever seen Shakespeare on television or film.
“We are in the middle of hell at the moment with the Olympics – there will be nothing but sport, sport, sport. Hopefully Chichester won’t be too much affected by it.”
Although her decision to leave Upstairs Downstairs, the series she cocreated with Jean Marsh, was welldocumented last year, Atkins isn’t allowing herself to slip into a quiet retirement.
As well as the lectures and the forthcoming Jermyn Street production, she has just come back from New Orleans filming the first of a new movie series, also starring Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson.
“It’s based on a series of five teen books, which are amazingly popular in the US and Australia,” she says. “We’ve had books about vampires and werewolves. In this we are all witches. It’s a love story for 17-year-olds – all camera tricks and everything – called Beautiful Creatures. We’ve all been booked for a three-picture deal, so we’ll see how it goes. It’s not my cup of tea.”
- Eileen Atkins will also be part of a Q&A panel following a rehearsed reading of Robert Bolt’s Vivat! Vivat Regina! on Sunday, August 5, at Theatre On The Fly. The play premiered in Chichester in 1970 ahead of a Broadway transfer, with Atkins playing the part of Queen Elizabeth opposite Sarah Miles as Mary, Queen Of Scots.
Ellen Terry With Eileen Atkins is at Theatre On The Fly, in Oaklands Park, Chichester on Aug 1 and 2. Starts 3pm, £5. Call 01243 781312