Friday, 12 February 2016

'Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins' at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

I went to see Dame Eileen Atkins playing Ellen Terry at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse a couple of years ago and I saw her again on Sunday as she played another season of her 'one woman show', again at the Playhouse in the Globe. Just Eileen, a desk, some papers and a glass of water on the stage, candles lighting the stage and the polished wood and gold shining. Eileen rarely still, pacing the stage, standing and being contemplative for a moment before setting off again.

Eileen plays Ellen Terry, one of the great Victorian actresses renowned for her Shakespearean roles, giving one of her lectures about Shakespeare in her later days. The lecture is about Shakespeare's women based on her experiences of playing many of the women and enhanced by her own tales of her stage performances. Eileen was terribly impressive, not least for remembering all those lines since she doesn't stop talking for about 80 minutes. It's a joy to hear her talk about Shakespeare, his creations and her (ie Ellen Terry's) interpretations of them, such as that Juliet should not be played by a young girl but by a more mature actress with greater powers capable of interpreting her great lines and emotions. Her Juliet's death-bed scene was a wonder to behold.

Eileen - or is she Ellen - talks about and performs as a number of Shakespeare's heroines and she discusses their strengths and weaknesses. We get Rosalind and Beatrice, Portia and a brave Emelia (from Othello), Juliet and closing with Ophelia (as well as others such as Mistress Page from the Merry Wives). She gives a masterclass performance and this should be filmed for mandatory study by anyone wanting to play Shakespeare. She was truly marvellous and had us in the palm of her hand throughout. The intimacy of the Playhouse (i.e. small!) helped but it was Eileen's sheer power and conviction that completely won over the audience (and me). Go and see her if you can.

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