Sunday, 26 January 2014

Theatre review: Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins

Barely has my bum recovered and I'm back at the Swanamaker, although mercifully for a shorter show. On nights when the main production isn't on, the plan is to use the venue for candlelit chamber concerts, but first up when the Duchess of Malfi cast take a break, we get Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins: Surprisingly, the opening season at the companion venue to Shakespeare's Globe doesn't feature any actual Shakespeare, but any Bard buff surely can't feel short-changed thanks to the inclusion of this performance-cum-lecture. One of the most celebrated Victorian actresses, Ellen Terry was also, in defiance of the expectations of her day, a Shakespearean scholar who explored her theories on his characters with the benefit of having played many of them herself. When she retired she didn't venture too far from the stage, co-writing (with Henry Irving) and delivering lectures on Shakespeare's women and how she believed they should be played.

One such lecture is what Eileen Atkins attempts to recreate here; she delivers Terry's commentary on the different categories of Shakespearean women, and her thoughts on specific characters, interspersed with some of their speeches. Atkins has said that she performs the lecture portions as Terry, but the takes on the characters are her own.

There's been so many theories on Shakespeare over the centuries it's fascinating to hear some more, even the ones Terry dismisses here; it seems in her day there was a popular opinion that the only reason he even bothered to write decent roles for women was because they'd be played by men. Terry is keen to debunk this, and explores how these characters display a particular understanding of women, and one that developed over his life (she can't resist theorising about the personal relationships that contributed to the shifts in his attitudes, but is keen to make it clear when she's speculating.)

One of the things I like about Atkins is a spiky, acidic quality to her1, but it's also great to see her shed this to display the real warmth and relentless enthusiasm Terry shows for her subject (one gets the impression if the actress were alive today she'd be trolling Tumblr under a pseudonym, with Shakespearean fanfic and wild theories.) There's some lovely moments in the extracts from the plays that Atkins performs - particularly the reunion between Lear and Cordelia, when you could have heard a pin drop2. I don't know that I'd agree with Terry's description of Helena as a "doormat," although I can see how she got there; I do of course approve of her calling her rape of Bertram despicable. And I'm sorry we didn't get to see Atkins take on Terry's interpretation of an incredibly fragile Lady Macbeth (perhaps the two actresses' thoughts on the matter differ too much to attempt it?) For Shakespeare nerds this is a bit of a special evening; anyone not that well-versed in the canon would probably be a bit lost.

Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins by Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and William Shakespeare, edited and adapted by Eileen Atkins, is booking in repertory until the 23rd of February at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (returns only.)

Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes straight through.

1much as I love Emma Thompson, Atkins remains my mental image of Harry Potter's Professor Trelawney for this reason; her misguided superiority mixed with vulnerability in The Hand of God is what I pictured when reading the books

2but what you'd have heard instead was the Nokia ringtone. And then, just as the mood had started to reassert itself again, the offender's loudly-hissed apologies *slow handclap*

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