REVIEW: Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse ✭✭✭✭✭

Last Updated on 17th July 2014

Eileen Atkins as Ellen Terry
Eileen Atkins as Ellen Terry

Ellen Terry With Eileen Atkins
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
February 23 2014

History records Ellen Terry as one of the greatest actresses of all time. Together with Henry Irving, she commanded the world’s stages in the late Nineteenth Century and was most closely linked with Shakespeare. When she retired from the stage, she wrote about Shakespeare and had a second career delivering lectures about the women Shakespeare created which were informed and inspired by her long career performing the roles. She had firm views about how an actress should play each role and her views did not conform to traditional thought.

Now playing at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre is Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins, a miraculous theatrical experience crafted by Atkins from Terry’s writings. Atkins plays Terry delivering one of her lectures and during the course of the lecture delivers sections of Shakespeare’s verse for characters such as Portia, Juliet, Rosalind, Beatrice, Ophelia, Viola, Desdemona and Cordelia.

It is an unrelentingly beautiful experience watching Atkins, one of our greatest stage actresses, channelling Terry. Her vocal work, her spirited and insightful understanding of the texts, her glimmering eye for comic possibility and her unerring ability to mine the words for every nuance and dramatic effect make this an unforgettable and quite joyous night at the theatre.

Terry wrote that the actress’s task “is to learn how to translate (the Shakespearean) character into herself, how to make its thoughts her thoughts, it’s words her words” and claimed authority to speak about the characters because she possessed “the knowledge that can be gained only from union with them.”

Atkins personifies and embodies Terry’s thoughts. She illuminates every line of Shakespeare she speaks with clarity and understanding. Hearing her speak even some of the most well known of Shakespeare’s passages, it is difficult not to think you are hearing them for the very first time. They are amazingly alive, fresh as the rays of new Dawn and just as dazzling.

The range and versatility Atkins demonstrates here is astonishing. When she plays Juliet or Ophelia, her nearly eighty years melt away – she is young, fragile, divine. Her delivery of Portia’s Quality of Mercy speech takes your breath away and it is entirely easy to understand Terry’s equating of that speech with the Lord’s Prayer.

I have never seen Ophelia’s mad scene better played than Atkins delivered it here. For once, it made complete sense. Equally, it is difficult to imagine a better Rosalind or Viola or Beatrice than the versions glimpsed here in evocative and thrilling snatches from the great comedies.

But most surprising – and rewarding – are the unexpected treats: a deftly funny but thoroughly country Mrs Page reading Sir John’s love letter and musing on it; the gentle but heart-breaking scene where Juliet awakens in the tomb; the reunion scene between Lear and Cordeila (Atkins plays both parts thoroughly convincingly and with a spine-tingling lustre that is not matched in the current Sam Mendes production playing in the Olivier Theatre); and, most remarkably, the exchange between Emila and Othello in the aftermath of Desdemona’s murder – a performance clarifying exactly who is the true heroine in the final stages of Othello.

An unmissable night with one of the world’s greatest living stage actresses.

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