Theatre Review: Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins

When: 27th Han 2014 / Where: Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe

Shakespeare’s Globe has recently added another performance space to their site: the Sam Wanamaker playhouse, so named for the man that started the campaign to rebuild the Globe. One of the first performances to be shown is Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins, which I went to see last Monday.

First off, the playhouse is utterly beautiful. It has been painstakingly designed and built and, in true Globe fashion, is built in the mould of a 16th century playhouse. It is an intimate, candlelit venue that apparently seats 350, but seems smaller than that.

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 (contraband photo taken from my seat)

I sat in the ‘pit’ which had benches that curved around the ‘pit’ space, meaning that all audience members sat there had to turn to see the stage. Luckily for me, I had the seat at the end of the row, so could completely turn to face the stage. I was also less than a metre away from the edge of the stage, which was a little intimidating at times! The performance was Eileen Atkins, playing Ellen Terry, giving a lecture on Shakespeare, and particularly Shakespearean roles for women. The source material is a series of lectures actually written and given by Terry in her lifetime, which Atkins has combined into an impressive one woman show stopper. What we frequently got was the rather magical trick of Eileen Atkins playing Ellen Terry while also playing Juliet. Or Rosalind. Or Desdemona.

From the moment Dame Eileen (as I will refer to her from now on – it’s more fun) strode on stage, with a magnificent grey curled wig and wearing an electric blue velvet suit, I had a feeling we were in for something a bit special. We were treated to Ellen Terry ruminating on her acting career from a child onwards (including a wonderful story about a miscalculated stage trap door) and talking about Shakespeare and the roles he wrote for women. From there on in, we get a Shakespearean lady acting masterclass, both from our imagined version of Ellen Terry and from Dame Eileen, who performs at least 11 major female roles (plus a few of the major male ones too, and some more minor characters). She doesn’t just stick to monologues, but enacts whole scenes before us, switching from character to character, making alterations in voice, stance, body language, mannerisms, accent and attitude to convey the differences. Dame Eileen (who is 79) convincingly manages to portray Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing), Rosalind (As You Like It), Viola and Olivia (Twelfth Night), Portia (Merchant of Venice), Cordelia (King Lear), Ophelia (Hamlet), Desdemona and Emilia (Othello) and Juliet (Romeo and Juliet). She also includes portrayals of Othello and Lear, along with several others.

Watching Dame Eileen move from character to character is extraordinary. She snaps right back out of character very suddenly and often to comic effect, which just adds to the impressiveness of her performance. There was a very real sense that we were watching an actress still at the top of her game at nearly 80. The audience hung on her every word and the electric effect of her presence endured throughout (despite mobile phones ringing and some sort of odd beeping coming from the ceiling). An unusual performance, in an unusual space; the performance was a brisk 75 minutes and well worth a watch, if you get the opportunity.

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