Some things are a privilege. Eileen Atkins performing a lecture originally given by the great Victorian Shakespearean actress, Ellen Terry reveals how much we are losing but what a joy to have seen one of the few remaining actresses whose command and delivery of Shakespeare can make words so meaningful with such apparent effortlessness. And in a venue tailor-made for verbal intimacy and reflection.
Fashions and styles of acting, of course, change all the time. Terry, as Atkins reminds us, paid due acknowledgement to this fact whilst hoping the young might also glean something from the older generation. Atkins performance should be required viewing for all new drama students.
Actually performing `a lecture’ is not strictly accurate. Eileen Atkins, ever the astute adaptor, has amalgamated Terry’s four lectures on Shakespeare’s heroines and added a few `apercus’ of her own. The result is a timely re-assertion of Shakespeare’s women as powerful characters in their own right, enriched by many valuable insights as to how they should be played from an actor’s point of view.
Terry, in true idiosyncratic style, split her women into two camps – `tall’ and `short’ and `fearless’ and rather less so shading to `pathetic’ (assigned perhaps unfairly to Ophelia).
Into the former group come Beatrice, Rosalind and the Merry Wives, Mistress Page and Ford. Portia is another. Terry controversially surmised how `sentimental’ we have become in our reactions to Shylock. Atkins gives us moments of a Shylock without bias before slipping into Portia’s `quality of mercy’ speech – a fluidity that pays handsome dividends in terms of pacing, wit and emotional impact.
Similarly with Othello, she slips from Desdemona – another `fearless’ young woman – to Othello and also to Amelia, Desdemona’s nurse, clearly a favourite and an example, Terry argued, of Shakespeare often showing women capable of greater moral courage than men.
Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins is not only hugely entertaining. You also marvel at its fresh wisdoms and Atkins’ vocal modulations – the way she flecks a word with meaning, the youthfulness of her voice as Viola and Juliet and the unsentimental but pathos of Lear and Ophelia’s `goodnight sweet ladies.’ Simply unforgettable.