Watching a great actor playing another great actor is not an everyday occurrence. Legendary stage, film and television actress, Dame Eileen Atkins, 81, leaves you feeling hypnotised by her commanding performance at the candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse with her reprisal of Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins. To play this role must be very demanding but to play it again, after a sell-out performance to rave reviews in 2014 must surely be even more intimidating.
What is it like reprising this role?
“It’s horribly daunting” Eileen replied. “I was asked to do it a year ago while I was in a “Samuel Beckett” play, All That Fall, with Michael Gambon, I had this whole other big play in my head when they asked me so I was very unsure. However my agents thought it was a really marvelous idea and I went along with it. What I didn’t realise is the difference a few years can make. It’s the same when you are young as when you are old. There is a big difference between being 7 and being 9 years old. There is the same big difference between 79 and 81.
“It just seemed a lot more daunting to me this time. I thought ‘I’ll be alright. I’ll slowly learn it’ but I had simply forgotten things like needing to walk around the stage all the time. I had forgotten about being on my feet for so long and it didn’t come back nearly as easily as I thought it would.
“To me, the things that come back easily are the things you learnt when you were under 30 years old. Anything you learned as a child is usually still in your head. Poems and plays for example, but the things you learned when you were older don’t come back to one as well. Or for me they don’t anyway; although some people have better brains than mine for remembering.
“There is no point in doing something unless it appears effortless and there is no strain. So I did put myself through tough rehearsals.”
“I find Shakespeare comes back very easily. I am reading Ellen Terry & Bernard Shaw A Correspondence, these are letters to each other. It gives me very much a feeling of her. It is her voice.
“I was relieved to hear from Ian McKellen the other night that it took him 9 months to rehearse for the part in the film of The Dresser. It was a huge part. The great thing is though, in cinema, if it goes wrong, you can go back again and re-film.
“You know you can do it again and you know you won’t make a fool of yourself in front of hundreds of people. It’s not the same with theatre.”
Do you ever suffer from stage fright?
“All the time. For anyone who doesn’t get some stage fright, I honestly feel there is something a bit wrong with them. I have to work it so that my preparation is exactly timed. I do not like having a lot of time waiting around backstage. I get there, I get into a dressing gown, I have make-up put on, maybe a wig fitted, I get back to my room and put my clothes on. I hope they will say we are ready to go on just as I put on my clothes. But then, if there is a long hold up, I take deep breaths, keep tapping my feet, and start to pace up and down.
“When Judi Dench and I meet, and if we ever talk about a job she always says to me, ‘How much out of 10 for terror? How frightened were you?’ I will say. ‘My God Judi, you did the Albert Hall and sang there and she will say ‘Yes. How much was that for terror? 9 out of 10!’”
“There is something wrong with anybody who says they can go out there quite casually, after having a few chats with friends.
“One night I went on to the stage and looked into the audience and stared straight in the eyes of my ex-husband, Julian Glover. “We get on very well thankfully” she laughs.
“Then I turned around immediately to the left and looked straight into the face of Edward Fox. So I thought I would turn and face the other side of the stage but there looking at me was Zoë Wanamaker and Patricia Hodge. So I had to give myself a very fast talking to saying, “They are there, you are just going to have to face them and get on with it”.
“That said, nerves work in your favour. You need the adrenalin. I have to stay absolutely concentrated in my head. I have to stay being Ellen and talking what she is talking and it can be very difficult at the theatre because I can see an awful lot of what is going on around me.
“The adrenalin is extremely addictive. When you finish a run of any play, you think you want to stop and you are tired but then of course you are missing the adrenalin. In the evenings you start to feel yourself getting depressed and missing the buzz you get from performing. It’s our adrenalin rush.”
“I went to drama school at 16 years old. My parents would say to me ‘when are you going to be out making some money?!’ they were shocked I stayed at school till 16.
“I was brought up as a dancer and danced in working men’s clubs from the age of 7 years old. By the age of 12 I really hated doing the working men’s clubs. I didn’t even want to learn to dance. Unfortunately my mother was extremely superstitious. When I was a baby, a gypsy came to the door and told my mother I was going to be a great dancer and so for that reason my mother kept sending me to dancing lessons.
“I was a very social child. I liked school and I liked the other kids at dancing class and I liked the social life that went with it. But I hated going out at night and dancing in these men’s clubs. I really didn’t like that. On the other hand it earned money for the family.”
What advice would you give your younger self?
“When I got to drama school I lost my confidence. I was the only working class person there. I got very good parts, people appreciated my work and I was encouraged but I was very aware of feeling different. I used to go to auditions thinking, ‘I know you are not going to cast me but I know I am bloody good.’ I think this harmed me. I didn’t do well in acting until I was 27.
“I left drama school lacking in confidence and I had developed a huge chip on my shoulder. So I would say more than anything try to keep confident and try and get rid of that chip.”
Advice to others
“The only way is to keep going. Stay disciplined. I am very disciplined, as was Ellen Terry. Ellen Terry learned Rosalind even though she never played it.
“So I would say, when you leave drama school, keep on learning. You must have that instinct that when you are not working you still go on learning. Also try to keep meeting up with your friends so you have that support network around you.
“I remember once collecting my dole, now I think it is called social security with [Dame] Maggie Smith. We both realised we would have to get other jobs to earn our money until the acting work came in. The worst thing to do is to sit and feel sorry for yourself.
“Also, having charm and likability is important. If you have charm, it serves you well in any area in your life. I think being a beauty can go against you sometimes as it becomes a bit dull. It is far better to have a slightly more interesting look and have charm.
Lastly, you have to want it very much. You have to be prepared to work very hard. I hope I have shown that you can do it. If you’ve missed a good school like a public school, or you haven’t gone to university, or if you have come from a dicey background, you can still fulfil what you want to fulfil.”
Confidence in a young Tom Hardy
“I saw the actor Tom Hardy when he was still at school in a school play. His father said to me “He wants to be an actor’, and I said ‘Well I think he is rather good.’
“The father asked ‘will you help me? So I advised them to apply for drama school. I gave them the name of a good teacher to go through his audition pieces with. The teacher was so impressed she rang me up and said ‘This boy is really talented.’
“So we told Tom to go in to auditions with as much confidence as possible. He went to his first interview at RADA . It was an absolute no. They had no interest in seeing him again. The teacher rang up RADA, and asked why and she said that she and Eileen Atkins felt this boy was extraordinarily talented. They said, ‘He was too cocky!’.
“So there you go. He wasn’t really, it was what we had told him; to be confident. So it is getting the balance right.”
The Proudest moment
“What most surprised me and thrilled me beyond measure, was that I was given an honorary English literature degree at Oxford University.
“It was a two day event with a procession through the streets of Oxford. I cried practically throughout the ceremony. There was always a bit of me that wished the opportunity to go to university had come my way. That of course would have been out of the question as my parents wanted me earning as quickly as possible.
“So that did thrill me. One of the Oxford Dons said to me when I was there, ‘Now, you know, this is a much bigger deal than getting a DBE!'”
Elle: “Well, that’s not bad for the girl who came from Clapton, East London, now is it?”
“It’s not bad. It’s not bad. It’s not bad at all!” laughs a jubilant Eileen.
Special thanks to Dame Eileen Atkins for her interview with Public Description.
Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins’ runs at Shakespeare’s Globe from:
11 January – 13 February
Adapted & performed by
£15 – £48 seats
£62 premium tickets
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“Atkins is sublime. She is an artist at the peak of her powers. Nothing she does goes for nothing. It’s inspiring. ”
★★★★ The Financial Times