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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January 17,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Eileen Atkins’ Woolfian Journey

The part jest/part conjecture that there are those

who are, indeed, "Afraid of Virginia Woolf" certainly does

not apply to either lauded British stage actress, playwright, and

adapter/screenwriter Eileen Atkins or to Princeton Rep executive

producer

Anne Reiss. Neither could have anticipated that their common passion

for Woolf, which began and has continued over the years since their

backstage meeting at McCarter Theater in 1992, would result eight

years later with Atkins appearing at a benefit performance for the

Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival. Isn’t that (to steal a section

from Woolf’s diaries) what "famous friends" are for? But

famous

and not so famous friends are the backbone of the Princeton Rep,

which,

with the help of this benefit, is endeavoring to raise funds for its

summer Shakespeare Festival and its Anya Yatesa Memorial Scholarship

for inner-city children.

While continuing her acclaimed performance Off-Broadway in Yasmina

Reza’s "The Unexpected Man," Atkins will reprise, for this

benefit, her celebrated portrayal of Woolf in the American premiere

of the BBC highlight "A Moment’s Liberty," excerpts from a

new edition of Virginia Woolf’s diaries edited by Anne Olivier Bell.

That Woolf, the distaff member of the notable "Bloomsbury

group"

of writers, would find such an artful interpreter in Atkins is

something

that surprises even the actress herself.

One of the first of many delightful things I discover about Atkins

during our chatty phone conversation is how unfamiliar she admits

she was with Woolf until she was in her late 20s. "From the age

of 19 to almost 29 I almost couldn’t get employed. But then this young

film producer came to see me after he had been to one thing that I

had done and told me he liked what he saw, adding that he thought

I looked like Woolf. He said he had written a script about Vita and

Virginia," says Atkins recalling how she candidly admitted to

him that she didn’t know a thing about this woman. "I was badly

educated and he was shocked," says Atkins, who, after reading

the script, which (by the way) never got off the ground, began in

earnest to read everything by Woolf she could get her hands on. It

was quite an undertaking for a young woman who had grown up on a

council

estate in a poor section of London, the daughter of an under-chauffeur

and a mother who worked by day as a seamstress and by night as a

barmaid.

Atkins’ formal education did include three years at the Guild Hall

School of Music and Drama.

Her Woolfian journey began she says with "The Waves," which

she remembers at the time thinking, "Oh, I can’t read this. This

is too much." What Atkins says she found immediately

"wonderful"

was "Mrs. Dalloway," the novel that Atkins would be adapting

for the screen 30 years later. "I was in my 30s when I was asked

to do a one-person show. I never wanted to do a one-person show, but

by that time I had finally gotten through everything including the

letters between Woolf and Vita Sackville West." A friend of Atkins

convinced her to do a reading ("very much against my will")

of his stage version of "A Room of One’s Own." "I said

to him it will never work."

The evening at the Royal Festival Hall did work, or

as Atkins puts it "Why wouldn’t it? They were all Virginia Woolf

groupies. Now my husband, Ben," she continues, "who is

completely

non-literary and had never been to the theater much before he met

me, turned to me going home and said `it was one of the best things

I have ever seen you do and one of the best things I’ve seen in the

theater.’"

Atkins recalls her response: "You must be joking. You don’t know

a thing about Woolf." To which he retorted: "For damn sure

I’m going to know something about her now."

They both learned plenty not only about Woolf but the hazards of

filmmaking.

Ironically it was making "Mrs. Dalloway" that Atkins says

brought her and her husband (the producer) to the brink of bankruptcy.

I doubt, after listening to Atkins detail the pitfalls of motion

picture

producing, that she and Ben will be tempted into producing "Vita

and Virginia," the screenplay for which Atkins is currently

writing.

"We do survive triumphantly," Atkins says adding, after my

inquiry, that she is five years clear following chemotherapy for

breast

cancer. Atkins is pleased she is offered wonderful roles ("I could

live without screenwriting, but not without acting"), including

that of the mentor in "Wit" directed by Mike Nichols for HBO.

While Atkins keeps insisting that she has "a dull brain" she

credits Woolf for looking at the same things and illuminating them

for her. When I take exception to her use of the above phrase, as

not being possible for an actor of her caliber, Atkins continues to

insist how thick she is in some ways. To make her point how the

intellect

is not at all what acting is about, she talks about a post-curtain

question and answer session she recently did with Alan Bates, her

co-star in "The Unexpected Man." She particularly remembers

one question posed by a member of the audience: "How much does

the intellect enter into acting?" "Without a beat, we both

answered simultaneously: Not at all!"

Whether she is pulling my leg, I’m not sure but Atkins gives credit

to her long-standing insomnia for her huge imagination. "When

I was a child my mother took me around to doctors because I wouldn’t

sleep. Their diagnosis was that I had too large an imagination. You

have to have a huge imagination and an emotional instinct to be a

good actor. It can almost hinder if you are an intellectual,"

she says, distinctly vindicating her arguably "dull brain."

As expected, our conversation immediately takes an intellectual turn

when Atkins unwittingly (and without being the least bit dull) begins

to elaborate on the many faces of Woolf, the lecturer ("A Room

of One’s Own"), the romantic ("Vita and Virginia"), and

the diarist ("A Moment’s Liberty"). As she points out, "In

`A Room’ Woolf is lecturing and has a point to make — `that women

should be given equal chances with men’ — and embroiders on that

point brilliantly, ironically. With `Vita,’ it was her only attempt

at sex and we see her very vulnerable and ordinary," says Atkins

recognizing Woolf’s particularly penetrating eye and poetic way of

expressing herself.

Atkins says she finds her life illuminated by Woolf. "All I want

is to put people on to her wavelength. I want to say it’s a bit

frightening,

but come up here and go with her," she says, stirring it with

a bit of dramatic intonation. Atkins draws easily from Woolf, and

a passage from the diaries in which Woolf is going out to dinner.

"Oh, I look so forward to tonight. To go adventuring on other

people’s minds." Atkins hopes to inspire us to go adventuring

in Woolf’s world.

I had to chuckle glancing over Atkins’s biography in "The

Unexpected

Man" playbill. I suspect it contains almost as many words as the

play that lasts a mere but marvelous 75 minutes. At 59, her career,

which began in earnest with the prerequisite classic roles for the

Royal Shakespeare Company and Old Vic, has been filled with a

succession

of well-received contemporary plays on the West End, that brought

her on stage with such luminaries as Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir

Alec Guinness. If Broadway audiences didn’t get to see the actress

until 1966 in "The Killing of Sister George" (a performance

that earned her the London’s Evening Standard Award), her too few

appearances since have been marked with rapturous approval.

Atkins first appearance on Broadway in "The Killing of Sister

George" could not be called anything less than an eye-opener,

as the young actress was commanded by her bullying lover (played by

Beryl Reid) to drink her bath water. Reid deserved the huzzahs for

her performance as the take-charge disciplinarian lesbian, but few

can forget Atkins’ portrayal of the self-absorbed childish, but not

so innocent, "Childie." Although few saw the return of Atkins

(to great acclaim) to Broadway (co-starring with Ian McKellen and

Ian McShane in the short-lived Russian play "The Promise,"

she returned four years later to reign for a season as the "virgin

queen" in Robert Bolt’s "Vivat! Vivat! Regina." Together

with actress Jean Marsh, Atkins wrote (but did not appear in) the

hugely successful "Upstairs, Downstairs," series for the BBC

in the early 1970s.

It wasn’t until 1989, when Atkins appeared Off-Broadway in "A

Room of One’s Own," in her homage to Virginia Woolf, that she

confirmed my developing passion for her portrayals. When she

reappeared

as Woolf in 1995 in her own play "Vita and Virginia," sharing

the title with Vanessa Redgrave, savvy audiences knew she had

incontestably

bonded her dramatic talents with an extraordinary literary figure.

Later that same season Atkins returned for her last Broadway

appearance

and brought scene-stealing distinction to "Indiscretions"

(the English version of "Les Parents Terribles"), as the

level-headed

sexually-suspect sister of Kathleen Turner.

In 1992 Atkins was performing "A Room of One’s Own" at the

McCarter. Reiss and Princeton Rep’s artistic director Victoria

Liberatori

and Reiss’ twin sister Edna O’Brien, who had written a play

"Virginia"

that was originally written for Atkins, went backstage to see her.

"We hit it off immediately," says Reiss, who tried to entice

Atkins to return to Princeton to do either "Virginia," or

"John Gabriel Borkman" for the company that she and Liberatori

had just launched. All Atkins had to do was to express a desire —

"One day I’m going to come and do something for the company"

— to keep up with the progress of the company and an eight-year

correspondence between Atkins and Reiss was in the making. The result

is this long-awaited appearance by Atkins who said to Reiss, when

they met again during the current run of "The Unexpected Man,"

"Let’s do it."

Reiss recalls how her passion for Woolf had begun when she and her

sister were at UCLA, where they graduated together in 1991 as English

majors (with a concentration in English writers). A course given by

a visiting professor from Oxford that required reading everything

by Woolf provided the inspiration for O’Brien’s play and for Reiss

to begin collecting first editions of Woolf.

The choice is simple for Reiss and Liberatori. Because the Festival

generates no ticket income, the generosity of people like Eileen

Atkins

and corporate sponsors like Fleet Bank and other individual, state

and corporate contributors to the Festival are vital to its survival.

"As much as it hurts me," says Reiss, "we are having a

silent auction after the show, with Eileen present, during which I

will painfully part with some of my treasures."

The timing for this winter benefit was perfect, says Reiss, who says

Atkins will come directly to Princeton following the Sunday matinee

and read parts of the diaries that comprise "A Moment’s

Liberty"

with passages about, among others, Vita, Lytton Strachey, Carrington,

and, of course, those "famous friends."

— Simon Saltzman

Eileen Atkins reads Virginia Woolf, Princeton Rep

Shakespeare

Festival , Murray Theater, Princeton University, 609-921-3682. A

Winter Gala stars Eileen Atkins portraying Virginia Woolf in "A

Moment’s Liberty." $100 for performance only; $250 patron ticket

with reception and silent auction. Proceeds benefit the annual

Shakespeare

Festival and the Anya Yates Memorial Scholarship for disadvantaged

youth. Sunday, January 21, 8 p.m.

Silent Auction

A $250 benefit ticket includes a reception with Eileen

Atkins and a silent auction that features theater memorabilia and

other surprises.

Included in the auction are the following items, which will be on

view one hour prior to the 8 p.m. curtain and following the

performance

at 9:15 p.m.:

1. A framed triple set of Diana Rigg’s Broadway playbills:

"Abelard and Heloise," signed by Diana Rigg; "Medea,"

signed by Diana Rigg; and "The Misanthrope."

2. Sir Michael Redgrave’s copy of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs.

Dalloway (1929 edition). Name plate inside cover.

3. Galt MacDermot, a signed original sound track

"Woman

Is Sweeter" from "Martine’s Movie." This sound track was

the first series of compositions written by Galt MacDermot following

the music he wrote for "Hair."

4. Sir Laurence Olivier, copy #187 of a special edition

of 250 copies of "On Acting," with slipcover, signed by the

author shortly before his death. 1986. Simon and Schuster.

5. 1904 edition of "The Tragedy of King Lear"

from the Roycroft Shop (publisher) in East Aurora, New York, with

suede spine and Roycroft watermarks.

6. Two tickets to the Tony-Award winning smash hit

"Cabaret"

at Studio 54, directed by the Academy Award-winning director Sam

Mendes

of Britain’s Donmar Warehouse and the Academy-Award winning film

"American

Beauty."


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