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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
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
and not so famous friends are the backbone of the Princeton Rep,
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
of writers, would find such an artful interpreter in Atkins is
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
producing, that she and Ben will be tempted into producing "Vita
and Virginia," the screenplay for which Atkins is currently
"We do survive triumphantly," Atkins says adding, after my
inquiry, that she is five years clear following chemotherapy for
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
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
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
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
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
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
as Woolf in 1995 in her own play "Vita and Virginia," sharing
the title with Vanessa Redgrave, savvy audiences knew she had
bonded her dramatic talents with an extraordinary literary figure.
Later that same season Atkins returned for her last Broadway
and brought scene-stealing distinction to "Indiscretions"
(the English version of "Les Parents Terribles"), as the
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
and Reiss’ twin sister Edna O’Brien, who had written a play
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
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
with passages about, among others, Vita, Lytton Strachey, Carrington,
and, of course, those "famous friends."
— Simon Saltzman
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
Festival and the Anya Yates Memorial Scholarship for disadvantaged
youth. Sunday, January 21, 8 p.m.
A $250 benefit ticket includes a reception with Eileen
Atkins and a silent auction that features theater memorabilia and
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
at 9:15 p.m.:
"Abelard and Heloise," signed by Diana Rigg; "Medea,"
signed by Diana Rigg; and "The Misanthrope."
Dalloway (1929 edition). Name plate inside cover.
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."
of 250 copies of "On Acting," with slipcover, signed by the
author shortly before his death. 1986. Simon and Schuster.
from the Roycroft Shop (publisher) in East Aurora, New York, with
suede spine and Roycroft watermarks.
at Studio 54, directed by the Academy Award-winning director Sam
of Britain’s Donmar Warehouse and the Academy-Award winning film
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