PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Eileen Atkins

PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Eileen Atkins Eileen Atkins shows no sign of slowing down in the eighth decade.
Eileen Atkins
Eileen Atkins Photo by Joan Marcus

The prominent English actress — who is seen almost as often on the New York stage as the London — is as ubiquitous as ever. She is currently starring in a revival Edward Bond's The Sea at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, and her play Vita & Virginia is currently running Off-Broadway with Kathleen Chalfant and Patricia Elliott. Last season, she starred at the Almeida with Imelda Staunton in Frank McGuiness' There Came a Gypsy Riding, and before that she was in a revival of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party at the Dutchess. Her most recent New York outing was taking over for Cherry Jones in Broadway's Doubt. Her television and film schedule remains equally busy. And yet she still has time for interviews like this one! Atkins talked about the frustration of appearing intelligent and finding good roles at an advanced age (Ha!).

Playbill.com: You are in The Sea right now. Have you done Edward Bond plays before?
Eileen Atkins: No. Oddly enough, I did one reading in America of Saved. It was 1965 or 1966, around then.

Playbill.com: This is a lesser-known work of Bond's. Can you talk a bit about it?
EA: Yes. It's much jollier than his others. He calls it a comedy. I call it a comic-tragedy or a melancholy farce. It's lighter than most of his stuff. It's very farcical in parts, and very funny. I play the grande dame of a village on the east coast of England. I don't know if you know, but we tend to think the people who live on that very far coast are a bit odd in the head. There's lots of literature about how people think they're all inbred and peculiar. Edward lives up there now. [The setting of the play is] a village in 1907. It's really about village life, but, being Edward Bond, there truly is a man who is a draper in it. It's the main part, and he's wonderfully insane. He truly believes people are landing from other planets. Edward sees my part as being a blow against the aristocracy, but actually he's written it in a way quite sympathetically, and I get a lot of people coming around and think, "Thank God for Mrs. Rafi. She was the only sensible person in the village." He thinks he's written a very left-wing play. But he hasn't at all.

Playbill.com: Your character is a member of the aristocracy?
EA: No, but I'm the highest person in the village. I'm of the upper classes. I'm the top knob.

Eileen Atkins in The Sea
photo by Sasha Gusov

Playbill.com: You're sometimes cast that way, aren't you, as a sort of long-suffering voice of reason?
EA: Yes, I tend not to be cast as stupid. And I love playing stupid. There's a wonderful actor called Michael Gough. He said to me one day, "Darling, isn't it funny that you and I are always cast as very clever people when we're two of the biggest sillies in England." And he's quite right. He said, "It's the shape of our faces. We have long faces. And we look intelligent." I went on my knees once for a part — in a play called Next Time I'll Sing to You — of an absolutely stupid, big-titted blonde. And they let me do the tour. So I have done it, but I have to beg for it if I'm going to play stupid. Playbill.com: Has Edward Bond been around?
EA: He came into a reading. And he came in one afternoon and raged at me for doing some looks at my sidekick during the two hymns [in the play]. We have to sing two hymns. I thought, "I don't remember having the idea of doing these looks, but he doesn't want them." He was really rude to me. So I went back into my dressing room and I looked at the original script and there it was — he'd put the looks in himself. So then somebody told him he'd been rude to me, so he came to my dressing room to apologize. I said, "Edward, look!" I showed him what he had written. And he said, "You shouldn't take any notice of what I write." He's the most infuriating man.

Playbill.com: You've often said how much you like acting in New York. You haven't been here for a couple years. Do you know when the next time you visit might be?
EA: I really would love it. I think I might have just made a mistake. They asked me recently to do Driving Miss Daisy, but I didn't realize it was with James Earl Jones. If I'd known that, I might have slightly changed my mind. But I did think it was so brilliantly done by Jessica Tandy that I couldn't possibly match her. And anyway, it was an American part. I don't like playing Americans over there.

Playbill.com: So we'll have to wait a little longer, then.
EA: Well, yes, but it's extremely difficult to find parts at my age.

Playbill.com: But that doesn't seem to be the case. You never stop working.
EA: Well, that's true. Actually, what I've been looking for is a TV sitcom. I've never done that. I was just sent something. The trouble is the man's part is so much funnier than the woman's.

Playbill.com: You also have a writing career. Are you working on anything?
EA: No. But they're making a movie about "Upstairs, Downstairs." I've got a meeting tomorrow with [playwright] Jeffrey Hatcher. He's American. He's doing the script. And Jean Marsh and I are meeting him for the first time. We've read his treatment. They did ask us to do the script, but we didn't want to. I gather I'm going to like him very much indeed. All my American friends tell me I will.

Playbill.com: Is your function on the project as a kind of consultant?
EA: Yes.

Playbill.com: Do they want you to play a role in it?
EA: They want me to, but having avoided playing a role in it all those years on television, I really don't fancy suddenly turning up in the movie.

Eileen Atkins and David Haig in <i>The Sea.</i>
Eileen Atkins and David Haig in The Sea. Photo by Sasha Gusov