In those very rich east coast New England houses there are very rich east coast New England women, who unlike their Californian equivalent have no truck with therapies, fashions and self-development. Instead they are concerned with manners, order and social propriety. They plan weekly menus. Other people shop for them. They wear cardigans draped over their shoulders so any kind of work is impossible. And they are clever.
Agnes, in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, is a classic of the type. As Eileen Atkins says of her “she has a furious politeness and she is so lacking in fun”. But even though she’s Katherine Hepburn curdled, in Atkins’ hands, you can’t help but admire her. Albee’s loathing for this kind of woman, stemming apparently from his stepmother whom he so vehemently trashed in his last West End showing, “Three Tall Women”, which also starred Maggie Smith, is almost overwhelming. But through the cruelty of the writing, Atkins paints a portrait of a woman holding together members of a family who are spinelessly failing to get to grips with their personal worlds. She has a matrimonially incontinent daughter, a playfully witty and occasionally wise drunk for a sister and a successful wimp for a husband. Without Agnes they would have no framework, no way of surviving together. Their moorings would loosen and their balloon would go adrift, to use Albee’s metaphor. Agnes is the one whose demand for order maintains the delicate balance in their lives and fends off the ultimate fear.
“I spent three weeks loathing her”, says Atkins. “Anthony (the director) keeps on saying things like she’s a control freak. One night he said ‘you were rather good tonight. You were rather like Mrs Thatcher’ “. Atkins groaned, “Oh thanks a lot.” But Agnes is the moral centre of the play. “Yes, and she’s the engine room too. She drives it. And I’ve grown to like her by myself. I think you have to like the people you play in the end.” And also be like them? “When you play anybody you always think there’s loads of you in the part. Although I was never anything like St Joan.”
Atkins has played women of all kinds from the first Childie opposite Beryl Reid in The Killing of Sister George to Elizabeth I in Vivat Vivat Regina. She has won Olivier awards for her roles in Cymbeline at The National and Harold Pinter’s Mountain Language. She has played in Shaw, Bolt, Ibsen, Duras, Eliot. Schaffer and Shakespeare and her own adaptations of Virginia Woolf. She even invented the TV series Upstairs Downstairs and House of Elliot with her old mate Jean Marsh. And all of her women carry within them the same sense of strength you see in her face
Most people think that Atkins’ look is famously gloomy. But you’d be wrong to think that it indicate earnestness, a lack of humour or an elevated sense of martyrdom. It doesn’t. She is a really good laugh. And while she “likes a bit of order” herself, says she’s very bossy – even though she can’t stop her husband chain smoking, “It’s his choice” – and doesn’t like living in chaos, this comes out not as prissy restrictiveness or social restraint but as a strong sense of self discipline. She tells me how in New York in 1995 she co-starred for six months with Vanessa Redgrave in her own adaptation of the letters of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville West, (big smile), overlapped that with rehearsing and playing for five months in Indiscretions, known in London as Les Parents Terribles, with Kathleen Turner (serious grimace) and writing a screen play adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs Dalloway” (a look of tremendous delight). “It’s just been at the Toronto Film Festival and one review said it was a ‘crowd pleaser’, which isn’t bad for an art house movie.” Buoyed up by that success she has written a screen adaptation of the Vita & Virginia letters stage show, which will also be produced by her husband Bill Shepherd, and directed next year by Stanley Donen.”
She only told me all this because I brought up the subject of ‘sorrow’ of which she is a mistress on stage, usually hidden deep within. There followed a funny and join-the-dots path of connections from the breast cancer she discovered she had during this burst of transatlantic activity, a fax from Judi Dench telling her about recent developments in The Archers, the breast operation and the six months of chemo she had in New York and then at The Marsden in London, and ending up with two ladies in Bath, where A Delicate Balance was previewing, who said they had enjoyed the play “tremendously” but they didn’t understand the “terror”. “What was the play about?” They were referring to Agnes and Tobias’ two friends in their sixties who in Act One turn up uninvited to stay because they have simply “got frightened” in their own home.
“I said to Bill on the phone that night, ‘I am beginning to feel very strange because I couldn’t turn round to them and say “Have you never been terrified of death, the end, nothingness? Aren’t you ever frightened and want a great big nurse, a comfy person to say ‘there, there’ don’t worry’?” “Hasn’t everybody felt that?”, I said. And Bill said ‘No’.” “I cannot conceive the rest of the world is not like me and I have thought about death since I was five.”
However she is not naturally sad. “I feel very lucky, so I don’t know why I invest people with such misery”. She has done very well in her career – Awards, raves, money and a CBE – and she has what sounds like a pretty successful marriage. “Maybe I look miserable. Somebody’s probably looking at me and thinking, “Poor cow, I wonder what kind of life she leads.” Big laugh.
The sadness of her own childhood has been over dramatised by journalists. And she says now “Look you can’t be 63 and still moaning about your childhood, that’s boring, and I’ve upset my sister and brother by saying some things. But there’s a lot of codswallop talked about the nobility of the working classes. Growing up on a council estate is hard.” Her mother was a very tough woman and thankfully believed in the power of education. “ I see myself in her a lot. And I don’t like it all the time. My mother was very strong. But the words you use – domineering, forceful, bossy – depend on whether you like the person.” A bit like Agnes in A Delicate Balance.