Dame Edith Evans: A Rare Shakespearian Beauty

04. Mar, 2011

One of the exhibits in our recent ‘Shakespeare’s Women in Performance’ exhibition was a portrait of Dame Edith Evans, about whom I recently wrote an article for The Stage in their series about the Greatest Stage Actors. As that newspaper is mainly read by members of the theatrical, profession, I thought it might be appropriate to offer a version of it here.

Born in 1888, Edith Evans was working as a milliner when the eccentric Elizabethan revivalist William Poel spotted her in amateur performances. He cast her as Cressida in a London production of Troilus and Cressida in which the great comedienne Hermione Gingold, also at the start of her career, played Cassandra. Evans toured for a while with another great dame, Ellen Terry, and was taken up by Shaw, for whom she played the Serpent in the Garden of Eden in Back to Methuselah at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Her first major triumph came as Millamant in Nigel Playfair’s production of Congreve’s The Way of the World at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in 1924, which moved James Agate to declare ‘Let me not mince matters. Miss Edith Evans is the most accomplished of living and practising English actresses.’ Admitting that she was not a conventional beauty, he continued ‘I will agree that if I wanted to hire a chit to carry a banner in a pantomime, I should not engage this artist. But if she does not possess rare beauty in the highest sense, then I know not that quality.’ Soon afterwards she joined the Old Vic company for a short but packed period during which she gained much Shakespearian experience, most notably as Rosalind in As You Like It. She was to play the role with Michael Redgrave in 1936. Many years later I was present at a reading that she gave in Hall’s Croft, Stratford-upon-Avon, with Christopher Hassall. Introducing passages from As You Like It she said ‘We did this at Marlborough College recently. We told the boys we knew we were far too old for the parts, but they must just listen and shut their eyes. And do you know’ – the inimitable but often imitated voice soared in simulated amazement – ‘they did.’

It was in 1935 that she gave the first of several performances of a role with which she became peculiarly identified, the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. This was in the OUDS production directed by John Gielgud in which he and Olivier switched roles as Romeo and Mercutio. Peggy Ashcroft played Juliet. Dame Edith was to take the role again in London and New York, and finally in Peter Hall’s RSC production in 1961. This used a revolving stage which could be perilous. For one of her entries Dame Edith was preceded by the actor playing Peter who lit her way with a torch, lest she should be precipitated off the edge of the revolve like an ill-placed needle on a gramophone record.

My most vivid memories of her Shakespearian roles are of her season at what was still the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1959. Tyrone Guthrie’s All’s Well That Ends Well was one of the most brilliantly accomplished productions I have seen, Checkovianly beautiful in the Roussillion scenes, farcically irreverent in those set in Florence. It was so technically finished that Guthrie was said to have given the actors the day off before the first night. Playing the Countess, the role that Shaw described as ‘the most beautiful old woman’s part ever written’, Evans was all tenderness and grace as she spoke ‘Even so it was with me when I was young’ to Zoe Caldwell’s Helena. And in the closing scenes she sparkled in bejewelled grandeur. Her versatility was demonstrated in her performance during the same season as Volumnia to Olivier’s magnificent Coriolanus. At the age of 71 she was a little taxed by some of the character’s fiercer moments, but Mrs Siddons herself could not have been more formidable as, drawing herself up to her full height, she spoke of her anger at the commoners’ banishment of her son;

Anger’s my meat: I sup upon myself
And so shall starve with feeding. Come, let’s go.
Leave this faint puling and lament as I do,
In anger, Juno-like. Come, come, come. (4.2.53-6)

The phrases shot out of her with mounting intensity, every word given its full value, with a climax on ‘Juno-like’. It was terrifying.
Only a few months before she died, Dame Edith paid a final visit to Stratford to give a solo reading at the Shakespeare Institute. I had the responsibility of looking after her. Before going on for the first part she asked me to stop her if she went on for more than twenty minutes. In fact over half an hour passed before I plucked up my courage to break the spell, and by then she had read a poem by Pope twice without appearing to notice that she had done so. In the interval we sorted out her papers, and she said she’d been up till the early hours putting them into order. The second part of the recital passed without untoward incident and of course she was warmly applauded. As she prepared to leave, her chauffeur, William, drew up to the front door in her Rolls-Royce, walked round to the passenger door, and brought out a footstool which he placed carefully on the road. Dame Edith gathered up her skirts and made a stately entry into the car as I waved her off.
Edith Evans was above all a character actress in the sense that she conveyed delight in the idiosyncrasies, whether comic or touching, of the women she portrayed. She was not cut out for the great heroic roles. She left St Joan, Lady Macbeth, and Medea to Dame Sybil. In Othello she played Emilia, not Desdemona. I should like to have seen her Cleopatra but am not surprised to read that she lacked transcendence in the final stretches of the role. But to say this is not to say that she lacked versatility. She was a master technician who could hold an audience in the palm of her hand through verbal nuance, variety of facial expression, and subtlety of gesture. A connoisseur of language, she could inflect words with the skill of a great instrumentalist. Herbert Farjeon wrote of her as Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor as an actress who ‘quickens every syllable, recognizes in a choice epithet something as three-dimensional as a living being, reveals new wonders unsuspected and never to be forgotten.’ To do this is to turn acting into a creative art.