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The Arts Review: What Lies Beneath Eileen Terry and Eileen Atkins’ Battlefield

Arts and entertainment

Welcome to the world of THE ARTS.

In a regular feature Andrew Venning takes a look at what’s going on in the world of theatre, arts, books, the latest exhibitions and everything in between!

Reviews this week:

What Lies Beneath

Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins



What Lies Beneath

Marianela Nu ñez - Principle of the Royal Ballet
Marianela Nu ñez – Principle of the Royal Ballet

I recently visited Rick Guest’s exhibition of photographs on ballet dancers from various ballet companies including our own Royal Ballet and English National Ballet. It is a fascinating exploration into the shape and form of the human body. What I liked in particularly was the way Mr Guest has focused so brilliantly on the manner in which dancers hold themselves, be it in “performance” i.e first position for example, or simply as they are as human beings. They are beautiful images that made one ponder the abilities of the human body and in particular what, at times, seem to be the super human strengths of the ballet dancer.

“They are beautiful images that made one ponder the abilities of the human body.”

It also, rather strangely, made me think about human skin and our various blemishes, moles and freckles that differentiate us and make us unique but also make us equally very similar. We all share in the fragility of our skin and the simple fact that we are all susceptible to the sense of touch binds us together, pleasure and pain. But here it is the fact that we are all so varied as human beings, particularly highlighted when seen under the microscope in this way and it is everlastingly fascinating. The beauty and athleticism of these artists are starkly laid out in huge looming photographs of dense blue/grey as you enter this modest gallery.

Alban Lendorf - Principle of The Royal Danish Ballet
Alban Lendorf – Principle of The Royal Danish Ballet

They tower around you from every side with their mercurial magnificence. Their incredible intensity and their subtle calmness are mesmerising. The entire exhibition is contained on the ground floor in one room and one could easily see twice the amount we are offered and although some of these photographs look very staged, others are softer and pique your interest through a strange hypnotic allurement.

“Their incredible intensity and their subtle calmness are mesmerising.”

Each model has something of interest, be it their muscularity, their slenderness, agility, or simply their body art or choice of clothing. It won’t take you long to visit this exhibition and I definitely think it is worth a look, whether you go as someone who is interested in dance or simply for pure aestheticism.

What Lies Beneath Exhibition can be found at the Hospital Club Gallery, London. 

Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins

Ellen Terry was huge in her time and played nearly all of the great Shakespearean female roles (sadly not including Rosalind form ‘As you like it’) Terry’s Four Lectures on Shakespeare’s were published in 1932 posthumously.

Ellen Terry with Eileen AtkinsNow we have one of this generations great dames of the stage, Eileen Atkins, who takes us through this essay performance as Ellen Terry. The genius of this is that we get to hear the wit and intelligence of Terry and her profound & deep understanding of these roles through the wonderful Atkins and when it comes to the parts where Terry does snippets of soliloquies and scenes we get Atkins own superb rendering of certain roles. Juliet, Cordelia (even a remarkable bit of Lear) and a haunting Ophelia.

These moments are thrilling. But the fascinating (and comic) parts are Terry’s own words. Her sharp astuteness and understanding of Shakespeare’s female roles is vast and sublime, she breaks them down into her own ‘types’ and ‘sorts’ of women, from the early plays through to the later ones. The “push overs” and the “charming” women like Helena (Alls well that ends well) and Viola (Twelfth Night) are contrasted them with the might sharp wit of Beatrice, Rosalind and Mistress Ford.

“Her sharp astuteness and understanding of Shakespeare’s female roles is vast and sublime”

Terry argues that the liberal attitude towards women wasn’t something created during the 19th Century but was there in Shakespeare’s day and that women have a lot to thank him for. She also expounds on other liberal thinkers of the Renaissance like Erasmus who argued for equal education of women despite the fact that he believed men and women served different roles in society.

(Plato also espoused this but he had other strict ideas about a woman’s function in society) but here Terry makes her point well.

Atkins performance is superb and definitely warranted a return to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse following its original opening last year. It ends next week alas, but well worth it if you can get a seat or even a standing ticket for £10. It’s only a mere 75 minutes & you will be informed, enlightened, tickled and deeply moved….”goodnight, goodnight”

Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins can be found at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse


Battlefield(Based on The Mahabharata and the play by Jean-Claude Carrière. Adapted and directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne)

Peter Brook famously mounted the entire ancient Indian Sanskrit epic ‘The Mahabharata’ in 1989 and he has returned to this show but only one section in the middle called ‘Battlefield’ which focuses on Bishma and Yudhishthira.

The staging is simple and plain and 5 actors and one musician superbly and evocatively tell us this segment of the story. The full text is ten times the length of The Illiad and The Odyysey combined.

There are stories and fables told by the characters throughout that are deeply fascinating and makes us look deep into ourselves and focus on certain actions that we as humans make and what is right and wrong.  The way the narrative runs is interesting but when a story is told completely in narrative it does mean we don’t get much interaction with the characters themselves which is where the main conflict/drama is usually found. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great moments still found in this piece but it did feel too laboured at times and too reverential and aware of itself. We know the play is dealing with big themes and big ideas and reverence from the performers to the fact is not needed. Sadly it seemed to get a little lost and unclear near the end & I had re-read the play not to long ago in preparation. It was good to see school children seemingly engaged in the piece and I would wonder what they made of it.

Peter Brook is a Titan, but Battlefield felt laboured and the acting didn’t feel tight enough, I would have expected/thought someone like Peter Brook to have worked his actors much harder.  However there is still much to be gleamed from the themes and stories of the play.

Battlefield can be found at the Young Vic

Andrew Venning All reviews by Andrew Venning

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