Actors are often the sharpest judges of Shakespeare: a point proved by Ellen Terry, who in 1910 started touring a series of informal lecture-demonstrations on Shakespeare's characters. Eileen Atkins has now adapted them into a 75-minute show which offers the delirious pleasure of seeing one great actor inhabiting the mind and spirit of another.
Terry's constant theme is that Shakespeare's plays are a vindication of women, and that his female characters have more moral courage than his men. Her technique was to illustrate this through performance. It's something that Atkins, clad all in blue and sporting a gown that gives her the look of a dashing don, follows to the letter. She steers us from the serious wit of Beatrice ("At least I didn't make the mistake of being arch or skittish," said Terry) to the lyrical ardour of Rosalind and the compassionate cleverness of Portia, whose speech on "the quality of mercy" is here delivered with a quiet sincerity that justifies comparison with the Lord's Prayer.
But this remarkable evening is at its best when Atkins, following Terry, takes us into unexpected territory. She gives Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor a rough, semi-rural burr and, having proved Terry's point that Desdemona is no ninny, goes on to make the unflinching, outspoken Emilia the real heroine of Othello's final scenes. The two heart-stopping moments, however, come towards the end.
First Atkins, by widening her eyes and lightening her voice, recreates Juliet's terror at awakening in the family vault. She then goes on to play both a gruff-voiced Lear and a youthful Cordelia at the moment of their reunion: through the alchemy of acting, Atkins moves you to tears by her ability to inhabit both characters simultaneously. Once or twice, Terry's observations on Shakespeare betray their period: the idea, for instance, that Shylock gets no more than he deserves in The Merchant of Venice. But Terry had a fresh, questing intelligence that allowed her to characterise Lady Macbeth as "a delicate little creature with hypersensitive nerves" and to declare that, in acting, "it's imagination first and observation afterwards". That maxim is perfectly borne out by Atkins, who possesses not just an immaculate technique but an imagination that allows her effortlessly to transcend the limitations of age and gender. If the BBC does not instantly go and send a film crew to record this masterclass in the art of acting, I shall go and chain myself to the portals of Broadcasting House in protest.