Theatre great Eileen Page reflects upon a remarkable 70-year career

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Tonight, I was privileged not just to witness an acting master class from Eileen Page, but to join in a Q&A afterwards with the veteran actress, in which she looked back upon her 70-year career.

Currently, Eileen is playing the title role in Catherine Muschamp’s play ‘Eleanor of Aquitaine: Mother of the Pride’ at the Tara Theatre. Here is a character who requires little introduction, having been Queen of France, Queen of England and mother to two English kings – not to mention linked with some of the most scandalous events of the Middle Ages, including the murder of Thomas Becket (she was also suspected of poisoning Rosamund Clifford, the mistress of her husband, Henry II).

Delivered from her throne, the play focuses solely on Eleanor’s perspective. It’s a marvellous performance by Eileen Page, who held the audience in the palm of her hand throughout – and who was equally compelling in the Q&A which followed. Even if Eileen’s name isn’t familiar to you, you will almost certainly have seen this phenomenal 92-year-old on TV; she has appeared in everything from ‘Absolute Hell’ with Bill Nighy to ‘Holby City’ and ‘Maigret’.

Theatre, however, remains Eileen’s first love – and has been since she was a small child, she explained to the interviewer, Roger Bing. Growing up in Fulham, her father took her every Saturday night to The Granville Theatre, where they watched the some of the most famous performers of the day. “I can still remember those wonderful red curtains”, Eileen smiled “and all the magic that happened on stage.”

The Granville Theatre, Fulham
Where it all began: The Granville Theatre, Fulham

 

Eileen had been well and truly bitten by the acting bug, but in the meantime the outside world was teetering on disaster. She was 13 years old when World War II broke out – and it meant the end of school; Eileen’s formal education was officially at an end. She was determined to pursue acting, though, eventually winning a place at RADA: “I needed to get rid of my Cockney accent!” For the princely sum of 15 guineas per term, Eileen studied alongside June Whitfield, Bryan Forbes and Miriam Samuels. “Other than June, they have all gone to God, now”, Eileen reflected wistfully.

Throughout the war, Eileen toured the country in various productions, performing at naval and RAF bases. A joyful experience in some ways, but harrowing, too: “I’ll never forget the young men I saw with horrific burns.”

Post-war, Eileen continued to act, in weekly rep, but once she was married did as most young women did then and gave up working to have a family. Two children followed and then tragedy struck: Eileen’s husband was killed in a plane crash leaving her, aged just 25, a widow.

Needing to earn a living, Eileen went to work in the classical music department at Harrods. Eventually, however, the lure of the theatre proved too great and at the age of 38 she returned to weekly rep, learning a new play every Thursday and providing her own costumes. Travelling all over the UK, Eileen soon found herself in Stratford-upon-Avon, where she had the pleasure of working with Paul Scofield and Donald Sinden, as well as Dan Massey, Charles Kay and Judi Dench. How extraordinary those productions must have been!

Theatre remained Eileen’s passion but, once she turned 40, the roles began to dry up, although she continued to win “bits and pieces” of TV work. Life has a way of surprising us, however – and, aged 63: “I discovered I could sing!” Despite a disbelieving agent, Eileen managed to secure an audition with Stephen Sondheim, who straightaway offered her the role of Heidi Schiller, in ‘Follies’. A “wonderful” year followed, with Eileen’s name displayed in glittering lights and her dressing room filled with exquisite costumes.

Eileen went on to play the Duchess in ‘Me and My Girl’, working with the “delightful” Gary Wilmot, following this up with productions of ‘A Little Night Music’ and ‘Nine’; the latter with Jonathan Pryce.

Then, Eileen turned 70 – “and everything went quiet” for a while. Chance intervened again, though, and a meeting with Nancy Levinson, with whom Eileen had worked at Stratford, led to Nancy giving her the script of tonight’s play. Having already played Eleanor in ‘Lion of Winter’, Eileen jumped at the chance to revisit a character that she admires greatly and with whom she can identify; like Eileen, Eleanor was widowed young and had to survive as a woman on her own.

“Life deals you terrible blows”, Eileen commented, “and Eleanor understood that only too well”. This has by no means been an easy role to play, however. Eileen is alone on stage for an hour and a half, solely responsible for the delivery of the lines and engaging with the audience. It has been hugely successful, though; Eileen has taken ‘Eleanor’ all over the world, from Jerusalem to Edinburgh. But: “This is the last time I shall perform this role”, she told us; a gentle reminder that she is a nonagenarian, albeit still an excellent actress, not to mention a charming interviewee.

How I hope that Eileen doesn’t retire from the stage altogether. Rarely have I been as moved in a theatre as I was tonight by her portrayal of Eleanor: this was acting of the highest order, that I feel privileged to have witnessed.

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