THEATRE / Vita, Virginia, Dylan and me: Eileen Atkins, Penelope Wilton and Bob Kingdom are professional charlatans. They confess to Georgina Brown

Casting agents first swooped on Eileen Atkins as the actor to play Virginia Woolf over 30 years ago. 'I should be so lucky that I should look like her - but it's nothing to do with bones or eyes. What I think people see in me is someone who might put stones in her pockets.'

Her latest outing as Woolf is in Vita and Virginia, her own cut-and-paste job devised from Woolf's correspondence with Vita Sackville-West. On stage Atkins appears wisp-thin and etiolated; she paces, gawky and uncoordinated, her prehensile hands whirling and diving. It's a luminous, illuminating performance, but impersonation, that smash- and-grab talent exhilarating in a comic riff from Rory Bremner, is not what Atkins is attempting at all. 'Ghastly word. You have to try and capture a spirit.' In her dressing-room and in her own clothes, the degree to which Atkins has captured that spirit comes sharply into focus. All mental and physical fragility has vanished. She appears almost stocky; her hands strong and capable. 'It's the clothes,' she insists. When she did her first Woolf show, A Room of One's Own, she dressed in a black suit. 'Reviews said 'Eileen Atkins doesn't look anything like Virginia Woolf - her legs are too thick - but she persuades.' Then a designer found me a new costume and everyone said I was exactly like her and had long thin legs.'

This time round, she's anxious that her make-shift outfits may be too tasteful for Virginia. Atkins feels confident about pronouncing on her style. Indeed, her empathy with Woolf operates at a profound level. 'I hate to miss things. She was like that, always doing everything and getting exhausted. I do have nervous disorders - which I think helps - but not what she had.'

Penelope Wilton was rather surprised to be cast as Vita Sackville-West. 'Her face was much longer and she had these very long thin legs; like beech trees, Virginia said. She was much much taller than I am.' In an ochre skirt, green crushed-velvet jacket and scarlet hat, Vita is flamboyant and ravishing beside Woolf's droopy-hemmed washed-out garments. She towers like an Amazon, dangerously attractive, above the spectral Woolf. In fact, Wilton is shorter than Atkins. 'I have to make myself terribly tall. It has something to do with the side of her that's trickiest, her aristocratic way.' Much comes from her voice, commanding without being overbearing. 'I try and keep a lower register but I couldn't produce her voice because I don't have that sort of build. If I really spoke like her you wouldn't be able to listen for a whole evening. There was very little music in it; you'd be bored stiff and call it a caricature. I give a feeling of grandness with the odd inflexion and make her stories work theatrically.'

When Penelope Wilton played a real person once before - Wendy Woods, Donald Woods' wife, in the film Cry Freedom - she found it a comparatively straightforward exercise. 'It wasn't a piece deeply involved with character. With Vita you have to bring into one relationship all that we know of her and yet you can't be generally Vita Sackville- West; you must be specific. And you're bound to disappoint someone. In Chichester an old man said to me, 'You can't play her - you're nice looking and she was a terrible bull dyke.' But that was because he met her when he was a little boy and she was probably a frightening figure in breeches and with a man's voice.'

Wilton believes that playing a real person is more limiting than a fictional role. 'When it's the text and your imagination, you are king of what you do.' Henry Goodman, who is currently playing Sigmund Freud in Terry Johnson's Hysteria, agrees. Arguably, his current task is even harder because, unlike Vita and Virginia, who stick rigidly to their own words, he has to fit a real person into a fictionalised script. This Freud is 82, dying of cancer and farcically delighting in throwing girls' knickers around. 'You have to work out if the play is about the icon or the humanity beneath. You don't want to be a mirror of a person unless you're in a documentary. You have to embrace just enough of that person to let people in. As actors, we're undergoing experiences, we're not monkeys.'

Bob Kingdom insists on an element of monkey business to satisfy an audience's desire for verisimilitude. Had he not been Welsh and 5ft 61 2 in - a spookily exact double for Dylan Thomas - he would never have dared make an exhibition of the revered poet. It began as a party-piece ('Boyo, give us your 'rage rage' ') but it was only when Kingdom was made redundant from an advertising agency that he expanded it into a one-man show. The result is Return Journey, a sober portrayal of the infamous drunk, in which Thomas delivers his poems and prose from a podium on his latest stop on an American lecture tour.

Accuracy is supremely important to Kingdom. In a suit as rumpled as an unmade bed and a bubbly auburn wig, Kingdom is all 661 2 in the excommunicated cherub in the portrait by Augustus John; even the linking passages - Kingdom's inventions - appear to be Thomas to a T. But it is the voice that seduces. 'I came to Thomas through his voice,' says Kingdom. 'It contains its own echo and yet has a wonderful clarity. Thomas believed in the democracy of words and letters. When he recited his work it was like speaking in his best hand-writing - not the voice he ordered a pint with.' In Kingdom's recital 'as' and 'is' have the same weight as 'life' and 'death'; in the word 'bell' you can hear two ells ringing.

'I've got an inner ear for the accent; I try and get the clothes right and that's it. I can just do it. It's all in the words.' There's something more, though. Kingdom believes that his own painful - and now past - relationship with drink has enabled him to reveal the undercurrent of doubt and dread that is inflected in the poetry. 'I've been there,' he says.

His new piece, The Truman Capote Talk Show, features another obsessive, creative and destructive soul talking from beyond his early grave. In it, Capote points out one of the inexplicable tragedies of great talent - that the same man who can write a sentence which perfectly sums up the mysteries of life is, come the evening, wading in his own vomit. 'I identified with these two. I'm not really an actor - my work is a crusade against waste.'

Reviews of Vita and Virginia, like those of Return Journey, have been hearty in hailing these resurrections as almost richer than the real thing. Indeed, a different dynamic operates when an audience has even the sketchiest knowledge of the characters they are watching. Bob Kingdom welcomes the audience's contribution: 'If people know anything about Thomas it's that he drank and that saves me the trouble of getting drunk and falling into my soup on stage.' While Atkins relishes the opportunity to overwhelm expectations: 'They know of the tragic side of Woolf and I can present a new jolly, scathing, witty side.'

There comes a point, however, when an actor feels submerged by a persona's weighty presence, and requires more scope than such an audience allows. In Kingdom's next show, he is determined to come out from behind his mask and speak for himself. 'I'm terribly fond of Virginia,' says Atkins, 'but that doesn't mean I'll play her for ever (though when Peter Hall saw A Room of One's Own he did say that this is my pension]) If I play her one week, I would hope that the next week I could be a dull-minded Birmingham housewife worn down by a husband, five children and two grandchildren. To me, that's what acting is, not going out on stage with a personality that happens to entrance.'

(Photographs omitted)

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