Shakespeare’s Globe artistic director Michelle Terry tells Natasha Tripney about taking over from Emma Rice during a period of trauma for the organisation, why she chose the ‘mythic’ history plays for her latest season, and why Shakespeare will always be relevant
Less than half an hour before our interview, Michelle Terry was on stage playing Hotspur in Henry IV Part I, and when we meet she’s still sporting the character’s black nail varnish and tattoos.
The artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe is careful with her words, but there’s an undercurrent of exhilaration to her responses as she curls up in an armchair in a corner backstage. That’s no surprise given this is the first ‘trilogy day’ of the venue’s summer season (there will be six in all).
Over the course of the day, the ensemble company will perform Henry IV, parts I and II and Henry V. “It’s extraordinary going out in front of an audience who you know is going to be with you for the long game,” she says.
Explaining the thinking behind this year’s programme, Terry says: “At a time when our nation is in such a state, it made sense to do the state-of-the-nation plays.” The intention is to put on all of the history plays sequentially. The programme began earlier in the year with Richard II in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse with Adjoa Andoh playing the title role. Henry IV and Henry V are playing on the main stage and the cycle will return to the Sam Wanamaker for Henry IV and Richard III, to better explore “the domesticity of these plays, to view them through the prism of candlelight”.
Having referred to them as the history plays, Terry quickly corrects herself: “Calling them history plays reduces them. They’re mythic. We wanted to do all of the myths.”
As Hotspur, Terry is in her element, her performance vivid and playful, dashing, daring, funny. It’s the performance of someone who has total understanding of the space, its potential for intimacy and connection. Her strength of feeling for the building is similarly palpable.
When we spoke in 2016, Terry talked with great affection about performing at the Globe, describing it “as a place unlike any other”. When she was appointed artistic director in July of the following year, the trajectory made sense. She took over the role from Emma Rice, who left after only two seasons in charge after disagreements with the board.
Although Terry knew the venue well as a performer, she was less familiar with its workings as an organisation and educational centre. So as well as taking over under difficult circumstances, there was a lot to learn. Looking back, she is able to recognise how tough this transition period was. “The big learning curve was understanding my place as artistic director in the organisation, at a point when it was bruised and people needed healing. It was traumatic.”
In the theatre industry, she adds, “the line between the personal and the professional can be wafer thin”. It was very personal for everyone, but she hopes good has come from it. When she announced her first season, she said: “Emma Rice was the best thing that ever happened to the Globe because it has forced an organisation to go through a healthy form of protest.” Throughout our conversation she returns more than once to the image of collapse and renewal. “We’re still in the renewal phase of figuring out who, how and why we are.”
One of the main features of her first season was the ensemble company with whom she staged Hamlet and As You Like It. She has spoken about a wish to dismantle hierarchies and create work collaboratively with the actors in the creative process.
This year she will revisit and expand the ensemble model. Whereas last year a company of 12 actors performed two plays, this year a company of 10 (11 if you count Terry, though she only performs in Henry IV Part I) will stage all the history, or rather myth, plays. As with last year, it’s a diverse company, with a 50/50 gender split. Part of the thinking behind the ensemble is that it gives the actors more time to work on the texts. “We live together with these plays for 15 weeks,” Terry says. There’s also a longer preview period, because, while a lot of dramaturgic work happens in the rehearsal room, “with Shakespeare you need to test it in front of an audience”.
One of her main intentions is to “release the plays from literal casting”. This is something she reiterates throughout our conversation – that Shakespeare’s plays are anti-literal and mythic. Anyone can play any role. “Shakespeare had an interest in human beings.” That’s a healthier way of looking at his work, she says, adding: “To think what type of human being is this, as opposed to whether they are male or female. The plays are much bigger and multitudinous than that.”
They’re more than fairytales, they’re ‘fated tales’ and “the minute we reduced them to literalism we reduce ourselves”, she adds. Last year, Jack Laskey played Rosalind in As You Like It, and Terry played Hamlet. In the current season, Sarah Amankwah plays Henry V opposite Colin Hurley’s Katharine. Helen Schlesinger plays Falstaff across the season.
She’s aware “our core audience has been through quite a ride with different artistic directors over a short space of time” and wants to reassure them that the work is still experimental. “It’s still radical. Theatre should be provocative but nothing we’re trying to do is antagonistic. I hope it’s liberating.”
One of the biggest successes of that first season was not a production of Shakespeare, but a new play about a writer inextricably linked with him: the English poet Emilia Lanier. Terry had long been fascinated with her. The name Emilia occurs often in Shakespeare’s plays: “I kept accumulating information about her.” She decided to shape the first season around her and stage all of the plays in which Emilia is mentioned. When she approached the playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm about the idea of writing a play about the poet, “she burst into tears and I thought: ‘Here we go – that’s your commission.’”
Emilia, performed with an all-female cast, ran for just 11 performances at the Globe last summer, but during that time it struck a chord with audiences. The energy it generated, with its galvanising final speech and sense of reclaiming the stage, was incredible. A West End transfer followed. “It’s clearly chimed with many people, not necessarily just women. It’s about wanting to have a voice and be heard.”
According to the Globe’s annual report, the 2018 programme, which consisted of 11 productions, attracted 364,422 theatregoers, which amounted to 89% of the Globe’s maximum capacity. School visits were down as was footfall, something attributed in the document to the terrorist incident at London Bridge and cuts to arts education. All of which means the Globe has been obliged to put its major Prospero Project – to create a new library and archive – on hold.
This also explains why, despite the success of Emilia, a decision has been taken not to programme any new writing in the main space this year, though there will be new writing in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in the winter. Terry cites the unpredictability of Brexit as another factor: “It means we had to be canny about the programming.” It takes time to invest in new writing, she says, especially as the remit of new work at the Globe is that it needs to be tailored to the architecture. “It made sense to give ourselves a year off to invest in writers for 2020.”
The Globe wants to stay reactive, she says, and that’s easier to do with new writing, but Shakespeare’s plays are timeless. “There’s always something in them that illuminates now.” There’s something comforting in knowing things have always been like this. “We’ve always been on the brink of civil war. We’ve always questioned leadership and power.”
What has her first year in the job taught her? “Democracy is really hard.” It’s hard for everyone involved, she stresses, be it assuming a position of power or giving power up. “How do you share responsibility, ownership, accountability? At a certain point the buck has to stop.” She believes theatre is a collaborative and collective art form and “if we’re not having collaborative conversations then it become a disingenuous transaction”.
She adds: “If theatre is to remain vital, then it’s vital we recognise that every individual comes with needs.” This includes parents – she spends a lot of time thinking about ways of improving things for parents in the industry – but it goes deeper than that. “It’s our responsibility to meet whatever those needs are in order for people to thrive, whether it’s an issue of childcare, carers, access. There’s not one size that fits all. Everything needs to be questioned.”
When Terry was six, her family moved from Nuneaton to Weston-super-Mare. In an effort to help her settle in and get to know people, her parents enrolled her and her brother in a local amateur dramatics group. “It’s hard being the new kid, but if you can pretend to be other people it’s easier.” She felt safest playing other people.
Though they’d sometimes go into Bristol to see plays, the Weston-super-Mare pantomime was one of her first introductions to theatre. The best pantomimes, she says, engage with the audience. “I had to sit in the middle of the row, the idea that someone might pick on me or talk to me was terrifying.”
Once she’d decided she wanted to work in theatre, she set about finding ways to make it happen. Following a degree in English at Cardiff University, she applied and got in to RADA. It’s important, she stresses, to have a period of time in your life when you “learn how to fail and how to pick yourself up”.
She made her stage debut in 2004 as Edith, the maid, in Peter Hall’s production of Blithe Spirit, alongside Penelope Keith, Joanna Riding and Amanda Drew. The production ended up in the Savoy Theatre in the West End. Barbara Kirby – who played Mrs Bradman – and Terry couldn’t believe their luck. “We’d always wanted to do theatre – and here we were doing it.”
Having worked on Blithe Spirit for a year, Terry ended up back in Weston-super-Mare working as a medical secretary. “That was awful,” she says. Having lived the life she’d dreamed of living, she was worried that was all she would get, that it wouldn’t happen again. Then in 2005, she was cast as Celia in As You Like It at the New Vic in Newcastle-under-Lyme and, as she puts it, “got lucky”.
A Royal Shakespeare Company casting director was travelling from Edinburgh when his train broke down and he ended up seeing her show. This led to her being cast in Dominic Cooke’s 2006 production of The Crucible. From that point on she’s worked steadily. “There never was a shooting star moment”. There have, however, been “painful periods of not working.” Then suddenly, she says, there are moments in which you realise: “Oh my God, I’m 40 and I’ve been doing it for 20 years. Only then can you finally allow yourself to say: ‘Okay, we’re doing all right.’”
Terry’s work at the Royal Shakespeare Company included Pericles and The Winter’s Tale. In 2007, she made her first appearance on the Globe stage in Love’s Labour’s Lost. In 2011, she won an Olivier award for best actress in a supporting role for Nina Raine’s Tribes, in which she played a woman gradually losing her hearing.
She acquired a reputation as an actor of nuance and insight. The Guardian’s Michael Billington referred to her as “a thinking actor,” meaning her approach to the roles she plays is as analytical as it is intuitive. Observer theatre critic Susannah Clapp called her “one of our most glorious actresses”.
Terry starred in Marianne Elliott’s All’s Well That Ends Well in 2009 and The Comedy of Errors, both at the National, returning to the Globe in 2013 to play Titania in Dominic Dromgoole’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Shakespeare is and will always be my first love,” she says.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Blithe Spirit for the Peter Hall company.
What’s your next job?
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
One in five people won’t like you and there is nothing you can do about it.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My old amateur dramatics teacher, my music teacher and Shakespeare.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Auditions are a separate skill – treat them like they’re meetings. It’s as important for you to know if you can work with who you’re meeting, as it is for them to know if they can work with you.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
I never gave myself the option.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Tongue twisters: I have a sequence I have to do before every show, otherwise God knows what will happen.
The following year she was back at the RSC for Christopher Luscombe’s double-bill of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing, and reunited with McIntyre to play Rosalind in As You Like It at the Globe in 2015. One of her most flooring performances was in Katie Mitchell’s merciless production of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed at the National.
What drives her as a performer is “that feeling that you’re part of something that matters,” and she adds: “If you throw yourself into every role that you do, there will always be a moment where your life changes because of it.”
We talk about the cuts to arts in education. She grows even more impassioned, her frustration palpable. In order to develop an understanding, a love, of Shakespeare, she explains, it’s essential to have the opportunity to see it performed. “Theatre is so experiential. The plays are meant to be experienced. They are vibrant and vital and alive.”
Shakespeare is not just words on a page. We don’t appreciate the power of language to transform, she says, invoking Greta Thunberg, “this young kid standing with just words and everyone listening”. She mentions the Globe’s Playing Shakespeare education project for schools, in which 20,000 free tickets were given to students for Romeo and Juliet. “These London kids who experience knife crime every day are watching a play about knife crime – it’s so powerful. Theatre has the capacity to be miraculous,” she says.
One of the things she’s struggled with over the last year is “carving out time to be reflective, which is so important to staying creative”. Her daily life is “so atomic” and currently it’s hard to think past Hotspur, which lines landed, which didn’t. “It’s hard to find time.” Especially when running a major building.
Director Ian Rickson taught her a vital lesson about being an artistic director. He told her: “There are very few people who will understand how overwhelming it is – all I can say to you is: don’t miss the abundance.” With a job like this, she says: “We’re in the weeds all of the time. It’s important to take a moment to look up and realise how lucky we are.”
Born: 1979, Nuneaton
• Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare’s Globe, London (2007)
• All’s Well That Ends Well, National Theatre, London (2009)
• Tribes, Royal Court, London (2010)
• A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s Globe (2013)
• Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon (2014)
• Cleansed, National Theatre (2016)
• Henry V, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London (2016)
• Hamlet, Shakespeare’s Globe (2018)
• Olivier award for best actress in a supporting role for Tribes (2011)
Shakespeare’s Henry plays run at the Globe until October 11