Michelle Terry is midway through rehearsals for the Open Air Theatre’s production of Henry V, in which she will play the title role. “I’m a bit terrified by Regent’s Park and the enormity of it,” she admits.
The announcement that she was to play Henry, coupled with the release of publicity images of her looking awesome in a suit of armour, was something of an air-punch moment. It feels both like something her career has been building towards and an encapsulation of a particular cultural moment in terms of gender-blind casting and the way Shakespeare is performed on our stages.
As Terry is quick to point out, though, it’s no longer a novelty. She mentions Pippa Nixon’s magnificent Bastard at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Emma Rice’s inaugural season at Shakespeare’s Globe and the work of Fiona Shaw and Vanessa Redgrave. “It does feel like there’s a little pocket of it happening at the moment,” she adds. “It’s very present. There’s a conversation happening that goes well beyond just theatre and it’s important to keep that conversation going. I’m glad my career has landed at a time when this conversation is taking place.”
She also points out how significant it is that “traditional spaces like Regent’s Park are offering up alternatives, which means that they believe there’s an appetite for it from their audience.”
Robert Hastie, recently appointed the new artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, will be directing her. Terry and Hastie were at RADA together and have acted together in the past. Terry, who also writes, is working with him on a Donmar Warehouse project called My Mark, set up at the same time as James Graham’s The Vote, in which they interviewed eight-year-olds around the UK about politics. It’s a durational project; they’ll return to the kids in five years’ time and again when they’re eligible to vote.
Henry V, though, is the first time Hastie has directed her on stage, and she’s looking forward to getting to grips with the psychology of the character – “he’s such a mercurial human being” – and doing so on the Open Air Theatre stage. “The space between the psychological and the physical feels even more important at Regent’s Park.”
Terry has been performing since she was seven and joined the National Youth Theatre when she was 14. On the day we meet, the NYT is holding auditions in Toynbee Studios, the building in which the Henry V company is rehearsing, and Terry winces a bit at the thought of it: “I’m quite glad I never have to do that again!” After university, she studied English literature at Cardiff University, then went to RADA, graduating in 2004.
Born: 1979, Nuneaton
Landmark productions: The Crucible, Royal Shakespeare Company (2006), Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare’s Globe (2007), The Man Who Had All the Luck, Donmar Warehouse (2008), Tribes, Royal Court, London (2010), All’s Well That Ends Well, National Theatre (2009), London Assurance, National (2010), A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s Globe (2013), Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing, RSC (2014), As You Like It, Globe (2015), Cleansed, National (2016)
Awards: Olivier award for best actress in a supporting role for Tribes (2011)
Agent: Kate Staddon at Curtis Brown
She made her professional debut as Edith (the maid) in a West End production of Blithe Spirit, but from the start, performing Shakespeare was a passion and “when the opportunity came up it was something I embraced and kept embracing.” She performed in Pericles and The Winter’s Tale for the RSC and made her first appearance at the Globe in 2007. She lights up when she talks about the space and its potential. “I love the Globe. There’s something about the conversation you have with the audience there – it’s always about them.”
Her experience of making work at the Globe “taught me more about performing Shakespeare than anything else”. She says: “It’s a place unlike any other, the appetite, the energy. The audience are standing in the sun for three hours and they’re so hungry. The dynamic between you and them is so alive. They might be moving around or distracted by pigeons or planes. It’s not just about you. As with all theatre, it’s about community.”
After roles at the National Theatre – including a memorable Helena in Marianne Elliott’s All’s Well That Ends Well – and the Royal Court, where her performance in Nina Raine’s 2010 play Tribes won her an Oliver for best supporting actress, she returned to the Globe in 2013 to play Titania in Dominic Dromgoole’s seductive, earthy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and again last year to play Rosalind in Blanche McIntyre’s more sedate take on As You Like It.
“It was brave of Blanche to let the play unfold like that. The Globe as a space is already so conceptual. There’s no real story in As You Like It. It’s just relationships.”
The relationship between Rosalind and Celia is just as important as the one between Rosalind and Orlando. “She just can’t function without her.”
Terry clearly has an interrogative, analytical approach to her craft, everything she says is considered. At the time, she wrote of Rosalind that the character “learns how to be a woman by pretending to be a man.” What did she mean by that?
Terry thinks about this. “Rosalind knew how to be a daughter, she knew how to be submissive and subservient to the patriarchy but the liberation she finds in Arden, maybe I should modify that: she learns how to be herself. She learns who she is.”
In February, Terry starred in one of the most divisive and controversial productions of the year to date. It was Katie Mitchell’s production of Sarah Kane’s 1998 play of love, despair, and damage, Cleansed at the National Theatre, a piece full of what Terry terms “savage beauty”. She played Grace, a young woman consumed by grief, who attempts to become the thing she has lost. Set in an institution-cum-university, it includes scenes of ocular injection and violation, the mangling of feet, electroshock therapy and violation in every form. Extremities are cut off.
Perhaps inevitably, a large amount of the press coverage focused solely on the violent imagery and the reports that some audience members fainted as a result of it. A few of the articles made the production sound like a 1980s video nasty. The language and level of discussion felt as if it had been dredged up from another decade. Terry found this response disappointing and is proud of her involvement in the production – you can hear it in her voice as she discusses it.
She describes the media response as lazy: “As a piece of theatre it’s so much bigger than that. Those set pieces are deliberately constructed, everyone knows they’re a construct – you know Carl’s not getting his hands cut off and I’m not getting electrocuted. But then there are those moments that are real, where I am really naked and Matthew Tennyson is really eating all those chocolates. That combination of the constructed and the real is so much bigger than the fact there was some blood on stage.”
The opportunity to appear in Cleansed came at the right time in Terry’s career and “the combination of Sarah and Katie attracted me greatly. There was never any doubt that I would do it”. She had worked with Mitchell previously on Five Truths, her 2011 video installation at the V&A, that reworked Ophelia’s death scene in five different styles: Brecht, Stanislavski, Grotowski, Artaud and Peter Brook.
Keep your own counsel, trust yourself, hold your nerve and play the long game. We’re in a very soundbitey culture now but sometimes things don’t happen that quickly. If you want to do it, find ways to do it and keep doing it. Opportunities have expanded now as a result of the internet. Maybe not, if all you want is to be famous, but if you love acting there are so many ways that you can do it now. I was lucky enough to train, but I don’t think that’s the only way in – if you want it, you’ll find your way.
Having collaborated with Mitchell in the past, Terry was familiar with her methods. “I knew that Katie would protect the work at the same time as protecting the company. I knew we’d be asked to go to some extreme places. But if you’re going to do it, you really need to do it: you can’t cheat.”
The combination, she says, “of Katie’s rigour and precision and agenda” made the piece what it was. The relationship with the audience was vital, just as it is at the Globe.
“What the play does and what Katie’s vision of it did was to put it back in the hands of the audience and their imaginations. [Her production] honoured the brutality and the love and the beauty of it, but allowed you to make up your own mind about what it was about. Meaning is fluid.”
At the same time as she was performing in Cleansed, Stuart McQuarrie, who played Tinker in the original Royal Court production, was rehearsing Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom next door. “He was in Cleansed when Sarah played Grace, and he said it was really weird being in the building with something that was so personal to him: ‘Even 20 years later, the profundity of it doesn’t leave you.’ Now, having done it, I understand what he means. It will live with me forever.”
As a director, Mitchell is “unapologetic about her process”, says Terry. “Resistance to that is pointless but you can challenge her.” Cleansed was, she says, “the most collaborative theatrical experience I’ve had”.
“Mitchell does ‘her Stanislavski thing’. She asks: ‘What are your intentions? What are you doing to the other people on stage?’ And she’ll do that with every single person, even if you have no lines in a scene, you’re always active. Everyone’s thinking. But equally, because the play’s so visual, you have to engage with it practically. So it’s not just about what a character is thinking, it’s also about how are we going to cut this person’s hands off? How do we electrocute you? But those two things were never mutually exclusive. Her sense of purpose is what you crave as an artist.”
Even as a spectator it was an incredibly raw and intense thing to experience: an active experience, a physical experience. What was that like to act, night after night? What was it like to go to those places, repeatedly?
“I’ve never laughed as much in a rehearsal room as I did on Cleansed. We acknowledged early on that was a defence mechanism, that we were protecting ourselves. While we could cognitively understand where the play was asking us to go, emotionally there was resistance. But you have to go there: it’s your job to go there. This was followed by a time when it all became very, very sad, for me at least. But you need to do that in rehearsals so by the time you get on stage there’s a kind of muscle memory, an emotional muscle memory – a trick of the heart, a trick of the mind. So you can safely come out the other side.”
“What was interesting at the National,” Terry adds, “is that it was in rep. You come back after a two-week break and though your body remembers where you should be standing, your emotions take longer to catch up. It’s a shock – you’re not designed to feel that amount of grief; it’s not sustainable. That was hard.”
What was your first job? Blithe Spirit for the Peter Hall company at Bath, then a tour, and then into the Savoy.
What is your next job? No idea.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Keep your own counsel.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Too many people to mention.
What’s your best advice for auditions? They’re work. For some jobs it’s the most rehearsal you get. And if the job doesn’t go your way, unless told otherwise, don’t take it personally.
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? Shedloads. It’s exhausting.
About Cleansed, she says: “It was an opportunity to really talk about what theatre is for. It doesn’t always have to be that extreme but it does have a bigger function – entertaining is fine, I love entertaining, but there’s something about making people look. Theatre has a political function and an imaginative function.”
With As You Like It, Cleansed and now playing the title role in Henry V, it does feel as if a particular line of enquiry has run through Terry’s work – about gender and labels and the roles we all play. “What Sarah was saying 20 years ago, we’re a bit more comfortable about dealing with now. What does gender mean?”
In Cleansed, Grace ends the play with a penis grafted on to her body. “Grace’s transformation comes out of grief, out of the need to become her brother, but there’s also a bigger battle going on about what it means to be a man and a woman. The penis doesn’t bring her brother back and it doesn’t make her a man.”
The play, Terry says, throws up a lot of questions about “the fluidity of all our genders and it was interesting to do it on the back of Rosalind and with Henry coming up”. Terry quotes Virginia Woolf’s feminist essay Three Guineas: “Woolf wishes we could throw away words like ‘feminine’ and masculine’ because the labels don’t serve a purpose any more, they’ve outlived themselves. We need to be more comfortable with being complicated. If you label something, you reduce it.”