Michelle Terry would make a phenomenal drama teacher. Get her chatting about Shakespeare and performance and, damn, the air about her practically sings. We’re sitting in the offices at the top of the Globe Theatre, where Terry is in the middle of technical rehearsals for Blanche McIntyre’s upcoming production of As You Like It.
To get up here, I’ve had to walk past a designer painting huge flags outside the stage door and right past the rafters of the Globe. It’s a space that tingles with expectation and history. It is also a space that Terry is familar with having performed in Dominic Dromgoole’s productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Love’s Labour’s Lost. It is a space, says Terry, where the audience rules the roost: ‘The thing I love about the Globe is that it’s pure theatre. Nothing that happens in here could happen anywhere else – it’s so unique to that night and that moment and it is completely about the audience. At lots of other theatres you can create a fourth wall and convince yourself they’re not there – but at The Globe you ignore them at your peril.’
The Globe has often been described as a ‘democratic’ space. So much so, in fact, that I can’t help suspecting this is a line secretly peddled by the marketing department. But Terry has her own take on this. ‘Economically, it’s a democratic space because the majority of people can afford to have an opinion. So for £5 you can come and you can choose to not like it and leave at the interval if you like. You’re free to have a response to it.’ It’s not just the money that evens out the playing field – it’s the history, the surroundings, the pillars and the pigeons: ‘Everyone’s attention is probably focused on the stage but equally you don’t have to look there. Because it’s a historic space, or seemingly historic space, the audience have an experience which isn’t just about the play going on but also about how they are responding to that space. It’s a cosmic space too – the heavens are literally above you and there’s something oddly spiritual about it.’ It’s also a space, says Terry, where the illusion is never quite complete: ‘There’s not really any hierarchy. Even when Kings come on, there’s still that sense that this is an actor playing the Kings. You never really believe it – there’s always the idea that we’re all buying into a contract but it takes all of us to buy into it.’
Such an exposed stage also makes peculiar demands of its actresses – particularly those who are bundled up in period costume: ‘For the first half, with Rosalind, I’m strapped into a corset. To try and get the breath to fill it is tough. Because of all the wood it’s quite a resonant space but it still takes Terry has worn many a corset in her time. She’s performed in versions of Much Ado and Love’s Labour’s Lost at the RSC. Pericles, A Winter’s Tale’ and a swirling version of Comedy of Errors at the National. It’s a pattern that Terry would be love to continue: ‘Shakespeare is what I love. If I could keep doing that for as long as possible, that would be amazing. As an actor, you take when you can get and make choices where you can. But if the choice comes up for Shakespeare I will try my best to take it.’
For my money, Terry’s finest role to date was her Olivier-award winning performance as Sylvia in Nina Raine’s Royal Court play, Tribes. In one exquisite scene, which I can still see if I shut my eyes, Terry’s character – who is slowly going deaf – interprets someone else’s speech using sign language. As Terry forms these beautiful, silent shapes with her hands, her eyes blaze with emotion and reach right into the audience. A whole new world of communication is opened up for us. It is this ability to release the buried emotions, and proudly hidden depths of her characters, that makes Terry such an effective and moving performer.
It soon becomes clear after talking to Terry about her upcoming turn as Rosalind that this emotional resonance isn’t merely instinctive – it is borne from meticulous research and careful thought. Terry is not one to simply slide into a role; she’ll study the hell out of it. But with Rosalind, Terry could not find a way in: ‘I had no idea about Rosalind before I started this. I was terrified because I came in not knowing. There’s usually something that you can hook onto and say: that I recognise and that will be my way in and it grows from there. But I couldn’t find a way into this human being.’
Throughout our conversation, Terry stresses the sensory sway of Shakespeare and the way that a cognitive approach can sometimes get in the way. When she talks about Rosalind, quoting every step of the way, our clinical little office space becomes a stage and, gradually, the character of Rosalind takes shape: ‘I suddenly realised that Rosalind has absolutely no idea who she is at the beginning of the play. She keeps trying on different roles in the hope of discovering an identity…She is free falling from the minute the play starts. All I know is that I can take care of each beat and hope the accumulative effect will produce something at the end.’
We dig into the text a little further and all those ambiguities gradually begin to take on shape and resonance. It’s a proper pleasure to watch Terry try to pin down one of Shakespeare’s most slippery of roles: ‘I don’t think there are any moments when Rosalind is completely herself. I think there are, however, moments when she recognises something in other people.’ Onto something and positively buzzing, Terry continues: ‘There’s that amazing speech from Orlando when he says he can’t find a space for himself in the world and doesn’t care if he dies because the world would be better off without him. That nihilism and loneliness – Rosalind recognises that. And when she gets into the Forest and hears Sylvia talk about love, she recognises that too. But those moments are so brief and fleeting. I don’t think there is a moment when she goes: ‘That’s it, now I’m alive!’
We talk about the challenges that Shakespeare’s comedies throw up; all those strange conceits, abstract locations and skewed endings. Terry has performed in more Shakespearean comedies than anything else and it’s a genre she thinks is often misunderstood: ‘I think the word comedy is just a convenient thing to reassure the audience that it will end well. Of all the comedies I’ve been in, none of them start well. ‘Comedy of Errors’ starts with a man going – ‘Kill me, I don’t value life at all’ – that’s a brilliant way to start a play! ‘As You Like It’ begins with the memory of a dead father and family ruptured by a tyrannical brother. These are not happy places to be. I think all these plays start with a wound, which means that you hope there’s room for healing. The tragedies rip open that wound but all Shakespeare’s plays begin with bruising and with pain.’
Terry has done a lot of work with the RSC Education department and if they have any sense they’ll invite her back. There’s an energy and passion that comes from her when she talks about Shakespeare that is nothing short of inspiring. It’s clear she has a deep respect for him, not just as a playwright but as a philosopher for life: ‘I often struggle with what hell it means to be here. Shakespeare offers up these questions and explores that struggles and says, ‘Why not relish the struggle?’ And that’s what I enjoy.’
As You Like It is in rep at the Globe Theatre, London, from 15th May to 5th September.