Back at the National Theatre in The Comedy Of Errors, Michelle Terry is one of British theatre’s brightest young talents. But she’d rather hide her light under the proverbial bushel, finds Caroline Bishop.
When I meet Michelle Terry at the National Theatre during her lunchbreak from rehearsals, she is clutching a carrot. Granted, it is a rather large carrot, but part way through our chat I start to be concerned that carrots alone are not going to get Terry through a long day of rehearsals. Is that her whole lunch? “No,” she grins, patting a Tupperware box which contains some other unidentified foodstuff. “Although I did see my costume for the show yesterday and I thought I wish I did live off carrots, it would be much more pleasant for people to look at!”
The petite Terry should have no concerns whatsoever about her physical appearance, but I can sympathise with her worries over the outfits she is to wear for Dominic Cooke’s new production of Shakespeare’s The Comedy Of Errors, because it’s set in contemporary London, with Terry’s Luciana a TOWIE-style Essex girl. “[The costume is] skimpy and short,” she tells me, “and Essex girls don’t wear tights apparently, they all have fake tans!” She visibly cringes. “My legs haven’t seen the light of day for years!”
Still, Terry has many reasons to trust that donning full Essex girl garb will be worth it. She’s back under the wing of the National Theatre, where she has previously appeared in England People Very Nice, London Assurance and All’s Well That Ends Well, and she has the support of Cooke, who championed the actress during her time at the Royal Shakespeare Company and, later, at the Royal Court, where he is Artistic Director and she starred in last year’s Tribes, winning an Olivier Award for her performance. “He’s a master really,” says Terry simply.
Cooke’s concept for Shakespeare’s most farcical of plays turns Ephesus into modern-day London, with the interloping Antipholus (Lenny Henry) and Dromio (Lucian Msamati) arriving as victims of human trafficking from Africa. “The play starts with a man on trial and condemned to death. It’s such an odd start to a comedy. I think it gets to a farcical, chaotic, mad place, born out of this incredible threat and danger. So [we] created a world where that can exist.”
Terry is used to the complexities that Shakespeare throws at her. “I did The Winter’s Tale with Linda Bassett and I remember coming off every night feeling so inadequate, but as she said, it’s Shakespeare, the joy is you’ll never get there, you just have to keep trying.” Isn’t that frustrating? “It depends how you look at it. You’re doing these plays day in, day out; if they’re that watertight, it’s much harder to find reasons to be alive and be present. But if you’re always aiming somewhere that’s so expansive and so far away from you, it’s ok, it doesn’t have to be perfect.”
I wonder whether she becomes more satisfied with her performance towards the end of the run, but she says “probably more dissatisfied, because you suddenly go ‘oh no I wish I’d known that then’ and if I’d known that then I wonder where I’d be now.”
“It’s Shakespeare, the joy is you’ll never get there, you just have to keep trying”
Terry’s obvious dedication to her job and her naturally humble manner – this is someone who apologises for crunching a carrot loudly – must make her a workhorse in the rehearsal room, and she’s willing to do whatever it takes for a role; surely dressing Essex will be a cinch. For Nina Raine’s Tribes, in which she played Sylvia, a girl who is gradually going deaf, she not only learnt to play the piano but also to speak British Sign Language. Working alongside deaf actor Jacob Casselden, who played her boyfriend Billy, was “one of the most humbling experiences I’ve ever had. Night after night he was the most present actor I’ve ever been on stage with because one false move and he’s lost in the scene.”
Her performance won her the Best Supporting Performance in a Play Olivier Award earlier this year, but her muted reaction to the win testifies to her innate modesty. “Awards are funny aren’t they?” she says. “It makes it easier to justify them when it very much felt like a response to that play and that company which I feel so proud of. It did feel like a necessary play, and even now a year on I do feel amazingly proud to have been a part of it. To have been introduced to an incredible world.”
Terry has wanted to act for a long time. One look at her RADA profile shows that her dedication to her chosen profession is nothing new: she’s performed in amateur shows since the age of seven, it says; she was a member of the National Youth Theatre; she was President of the Drama Society at Cardiff University, which she attended pre-RADA; she even came second in a ‘best unarmed fight’ competition in 2002 (I forget to ask her about this so it remains an intriguing addition to her CV).
She caught the bug after moving with her family from Nuneaton in Warwickshire to Weston-Super-Mare when she was young. Her mum signed her brother up for a drama group in their new hometown and Terry asked if she could go too. “Maybe this is cod psychology, but it was a reaction to not knowing anybody. You could be someone else, and you belonged to this group. I think I’ve always just found it much more interesting being other people than being me.”
But she has “sensible parents”, so when further education loomed, rather than going straight to drama school she studied English at Cardiff University first, which gave her both a back-up plan should she not make it in acting, and, in the hospitable arena of the university drama society, “room to fail”.
“I remember when I got into RADA,” she says, “and there were people in my year that were 18 and I was just so amazed at their maturity, and that’s when I was grateful that I’d had my rite of passage at university and got that out of the way.”
“[Tribes] did feel like a necessary play, and I do feel amazingly proud to have been a part of it”
The moment she left RADA in 2004 she was cast in Thea Sharrock’s production of Blithe Spirit, which toured the UK before a stint in the West End, an experience which was “amazing and a bit overwhelming”, she told The Stage at the time. After that she “disappeared into Stoke and Nottingham” until the RSC came knocking, an opportunity she puts down to simply being in the right place at the right time. A freelance casting director was on his way home from Edinburgh – “he’d missed a train or something and just decided to stop off in Newcastle-Under-Lyme” – and happened to catch the production Terry was in. He put her name on the list for the RSC ensemble “and that was it. That is nothing to do with anything but timing.”
She so neatly sidesteps the fact that the casting director must have seen some talent in her that I nearly agree this was entirely down to luck.
As it is, she has proved her talent ever since, joining the RSC for productions including The Crucible, Days Of Significance, Pericles and The Winter’s Tale, and going on to work at some of London’s most prestigious theatres: the Donmar Warehouse for The Man Who Had All The Luck, the Bush theatre in 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, and Shakespeare’s Globe for Love’s Labours Lost.
The RSC was a career marker for Terry, not least because The Crucible began her working relationship with director Cooke, who called her back for the Complete Works season, but also because “it was the first time that I thought ‘oh I want to stay here, I want to keep working at this level and with these people.”
“It was definitely somewhere that I’d always aspired to, because of Shakespeare,” she adds. “I’ve just done this TV thing with David Troughton and I couldn’t speak to him for a while because I’d watched him be Richard III when I was 17 and oh my God he’s a master at it.”
There she goes again, so understated about her achievements that I nearly miss the reference. But I don’t: that “TV thing with David Troughton” is actually The Café, a new sitcom for Sky which she has spent the past three years writing and developing with fellow actor Ralf Little. She stars in it alongside Little and herself suggested Troughton for the role of her father.
She met Little on 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover and the pair bonded over reading duff TV scripts. “We’d moan about there being no character-driven stuff and then we thought, well actually you can’t moan about something unless you are prepared to have a go and see how difficult it is. We now know it’s very difficult!”
“I think I’ve always just found it much more interesting being other people than being me”
The Café is set in her hometown of Weston-Super-Mare; she plays Sarah, a twenty-something who has returned home from London to work in a café and pursue a writing career. It’s a snapshot of life in the kind of small town that many of us recognise. “Everybody has a love-hate relationship with the town they grew up in and hopefully there’s some of that in it.”
She says, with typical humility, that it’s not intentionally autobiographical – “it is only in that I don’t think I’m a good enough writer to be imaginative… even if you don’t mean it to be you sort of go, oh whoops, I think I might have written my past relationship!” – but Weston seemed the perfect setting for the sort of close community they wanted to depict.
Neither did she intend to star in it “but gradually as time went on I realised this is something that I would have spent about three years [on] by the time I got to do it and it was something I couldn’t really let go of in the end.”
If the series goes down well – it airs on Sky One from 23 November – she’d love to develop it further. Might this be the start of a parallel writing career? Maybe a play next? “I don’t know, that might be one step too far. I already feel bad enough that I’ve done this.” What does she mean? “Because I believe in the story but there is that thing of… somebody else could have played it better, sorry about that! But never mind, doesn’t matter, done it now!”
It’s obvious from her work so far and her relationship with Cooke and Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre that other people believe in Terry’s abilities, even if she doesn’t. “It doesn’t take a genius to write what we’ve done,” she adds, “it just takes a will.” She undoubtedly has the will, and though she wouldn’t think it herself, perhaps there’s a smidgen of genius in her, too.