It was one of the highlights of the RSC’s Complete Works season in Stratford, now Marianne Elliott’s colourful Cuban production of Much Ado About Nothing comes to the Novello this week. Playing the feisty, quick-witted and steadfastly single Beatrice is Tamsin Greig, in her first foray into theatre for 10 years. She talks to Caroline Bishop about finding her balls, dancing in heels and the tragedy of life without love…
“Ohhhh! It’s just a terrible thing! Thank God I’m married! I thank God every day I’m married,” exclaims Tamsin Greig. It’s fair to say she’s somewhat relieved to have left the dating game behind. Married to actor Richard Leaf with whom she has three children under 10, the 39-year-old comedy actress has banished the previous self she calls “the epitome of the unsettled, neurotic woman”, leaving only its residue in the characters she plays on the telly – Fran in Black Books, Dr Caroline Todd in Green Wing and Alice in Love Soup.
Now, the actress who jokes she has “cornered the market on girls who can’t get a bloke” is playing another unsettled singleton, albeit a 16th century one, in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Much Ado About Nothing, which starts previews at the Novello this week after a successful run in Stratford, via a stop-over in Newcastle.
Given her on-screen relationship track record, it’s ironic that Greig nearly didn’t take the part of fiery, quick-witted, man-hater Beatrice because she didn’t want to be away from her young family for what would be at least eight months of work in Stratford (the family lives in London). “There were quite an intense few days where I initially said absolutely no way, and then was taken on a little ride of persuasion by various people,” she says. “It was other people’s vision. It was a decision that I wasn’t brave enough to make really and I was helped in making the decision.”
"I was thrilled, but there was a very naughty, quiet part that said 'they are mad though, they are wrong'"
That decision was made harder because the thought of jumping back into theatre work after a 10 year break, and doing it with the RSC no less, “horrified” her. Greig describes the prospect – in typical off-beat style – as “a little bit like I just wanted to go for a nice stroll and suddenly they were putting me in for the marathon wearing Barney the dinosaur”. But she went for the audition anyway, because she wanted to meet director Marianne Elliott, plus Josie Rourke who directs King John and also wanted Greig for the role of Constance. “I was using it as an excuse to meet good women directors without thinking of the consequences. And of course the consequence was that they offered it, which filled me with abject terror,” she laughs loudly. “I was thrilled, but there was a very naughty, quiet part that said ‘they are mad though, they are wrong’. You know, that quiet little voice that goes ‘you are joking aren’t you?’ that gets a bit louder in the middle of the night.” Gradually the little voices subsided and Greig is now “delighted that I was persuaded. It has been a fabulous experience, such a learning curve and it’s helped me face my lack of bottle, my lack of pelvic floor.”
Even without the voices in her head there’s something about Greig that seems slightly bonkers, but in a very normal, very endearing way. Perhaps this is why her legion of fans find her television characters so likeable – she is so good at portraying the little bit of madness that resides in all of us. This comes out in her conversation which, though serious and thoughtful, is also naturally witty and is peppered with little shrieks and whoops here and there, plus a hearty chuckle when she incidentally amuses herself.
“I thought I was fine,” she says, describing her internal monologue when she first faced a Stratford audience back in May. “You have 16 weeks of rehearsals and you get to the point where you think yes alright; you’ve been listening to your own voice for four/five months and then suddenly there’s this Stratford audience absolutely drinking in every minute of the experience, and I felt a little bit like I wanted to say ‘What are you staring at? What? Will you stop?! Just eat your nibbles and just BACK OFF!’ It was a bit kind of like ‘WHAAOOO!’” She throws in a screech. “A bit intense for me. That week of previews I did need to raise the stakes a bit. I get a bit sort of anemone-like and I go ‘WAHHH!’ and just do a quiet little performance to the front row,” she laughs at herself, concluding: “So I’ve had to just kind of find the balls.”
She obviously did find the balls, because her performance as Beatrice, opposite Joseph Millson as her sparring partner and eventual love Benedick, has garnered Greig good reviews – though working in front of a live audience keeps any hint of an ego in check: “Every performance is different, even the ones that you go ‘that is a sure fire laugh’ and as soon as you start to do that, guaranteed next performance you’re going to have stony silence. It’s really humbling, because you can fall into that sort of ‘we are really fantastically funny aren’t we?!’ and actually it’s not about being funny, it’s about playing and then seeing what happens.”
"Some of the jokes, I’ve no idea what she’s talking about"
Playing Beatrice, one of Shakespeare’s strongest and most intelligent female characters, has had its challenges, particularly as Elliott’s production is set in 1950s Cuba. It has been Greig’s task to first understand what spouts out of Beatrice’s mouth and then make Cuban-set Elizabethan jokes accessible to the audience. “On the page [the character] is driven by wit and intellectual prowess, and in some ways it’s very exclusive, and she deliberately at some points excludes people because she wants to show how people are not keeping up with her. So sometimes an audience can withdraw, because if they feel that they are not involved or not keeping up people can sort of close off. Some of the jokes, I’ve no idea what she’s talking about. To all intents and purposes she is one of the funniest roles going, but in some ways it’s not that easy, so you have to be pretty light.”
The most famous screen incarnation of Beatrice is Emma Thompson’s portrayal in the 1993 film, a decadent romp in the Italian countryside with Kenneth Branagh playing Benedick. Though tempted, Greig was forbidden to watch the film, or see any other stage production, by both her husband and director Elliott. Instead, her preparation involved “putting on some fancy 50s shoes and wearing a pencil skirt. I very early on asked for the shoes so that I could learn to dance in high heels, and also got the girdle that I wear with the extra hips and arse, so that I could feel slightly sassier that I am.”
Greig’s love of the character goes much further than the costumes, however. One of Shakespeare’s most modern characters, Beatrice stands up for women in a man’s world, something that appeals to the actress. “I think she is out of her milieu, she does speak up for womankind in a dangerous way; she’s alone in that sense. There are no other women in the play who really have the guts to speak out against the status quo. Marianne [Elliott] is really interested in why she’s prepared to be that dangerous and upset the balance, especially in Cuba where women do not have a voice – or they certainly didn’t in the 50s – and to stand up and say ‘you know what, is this right?’ but in a witty way, is dangerous. I liked that, the undermining of what everyone accepts.”
She plays Beatrice as “a woman who literally doesn’t stop laughing at men and the absurdity of being in that society”. But the laughter is something of a cover up for the sadness that lies beneath. “I do love the fact that she uses her wit as a kind of sword, and I like the fact that she wants to work out with it. I think there is a real broken-heartedness about her, and that’s where her wit has become her protection,” analyses Greig.
In that sense, Beatrice is much like many of Greig’s screen characters who also use comedy to cover up their heartache, like the awkward, daydreaming Alice who negotiates the dating game in Love Soup, or Dr Caroline in Green Wing who goes through a number of eccentric exploits to snare a man. In each of them there is an element of denial; they laugh off their lack of a relationship as though it don’t matter to them, as does Beatrice. Greig identifies with this as she was just the same, she says. “Before I got married I was the epitome of the unsettled neurotic woman who said I don’t need any of that. But as we all do, we are made to be loved, we are made to love and be loved, that’s how we are created, and however much we deny it that’s the truth, and so our sadness comes from the fact that we are denying our reason for being.”
"Life is a tragedy and we have to find a way of laughing our way through it"
Playing this mixture of comedy and underlying sadness is something that Greig has got down pat. Though sometimes hilarious, the characters themselves rarely look happy; the audience laughs out of identification with the situation rather than laughing along with them. Much like Stan Laurel, says Greig. “I think that face was hilarious, and yet what underpinned it was an extremely poignant melancholy and I think I’m drawn to that.”
Is that why she so often plays such characters? “Perhaps people just see that in me! I think quirk is a lovely cover for brokenness, and it’s when those little fault lines get revealed on the surface; I think we all have fault lines and the quirks are those little volcanic eruptions from the underlying disarray and misalignment of being alive, and I’m interested in the fault lines.”
“You know life’s a tragedy, it is, you know we’ve got to wise up!” she adds, half serious but with laughter in her voice. “Life is a tragedy and we have to find a way of laughing our way through it, not to say it doesn’t exist but to go ‘it’s terrible isn’t it?’”
Greig is certainly doing her best to laugh her way through life, and there’s much to be happy about at the moment. A Christmas special of Green Wing will be aired during her time at the Novello, another series of Love Soup has been commissioned for the new year, and she may pop in on The Archers once in a while to give her character Debbie an airing – she’s played her for 15 years and the radio soap’s producers are most accommodating about fitting recording in around Greig’s career: “She sort of temps in Hungary and then comes back to stir a big wooden spoon,” Greig chuckles.
This shouldn’t be the last we’ll see of her in the theatre either. After an absence of 10 years, she’s keen not to let herself slide back into the theatrical desert, saying: “I’ve sort of had to grow different muscles, and it would be lovely to keep on using those muscles – I don’t want to atrophy again for another decade.”
Mainly though, after the hard work of Much Ado, Greig wants to spend time doing what she loves most, described in her comically singular, metaphorical way: “I’m hoping to be lying on the floor a lot with peanut butter in my nostrils and being shouted at by my children.” She may enjoy acting the singleton, but Greig would rather have marriage and kids any day.