Theatre Critic and Journalist

Interview: Michelle Terry

Interview: Michelle Terry

Published in The Stage, 29.01.2012

Keeping up with Michelle Terry, as I am trying to do in a small meeting room in the National Theatre, where she opens in The Comedy of Errors this week, is not easy.

For starters, she is currently tackling the sort of subjects that demand careful treading – human trafficking, feminism, class – and, in order to get them right, she’s determined not to be reductive. Nothing, therefore, comes in media-friendly soundbite form.

Instead, her sentences don’t really end. Each clause is followed by clarification, which itself needs clarifying in turn. Often she breaks off and turns back on herself to follow a different line of thought.

Far from being frustrating, however, it’s genuinely refreshing. Terry isn’t one for dilettantish flitting. She’s really trying to puzzle things out, to grapple with difficult ideas, in the moment. Passionate and intelligent, she only talks about herself when pushed. As Ralph Little, her co-writer on The Café, told The Stage last week: “Michelle has no ego whatsoever.”

For Terry, acting is a means to an honourable end. She acts not simply for acclaim, challenge or enjoyment, but to better understand the world and the people in it. “Standing in other people’s shoes, you get to figure stuff out,” she tells me, “I’ve always found solace in that.”

That’s why she’s delighted to be back at the National, after a break of just over a year. It is a place where theatre matters. “There’s lots of places in the business where that’s undermined: ‘Oh, it’s just a play’ sort of thing. In here, everybody goes, ‘No, it’s important.’”

It’s also one reason behind taking on Luciana, a three-scene supporting role, despite her recent Olivier Award for Tribes, which could have led to leads.

Terry clearly relishes an enigma of a character, and not just as a personal test for an actor. In Dominic Cooke’s production, set in contemporary London, she’ll become an Essex girl, which has led to heavy consideration of class, feminism and, in particular, obedience.

“I think feminism as become this pejorative term and I’ve sort of backed off it, but it’s sort of my job now to read Germaine Greer or Living Dolls or Caitlin Moran and not apologise for being a woman. How do you play a woman that really believes you should be obedient and is that subverting feminism?”

Her research has ranged from documentaries on human trafficking to The Only Way Is Essex. It’s only the first week of rehearsals and she’s still wrestling. but it’s clear that this is precisely what makes Terry tick. “If you’re going to modernise something, really interrogate why it’s important to do this play now. That might mean it’s not funny any more, but that’s alright, as long as you’ve found the truth at the heart of it.”

Terry talks of the very unachievability of Shakespeare’s epic properties as its attraction. More than that, she says, “it should be the lure to any play. It’s easy to be reductive and smug or to aim for mediocrity, but I think acting has to be more aspirational – whatever you’re doing.”

The constancy of those properties led her to write The Café with Little. It was her first real experience of television. “I’d read theatre and film scripts and they’re aiming bigger. Our aim was to aim bigger – not Mike Barlett epic bigger – but you suddenly realise how hard it is to aim bigger. Television is made by committee.”

It’s not a problem she’s having at the National: “We’re dealing with human trafficking, the death penalty, identity. These are massive things that we’re not going to solve in a night at the theatre, but we’ll have a really good go.”

Photograph: Sky One’s The Cafe

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