Currently playing Thersites in Gregory Doran’s wonderfully lucid Troilus and Cressida, Sheila's association with theatre goes back to the formative years of the National Theatre, where she worked with Laurence Olivier and John Dexter.
She says that she found herself an unattractive child who, from age six, escaped from herself into a world of make-believe through acting. As a child in an army family, she was educated at boarding school in England where she had her first Shakespearean role as Caliban in The Tempest. She insisted on having a real dead fish; the method actor in the making, she comments wryly. Her formal acting training was at Rose Bruford College, where she felt that she had “come home,” although she was encouraged by family to have a teaching diploma “just in case”.
She just happened to be in her agent’s office one day when he got a call which prompted the question: Do you sing? He sent her along to audition for Half a Sixpence and it was her ticket to the London stage and success. When John Dexter, the director, moved to the National Theatre he encouraged Sheila to apply for an audition and she found herself there for seven years. She was Bianca in Othello with Olivier, Maggie Smith, Frank Finlay and Derek Jacobi and went on to be directed by Olivier in The Three Sisters and The Crucible. She remembers that Olivier was very clear on staging logistics. He knew where everyone should be in relation to everyone else but didn't dictate how to act a role.
Sheila first came to the RSC to play the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet in 1991 and returned in 2003 to play Queen Margaret in Richard III. More recently in 2015 she appeared in Pericles at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse directed by Dominic Dromgoole. She played the role of Gower, a choric, guiding role that perhaps connects with her current role as Thersites. While Sheila recognises the link, she feels too that her character Madge in ITV's Benidorm – fierce, straight-talking, harsh and not liked by people – is another formative influence in the creation of that character.
Thersites is a physically robust role, starting with a knockabout farce with Ajax, but the role deepens. Survival is central to the character who is just hanging on, providing entertainment to get by. She sees through all the other characters and knows what games they are playing, whether it be Agamemnon or Ulysses plotting with Nestor. She has licence to rail and does so in an attempt to be “a curer of madmen.” She has no loyalties and carries a book to record what might be useful to relay to another. She has wisdom but is not in a social position to effect anything.
Sheila loves the playing space of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, with the intimacy of the audience on three sides, but there is a challenge in the scale of this theatre and reaching the higher levels. Daily voice calls are part of the actor’s routine. She uses a Glaswegian accent for her character, a scavenging bag lady, but modifies it to make it accessible to the audience.
Her admiration for Gregory is clear - everyone is welcome to give an opinion in his rehearsals to provoke a genuine exploration of the text. The result is a piece of total theatre using image and music to underpin his vision of Troilus and Cressida. In this first deliberately 50/50 gender-split casting of Shakespeare at the RSC, we are not necessarily aware of women playing men’s roles; rather, they play the character not the sex. This policy opens a new empowering pathway to Shakespeare for women actors.
Viv Graver is a retired teacher, who taught Shakespeare for more than 30 years in the north of England. Her present interest is introducing Shakespeare into primary schools. Viv's blog is a series of interviews with RSC cast and creatives about their path to Shakespeare and how they first came to it, at school and elsewhere.