When Simon Godwin introduced his conversational masterclass with Tamsin Greig as a focus on classical theatre, my heart sank. I was anticipating a discussion that wouldn’t translate to students with little to no experience in professional theatre, let alone classical productions across National Theatre and the RSC. But Tamsin Greig is incredibly, well, normal… and she had a lot to teach me about taking the path which suits you best and putting yourself into your work.
When asked about her journey into acting, Greig explained that she’d never been to drama school. Yes, she’d tried her luck with ten different schools, but no one was willing to take the leap with her. Instead, she went to university, where she studied no Shakespeare. None. She wasn’t ‘in rep’, but performed in fringe shows and one-off plays, one of which happened to be her first step into Shakespeare with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Now she is an extremely prominent classical actor (among many other things), most recently in Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet, both directed by Godwin. What Greig stresses here is that no route is the ‘right’ one, and she is an example of success coming out of less conventional pathways.
She begins her approach to Shakespeare in the same place many of us, guiltily, do too. Step one: Shakespeare for kids. Step two: Sparknotes. Step three: allow the language of Shakespeare to elevate you. She doesn’t admit this because there is no shame. The necessity of starting out simple with Shakespeare is—and no one can truly deny this—necessary. And she doesn’t hesitate to admit what she still doesn’t get about Shakespeare either, mentioning that when playing Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, she cut a line from her dialogue after still not understanding it six months in. This was comforting to me as an English Literature student who feels compelled to ‘get’ Shakespeare from the get-go. From this perspective, a refusal to adapt Shakespeare to contemporary contexts can become a rejection of inclusivity. It appears Greig shares my sentiment: when discussing playing Malvolia in Twelfth Night, a production aiming to adapt Shakespeare for the modern day, she mentions that people responded that they were excited about not being stupid, about getting it, about participating in it.
Which is why Greig isn’t focused on her predecessors when playing a role. She maintains that if she’s been offered a role, it’s her’s to have a go at: she asks herself who she feels the character is regardless of who else has played them. For me, this is a lesson about bringing yourself, your experience and your interpretation to a role, in spite of (and maybe even in defiance of) what other people have chosen to do with it.
I think that what Tamsin Greig taught me this afternoon is that becoming and being an actor cannot, and should not, be treated as a homogenous experience. People find different routes, and once they arrive, must bring themselves to their roles. And most importantly, do not be afraid to say ‘I don’t get it’.