Originally from Scotland, Sheila Reid has graced the stage for many years and worked with all the greats. In the last decade she has found fame playing the indomitable Madge in Benidorm. Here she talks to Gill Sutherland about her return to the RSC to play Thersites in Troilus and Cressida.
How did you first get into acting?
I got the acting bug I think because I’ve always been small; and I was very fat, I had crooked teeth that crossed over at the front… and I used to just live in the world of make-believe because I wasn’t terribly keen on who I was. It was interesting because with acting I would play character roles, and where there were roles where you were playing yourself I found that the hardest thing of all – because I would have to strip it all away and be me.
I have an older sister and a younger brother, they weren’t interested in the arts at all but I used to drag them all in to do plays in front of my parents and relatives; I was writer, director and of course the star.
Did your parents support your decision to go to drama school?
Well they were very pleased because I went to the Rose Bruford, where you got a teaching certificate as well. So they thought I could be a teacher if it didn’t work out. But I didn’t want to do that – I wanted to show off!
And then you blossomed into a gorgeous young lady – and your acting career took off. You’ve worked with some amazing people including Laurence Olivier. What stands out for you?
I’m not sure I ever blossomed! Although I’ve been trying for a long time. I couldn’t do anything about the stature… I guess I was plump but personable. My first part was Juliet in Romanoff and Juliet by Peter Ustinov, so I suppose I must have looked passable.
As for my career, certainly Laurence stands out; that was absolutely amazing to have seven years in that company [National Theatre] and watch him work and be directed by him, and John Dexter was another brilliant director – and the whole feeling of that experience was completely wonderful.
The other stand-out experience was working with Ingmar Bergman onstage and then he wrote a part for me in a film, The Touch. It was extraordinary. Elliot Gould and I were bizarrely playing brother and sister. Bergman was so detailed and extraordinary, he was such a private man and so volatile – he couldn’t eat meat or he would just go crazy, so he lived on yoghurt. I remember we had dinner together and talked about everything under the sun. I’ve got a wonderful photo of him: I am just about to go on set and he’s got his hand on my shoulder and you can see the energy from him is coming into me.
When you worked with them did you have a sense that Olivier and Bergman were legends?
I don’t think you dare thought that, you wouldn’t have been able to perform. I remember some wonderful moments with Olivier, he loved a laugh, and jokes. One was in awe of him though, you had to be; he said call me Larry and I couldn’t quite manage.
He was great. A funny story happened while we were doing Ibsen’s Master Builder together – I had to do a bit where I kneel in front of him and my wig got caught in his flies. You can imagine what that looked like – trying to extricate myself before his wife, Joan Plowright, was about to enter. We were both hysterical. It was fun and what an education to have worked with him.
You are playing the rather scabby and scurrilous Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, how did that come about?
I think Greg [director, Doran] said that he was watching Benidorm [the ITV sitcom] as a guilty pleasure. In it I play Madge, this very cantankerous, outspoken, ‘doesn’t care what she says to anyone’ character, and he saw a lot of Madge in Thersites… Thersites is clinging on, she is surviving, she has nothing. She is a bastard who has been dumped at the side of the road and has spent all of her life following wars, just tagging along. She lives by her wits, entertaining people. They don’t mind having this scurvy scabby thing around as long as she makes them laugh. Inside her she is boiling with anguish, fury and pain – she is a great character!
How important is Thersites in Troilus and Cressida?
She is the honest truth of the play – she is deeply antiwar, as Sheila Reid is! The world goes on and on making the same mistakes;she is phlegmatic that it’s not going to get better “War and lechery, war and lechery – nothing else holds fashion”; that is her belief in the play. It’s pretty bleak.
The cast is equally gender split, how is that working?
It seems absolutely right that we have generals who are women, because there are female soldiers! There is a quality you have, you don’t have to be a man. It just needs an internal energy and intelligence, and a bright mind, and women have all those qualities as well as men.
Tell us about Greg’s vision for the play.
It’s not modern, it’s a kind of dystopian world; and the idea is that it’s been going on forever. Visually it’s really thrilling, wonderful, and the music is incredible. We have musicians either side of us onstage and it’s a very atonal – you won’t go out humming the tune. It’s wonderfully strange and evocative – it makes you think of armour… And my golly the fights are terrifying, it’s full of exciting things. I think the audience are going to be open-mouthed, it’s stunning.
Troilus and Cressida is on at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 17th November. For tickets go to the RSC website here