Michelle Terry is a strong choice for the Globe – but she's not a safe bet

Matt Trueman speculates on what Michelle Terry might bring to her new role as AD of Shakespeare’s Globe

Michelle Terry
Michelle Terry
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Michelle Terry is a strong choice to succeed Emma Rice as artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe, but that doesn’t alter the fact that she has a mammoth task ahead of her in the role.

The Globe has gotten itself into a right state over the last couple of years, and a lot of bad blood has spilt into the public realm. She inherits an organisation in the grip of an identity crisis – and she will do so as someone with no leadership experience to her name. That could go either way.

She is, undoubtedly, a popular figure in the industry; an actor warmly regarded by her peers and audiences alike. It’s hard to underestimate how vital that will prove. Her first task will be to address some serious rifts. She will have to reconcile the most riven audience in British theatre, appeasing the Globe’s traditional audiences without alienating the newbies that Rice has brought into the fold. That will take some smart, varied programming. At the same time, she will have to deal with some stark internal divisions after the most rancorous phase in the organisation’s short history.

Terry is one of a very small handful of people that could manage all that – a whip-sharp Shakespearean with a strong contemporary streak; a brilliant theatre brain with – crucial this – a real sense of fun. That combination is at the heart of the Globe.

Michelle Terry as Henry V
Michelle Terry as Henry V

Without question, she is a scintillating actor – an Olivier Award winner, no less, but one with the roving spirit of a genuine artist. She has made daring choices throughout her career, seeking out demanding roles and difficult plays wherever possible. Her long association with the director Katie Mitchell culminated in a gut-wrenching performance at the core of Cleansed last year.

She learned sign-language for Nina Raine's Tribes, not just meticulously charting the process of hearing loss, but conveying the enormity of that experience – what it is to descend into deafness. Indeed, her CV reads like a list of daredevil challenges; Richard Bean's controversial England People Very Nice, Martin Crimp's confounding In The Republic of Happiness and Caryl Churchill's Light Shining in Buckinghamshire in the tiny confines of the old Arcola.

"Terry is a whip-sharp Shakespearean with a strong contemporary streak; a brilliant theatre brain with – crucial this – a real sense of fun"

She has a string of striking Shakespearean performances to her name. After graduating from RADA, Terry cut her teeth at the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing Perdita in A Winter’s Tale and Philemon in Pericles for Dominic Cooke. At the Globe itself, she was a sourpuss Princess of France in Dominic Dromgoole’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and, better still, a grounded, never girly, Rosalind in As You Like It. That, perhaps, laid the ground for her Henry V at Regent’s Park – as brave a piece of gender-blind casting as any.

Her style suits the Globe to a T. She is a singular actor – one of those present-tense performers with that rare ability to stand on a stage and shine through a character. Mark Rylance has that and it’s always worked best at the Globe. Like him, Terry greets audiences with a glint in her eye. I’ll never forget her epilogue at the end of As You Like It. As Rosalind, she seemed to flirt with every single person in the Globe. Something about the way she purred that 'O women' made you think she might start a mass kissathon there and then. No other theatre holds that like the Globe.

Jessica Regan and Michelle Terry
Jessica Regan and Michelle Terry
© Johan Persson

It is, I think, why an actor AD makes sense there. The Globe had always intimated it was in the market for one, the job spec explicitly spelled out as much; "It’s not a director-led space," chief executive Neil Constable told me this year. "It’s why the Globe is one of the few leading national organisations that could be led by an actor."

Its founding artistic director was, of course, Rylance, and a lot of the theatre’s house style stems from that. Constable called him the Globe’s 'tuning fork'. He worked out how the space worked by stepping onto its stage. Don’t forget that Shakespeare himself started out as an actor. His company was largely collaborative. Directors didn’t exist back then.

However, the Globe isn’t the same organisation that it was under Rylance, let alone in Shakespeare’s day. It has been an extraordinary success in a short space of time and, in the last ten years, it has grown like topsy. Turnover has doubled, so has the number of productions. It’s still growing. The £25 million plan to create a new library and archive facility with rehearsal studios underneath the theatre, dubbed Project Prospero, starts next year. Whether an actor with no leadership experience can steer such a ship, only time will tell.

Michelle Terry is a strong choice, but she’s not a safe bet.