by Tamzin Lewis October 2006
It is a double act on the stage and in the dressing room. Tamsin Greig and Joseph Millson are Shakespeare’s witty cynics Beatrice and Benedick in a sultry Much Ado About Nothing. And lengthy RSC rehearsals for the play have clearly forged a strong friendship between the two.
Tamsin says: “We had quite a lot of time to spend on the Beatrice and Benedick relationship, which was great. We had to get the back story of what had gone on between the two of them. And we had lots of opportunity to go down blind alleys and cul-de-sacs and get it wrong.”
So what is the back story of this couple whose jesting and jibing hides vulnerability? “They have been together and then come apart,” Joseph says. “That is all we know.”
Tamsin continues: “The audience don’t need to know what the back story is but we do. You know how it is when you are with mates. There is always something you don’t quite know and it is the not knowing which can keep you entertained. You have to try and fathom it.”
Joseph says: “It is a classic lovehate thing. In the playground, the boy and girl who hate each other actually love each other. This is what it is like for our characters. They are equal for brains although he doesn’t quite match her; she always wins.”
They gave their characters a history, so did they look forward to married life for Beatrice and Benedick? “We didn’t quite know how their marriage would work,” answers Joseph. “I think they would be like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, together and apart.” Tamsin adds: “They can’t live without each other but they can’t live with each other.”
“That’s right,” agrees Joseph, “In a few years we should do The Taming of the Shrew and then do Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and complete the trio.”
The RSC’s Much Ado About Nothing is set in Cuba in 1953, the year Fidel Castro took up arms against the repressive and corrupt dictatorship of President Fulgencio Batista.
It has cigars, rum, a nightclub singer, an impressive Havana set by Lez Brotherston and bad guy Don John turns out to be a revolutionary. But this production is about the visual, not the political, and all the singing, dancing and men in uniforms gives it the air of Elvis Presley’s GI Blues.
Dad-of-two Joseph, 32, says: “With Much Ado, the music and laughter carry you through. You get a bounce off laughter. It is similar to doing a musical. You can so not be in the mood to do a show and then the overture starts and you suddenly go ‘oh all right, let’s do it’. I did an Ibsen before this and scraped one laugh out of it. If that laugh didn’t come I was furious.”
“You are a gag whore,” Tamsin says. “Yes that’s true,” Joseph says affably, “I’m a gag whore.”
Gag whores make for good comic theatre, and unsurprisingly this is a very funny Much Ado About Nothing. Joseph, who cites Benny Hill as a comic hero, admits that an entire section of the play is stolen from Harold Lloyd. However, there is no evidence of Tamsin’s heroes Cannon and Ball in this production.
Tamsin, 38, is much better known as a TV comic actress, for shows including Channel 4’s Green Wing, BBC’s Love Soup and Jonathan Creek, than for theatre, but fancying a change she has this season ended up with her first taste of the RSC.
“I had no inclination to do any Shakespeare,” she says. “There was plotting. My agent asked what I wanted to do this year and I said maybe something live, thinking it would be presenting an award to a child at a school awards day. Then she came up with an audition and I was like, I didn’t mean that. It was completely beyond me. You get out of the ability and the habit of doing theatre.”
Had she really lost her touch, I ask, or is she just saying that? “I wasn’t very good for quite a while. When you are doing radio and TV, if you mess up you do it again. On stage you are very vulnerable and exposed. And I spent five months of rehearsals with the director going "I cant hear you", says Tamsin who has three children with her actor husband Richard Leaf.
" In the previews I completely lost my bottle. The first week was horrible, awful. I had spent 10 years away from the stage and lot my bottle and my pelvic floor muscles".
While the role of Beatrice might come fairly naturally to Tamsin, her part as the doomed Constance in an elegant production of King John has definitely been tough. Her young son Arthur's claim to the throne is supported by the King of France, but he dies trying to escape from prison.
Tamsin says " I find Constance very hard. I am only in three scenes but it is more exhausting than Beatrice. She doesn't see the joke any more, and there is no let up. She is out to get her rights met and this ultimately leads to her death. On the way she loses her son, so it is very painful. There is a beautiful scene she does about grief, about losing your own children. The terrible brokenness and rage in Constance has brought something to Beatrice. I thought it would be the other way round, but it isnt.
In King John, Joseph comes close to stealing the show from Richard McCabe as the Bastard, Philip Faulconbridge, illegitimate son of Richard the Lionheart. Tamsin says "In the make-up room there is a head for Joe's wig. It says Joseph Millson, Bastard. Each night we want to put in a different little word, like annoying, or sad or poor".
"Or lonely, or smelly." Joseph interjects.
"So what's it like playing a complete bastard?" asks Tamsin.
"He's not: thats the weird thing," says Joseph, "out of all Shakespeare bastards, he's probably the nicest fella."