As time goes by, the RSC's versatile Sheila Reid finds herself playing

more senior parts; but the ageless actress tells JACKIE McGLONE that

brazen and sensual roles still challenge her

THE fact that Sheila Reid's career can't be accommodated on the usual

foolscap sheet of paper from the Royal Shakespeare Company's press

office is a tribute not only to her talents but also to her modesty. For

she does not list everything she has ever done in a CV which is rivalled

only by the company's other leading actor, the incorrigible Robert

Stephens, and he has been at it rather longer than Reid.

She states simply: ''Previous work in theatre includes . . .'' It

actually takes in everything from Bianca in Olivier's Othello to Morag

in the original Edinburgh Festival production of Sharman Macdonald's

When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout. Now here she is, one of

the mainstays in the RSC's new artistic director Adrian Noble's

problematic first Stratford season, with three juicy roles into which an

actor of a certain age and true talent can sink her mighty molars.

Born in Glasgow, Reid has now been on stage for ''around 30 years''.

She was a member of Olivier's original National Theatre company and one

of his youngest recruits to boot. Now she's at the other end of the

scale in a predominantly youthful and sometimes, it seems to critical

eyes, sadly inexperienced company of actors.

''I got out of the National after six or seven years because I wanted

to go it alone and get a foothold in telly and films, but now I am back

with the RSC, for the first time in decades, I find that I am basically

a company person at heart because I am enjoying myself so much. At the

National, I was the very youngest and now . . . well, it's such a

different position and yet you don't feel any different inside, that's

what's so weird. I just happen to be playing people's mothers and

grandmothers and nurses, and because I don't have any children myself, I

think I haven't noticed that I have actually grown up. It's very odd.''

With her gamine charm and elfin features, Reid can look any age she

wants to. As Mrs Figgup in Shadwell's The Virtuoso, she prompted one

Sunday newspaper critic to dub her ''the immortal Sheila Reid'' for her

black-bodiced, cane-wielding characterisation of a Cynthia Paynesque

lady of the night. It is a performance that is as touching as it is

brazen. In 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, Reid is a blatantly bawdy and lazily

sensual Putana, a character with more than a touch of Juliet's Nurse.

But it is to the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet that she brings real human

warmth and an emotional truth lacking elsewhere in David Leveaux's


Both Mrs Figgup and Putana require Reid to do a fair bit of flashing

her thighs and her suspenders. ''It's absolutely part of the job. I

don't even think about it now, although at the first costume fitting for

Mrs Figgup I thought about it very carefully indeed'' -- she wears a

black corset and French knickers -- ''but when I read the play I knew I

was going to have to try to do something interesting with her and that,

as always, I would have to feel happy in my clothes.''

Now, wandering around backstage in her fishnet stockings and corset

and bumping into Michael Maloney (Hal in Henry IV) in his golden armour

fazes her not one jot. ''I allowed myself to be persuaded that I did not

look too disgusting in the costume and as for Putana, well I just knew

she would not wear tights and M&S cotton briefs; I had to get exactly

the right underwear for her. I knew she would wear those roll-top

stockings, for instance.''

Feeling right in the clothes obviously makes Reid feel comfortable in

her skin. Only then, she says, can she get up on stage ''and dare and

dare again and dare to make a fool of myself because acting is all about

going to extreme limits of ridiculousness''. It is also about immersing

yourself totally in a role, she says. While rehearsing Romeo and Juliet,

she ''spent a morning cuddling lots of little milky things'' at a


''First of all, though, I like to paddle in the shallows before I dive

right in to a part. I think it is because I am this odd double: on the

cusp of Capricorn and Sagittarius. The Capricorn bit of me is all for

hard work and ploughing on and ploughing through, while the other bit is

gregarious and wants to go out and leave everything else behind.''

It is good for an actor, this dual personality always in two minds

about things, but it doesn't make you an easy person to live with, she

says -- although she has been with her present partner, an actor, for 12

years. She was previously married to the actor Julian Curry, a marriage

which, she says, ''ended more in sorrow than in anger''.

One of three children of a military family, she grew up in Bridge of

Weir before her father's Army career packed them off to India and points

east. ''I grew up in the countryside in Scotland and then we did all

this wonderful travelling. Perhaps all that roving and roaming at an

early age is what gave me the desire to act. There were certainly lots

of ministers in the family and my mother was always playing the piano;

it was that sort of family.''

Her father would have dearly loved to act, ''although he'd have been a

terrible actor''. He was supportive of his daughter's ambitions but

insisted that she take a teaching course so that she ''would always have

something to fall back on''. Although they had a long time to get used

to the idea, her parents were very frightened and alarmed, she says,

when she announced her intention to go on the stage.

Reid says she ''always, always wanted to be on the stage''. She

recalls being taken to a pantomime when she was very wee and being

dandled on Will Fyfe's knee. ''And what do you want to be when you grow

up, little girl?'' Back came the reply: ''I want to be an actress.''

Apparently, it brought the house down, although Reid says wistfully that

she wishes some of Fyfe's legendary timing had rubbed on off her while

she was on his lap.

As an actor, she speaks constantly of soaking up parts through her

pores. ''I love physicality and finding that mix of the sensual and the

sexual, but I also love working with a director like Leveaux who feeds

your mind. Olivier was very different, he choreographed a production

like a ballet and he didn't believe in the psychology of a role or in

exploring the different ways of doing one scene.''

EXPERIMENTING and exploring is now part of her lifeblood. She does

movement and dance classes and, with her shapely figure and graceful

carriage, is obviously fighting fit. She swims every day and says the

only way to keep going is to take care of the voice, the body and the

imagination. ''They are our tools -- it's just like a butcher keeping

his knives sharp.''

The critical knives have certainly been out for Leveaux's Romeo and

Juliet. ''Reviews make you feel very vulnerable and I try not to read

them because if you believe the good ones, you have to believe the bad.

Sometimes they can be so damaging. There is a certain kind of reviewing

that is very personal and which can hurt your spirit. The confidence was

knocked right out of the Romeo company when the notices appeared.''

As an elder stateswoman of the company, Reid felt it her duty to boost

the confidence of the younger actors, so she held a ''bonding party'' at

which they reaffirmed their faith in each other and in their director.

Now, she says, the production is a very different one from that seen by

the critics on press night.

She has many more months to ''scratch away'' at her performances. When

the plays leave Stratford, they transfer to Newcastle upon Tyne for a

short season and then to the RSC's Barbican base in London. Reid says

that, with luck, she won't get bored as long as she goes on seeing her

Nurse as a huge sunflower -- ''open and clear about her emotions'' --

and Putana as ''a black orchid -- a complicated coquette, clawing her

way up to grab a little happiness where she can''.

Perhaps when the RSC season is over, some enterprising Scottish

company would like to cast her as Lady Macbeth, a part she yearns to

play and which she would make entirely her own. I'll also be able to

claim the fiver she promised to slip me if she gets the part.

The RSC season in Newcastle upon Tyne opens with The Virtuoso and

Henry IV, Part 1, on Monday, February 17 and runs until March 21.

Further details on 091 232 2061 or send an sae to Box Office RSC Season,

Theatre Royal, Grey Street, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 6BR.