How stripping off to play Helen of Troy on the London stage changed the way I feel about my body
It’s October. It’s dusk. It’s the second week of rehearsals for The Trojan Women, a modern version of Euripides’ tragedy in which I’m greedily playing three different roles: Cassandra, the maddened seer (a teenager in red-and-white striped long-johns); Andromache, trophy widow of the city’s most decorated soldier; and Helen of Troy, “the face that launched a thousand dicks”.
I’m standing in a dirty office in the old BBC training building on Marylebone High Street. There are dirty blue carpets on the floor and dirty great fluorescent tubes on the ceiling. There are six other people here. They’re all dressed; I’m in a bath towel that I’m about to let fall to the floor. Nobody knows yet, but I’m not wearing any knickers.
Yesterday I did this scene topless but kept my leggings on. I’ve never had so much eye contact in my life. Today, I’ve resolved to go the whole hog. As I wait for my cue, I feel an utterly primal feeling of fear and wrongness that seems literally to be coming from between my legs. Christopher Haydon, our director, is expecting me to wait until we get into the theatre before I disrobe completely, but I know if I do it too many times with my pants on, I’ll never be able to take them off. I just want to get it over with.
The towel drops. I don’t look down. I put my knickers on backwards. Afterwards we joke that where Chris was sitting, right in the line of fire, will be where I tell my dad to sit when he comes to the show. ‘Hi Dad,’ I wave at the plastic chair, sick to my stomach. ‘Hi.’
On the way home I text my friend Matthew from Morecambe and tell him what I did with my day. He texts back: “It’ll never be this bad again.” I don’t believe him, even for a second. I don’t feel relieved; I don’t feel brave; I feel like a sparrow that’s banged its head on the patio doors. But it turns out he’s right.
“I saw @louisebrealey’s pubes last night. The play was good too,” tweeted a critic from What’s On Stage magazine the day after Trojan Women opened. Although none of them have so far felt the need to share the experience on social media, a lot of other people besides this charming man have also seen my pubic hair in the past two weeks. In fact, more people have seen my pubic hair in the past two weeks than in the previous two decades combined.
When I first read Caroline Bird’s fierce, funny script and saw the stage direction: ‘Helen drops her towel; she is in no hurry to get dressed’, I felt a bit ill and wondered if the scene would have the same impact without the nudity. But Helen of Troy’s towel is not just a towel; it’s a gauntlet. She drops it to embarrass her mortal enemy; to show that – although her life’s on the line – she’s not going down without a fight. Crucially her nakedness also lets the audience see how bold, how beautiful she feels. It’s not about pubic hair. It’s about power.
Still. The idea of standing naked anywhere in public scared the shit out of me. The idea of standing naked in my own bedroom in front of someone who wants to have sex with me scared the shit out of me. The idea of standing naked in a theatre the size of a corner shop, five feet from the audience, whilst pretending to be Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman on the planet? That sounded like a very bad idea indeed.
“But you’re an actress!” said my best friend when I told her I was afraid. “Yes,” I said. “An actress, not a stripper.” I’ve been doing this for ten years and I’ve never even had to get down to my underwear. It’s not something you sign up for with your Equity card. (Although now I think about it, my bare buttocks were once pressed so hard against a very frosted glass door – in an awful thing with Martine McCutcheon – that the glass broke and my bum was, in both senses, cut.)
“But you’re slim!” she insisted. “You’ve nothing to worry about.” Ah. That old chestnut. Slim women don’t have insecurities about their bodies. Slim women don’t have cellulite or thread veins or knees that always seem to look grubby. Slim women aren’t allowed to be frightened about taking their clothes off in public. Because they are slim.
I have psoriasis. My belly and back sport red scaly patches, a bit like eczema. You can’t catch it. Loads of people have it. But it’s not pretty and it leaves a funny sort of leopard-print pattern on your skin when it deigns to go. From sixteen to eighteen I was covered in a crust from collarbone to calf. (It came back with a vengeance when I was homesick on my first telly job, a three-year contract with Casualty. The make-up artists on the show photographed it for their files. Desperate to leave, I went to see the man in charge and lifted up my top. I’m pretty sure that was the first time anyone had flashed him to get out of a job.)
Like thousands of other women – and thousands of men – I also have stretch marks. I grew four inches one summer holiday and the skin on my 13-year-old bottom neglected to keep pace. Ever since I’ve had white lines that circle the slopes of my thighs like terracettes. Normally I don’t give them a second thought. But normally I’m not naked in public.
In the BBC series Sherlock I play Molly Hooper, the awkward, besotted morgue mouse with the Christmas-present bow in her hair; not Irene Adler, the feline dominatrix with the slash of a red mouth and the flawless arse. (I almost got to stand in as Irene at the read-through for A Scandal In Belgravia; but on the big day Lara Pulver was free after all.) My point is that when you act on television, you’re obliged to think about how you look in objective terms. It saves time, and tears, because how they say you look is how they say you’re cast. So I learned very early on that I’m not “telly beautiful”. I’m “girl-next-door”. I’m “quirky”.
The theatre, though, is a different world. Actors pretend on stage, audiences pretend in their seats and, together, if everyone stops disbelieving hard enough for long enough, we might magic up something amazing. In the theatre I can be a nine year old on a swing; I can be a sex-mad teenager in platform heels; I can be from Sunderland.
In the theatre, the logic runs, I can be Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world. My 69-year-old friend George, not realising we were doing an update of a Greek tragedy, tried to help: “It’ll be fine, you’ll be wearing a mask.”
In the end it was fine. I realised playing Helen of Troy was impossible, like playing the idea of a woman. So I ditched the surname. In my head, I’m just plain Helen.
Horror films scare me witless but I absolutely love them. It’s the same story with acting: I find it frightening but the fear makes me feel; it makes me feel alive. And while you’re screaming your head off, you’re definitely not dead. The prospect of standing in front of people with nothing on and feeling great about it was alien, horrific, and completely intoxicating.
I really wanted to know what it felt like to be that woman. Not the psoriatic sixteen year old who looked in the mirror and saw The Singing Detective. Not the apple-cheeked student who spent all three years at university with a jumper tied round her waist to hide her bum (they were the dark days of high-waisted jeans). And not the actress who, last week, finally put two books on cellulite in the recycling. Not her. Not me.
Last night an elderly audience member asked me after the show if I thought I’d given away something precious by letting people see my body. I didn’t know how to answer her, but it made me think. The fact is, I’ve gained way more than I’ve lost. I stand there every night, totally naked, with people gawping or giggling or gasping and looking away, and I feel okay about it. I feel good about it. Some nights I even feel bold and beautiful. I do, however, feel a bit uneasy about how I got there.
Exposing myself to 75 strangers a night has made me think a lot about what psychologist Susie Orbach calls “body terror”, the chip in your brain that tells you your body isn’t good enough but if you buy this cream, eat this thing, do this exercise, you can look like Rhianna and you will be happy. The idea that to be beautiful you must have one specific body: poreless skin, endless legs, tits that would get stuck in a champagne glass.
I grew my underarm hair for the occasion because I wanted to be naked on my terms. Or it was something else to hide behind. Or I wanted to make a point, that you could be beautiful with hairy arm-pits. I don’t know, really. The thing is, women feel like we have a choice about shaving, but we don’t. Not really. It’s not any sort of real choice. It’s a choice between looking normal and making most potential lovers gag. All but one man I told was openly appalled. My ex said, ‘That’s disgusting, you’ll look like a Minotaur.’ He’s a funny man. I was nervous about it. Up to the last minute I wasn’t at all sure that I wasn’t going to shave it off in the secret shower behind the loo roll-holder in The Gate’s toilet on press night. But a weird thing happened: I started to like it. When you can see my pubic hair as well, it looks kind of great – like it matches. Like a hat and gloves. Like it’s meant to be there.
We all know the bleached, waxed, sprayed, toned, sliced, photo-shopped people we see every day aren’t real. It’s not how we are. It’s not how we’re meant to be. It’s rubbish. But it’s insidious rubbish. It’s hard not to want to look, well, better. And, as an actress, I’m part of the problem. Actors are illusionists. We feel like we have to be; we get work based on what we look like. I know which angle I look best at. It’s the angle I present to photographers. It’s the angle I’m presenting in the photo with this piece.
I don’t want the young women who look up to me because I’m a feminist and I’m in a TV show they love to feel like they somehow fall short. So I should have stood on stage as Helen of Troy, flaws and all, and thumbed my nose at body terror and body fascism. But I couldn’t; I just wasn’t brave enough.
I knew that to do it, I’d have to pull off the mother and father of all confidence tricks. I’d have to treat my psoriasis with steroids and hope they worked; I’d have to try and tone my thighs; and, if the lighting looked like a Tube train or a shop changing-room, I wouldn’t have stood a chance.
In the end it involved a lot of pluck, a little plucking, fourteen hours on a Pilates machine, a pink spotlight pointing at my breasts and actually pumping up the fitness ball my mum bought me one long-ago Christmas. (I opened the box. It came with a free exercise VHS.) In the minute and a half it takes to do a quick change from an distraught, weeping Andromache into La Belle Hélène, our stage manager Jess sluices body oil on my back in as non-erotic a fashion as possible while I smear make-up over my scars and cake on mascara.
It’s getting easier. I’m not sure if the audience can still see the lines on my legs and the leopard spots on my belly and the dimples on my bottom. But the more times I stand out there, the more normal it feels to be naked and not shy; the closer to Helen’s boldness I come; and the more it doesn’t matter if they can. Maybe at some point I’ll even look down.
At some point I should also probably tell my dad I get naked in this play. He’s coming tomorrow. ‘Hi, Dad, if you’re reading this. Hi. Don’t worry, I’ll tell you when to close your eyes.’
The rest of you, you take your chances.
– Louise Brealey
A shorter version of this article appeared in The Times newspaper on December 11th 2012