'Romeo' on edgy new RSC production

Emma Lee The world-renowned Royal Shakespeare Company makes a welcome return to Norwich Theatre Royal this week with an edgy new production of Romeo and Juliet. EMMA LEE spoke to the play’s leading man, rising star David Dawson.

Emma Lee

“For never was there a story of such woe Than this of Juliet and her Romeo”.

William Shakespeare's tale of the two “starcross'd lovers” is one of - if not the - most famous romances of all.

The timeless story has been reinterpreted in many different ways, set in different eras on stage and screen.

Baz Luhrmann's visually stunning 1996 film version, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes updated it for the “MTV generation”. And the story arc - the lovers kept apart by families, gangs or cliques in conflict - is recycled time and time again. Just look at High School Musical.

David Dawson plays the lead role in Neil Bartlett's new production for the Royal Shakespeare Company. In yet another coup for Norwich Theatre Royal, it is being staged at the venue from tonight, November 18, until Saturday, November 22, as part of a short regional tour before it transfers to the RSC's home, Stratford Upon Avon.

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Although in this production, which co-stars Anneika Rose as Juliet, we lay our scene in 1950s Italy, it also has an eerie resonance with today.

“I think the director, Neil Bartlett, was inspired by early Fellini films and the Godfather,” David says. “The two families, the Capulets and the Montagues, are almost Mafioso and it gives the play a real sense of danger. All the sharply suited young Verona men carry flick knives.”

And the piece's famous balcony scene is played out with a twist.

The chance to reinterpret such a well-known character is a gift for the 26-year-old.

“I see it as a real challenge. Everybody knows the play so well and I really wanted to bring my own experiences of love to Romeo,” David says. “I see him as a very intense young man. He has no interest in the violence of his town. Because he and Juliet fall in love in 24 hours, you have the challenge of making it believable and moving and thrilling.”

And the reviews so far suggest that he achieves all three.

Talented David's star is certainly in the ascendant - he staged his first self-penned play in London when he was a teenager and has understudied Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic. It's obvious that he was destined to end up in the acting profession from an early age.

He grew up in Widnes, a small industrial town between Manchester and Liverpool, and, in his words, “since I was very tiny I thought the world of make believe was a much more exciting place”. That included dressing up as Batman's foe the Joker and staying in character for two days.

“Also, I'm quite shy myself, so I find it quite liberating to put on the skin of someone else and get to experience highs of emotion that you don't get in normal life,” the softly-spoken actor says.

David went to a drama club whose leader went on to become a professional director and set up a company called Barefaced Cheek. Something of a prodigy, he was just 17 when he got his first professional experience when she asked him to join them for a national tour of Therese Raquin. David also loved to write, and when he was 18 his first play, Divorced and Desperate, sold out the Queen's Hall Theatre in his home town.

His ambition didn't stop there - next he had London in his sights. He wrote what he calls “begging letters” to various actors asking for financial help and Julie Walters and Barbara Windsor said 'yes'. The Boy In The Bed was staged at the Tower Theatre in Islington when he was only 19.

“I just thought 'what the hell, be brave' and if you are brave all you need is a little bit of money and I think you can do anything.

“I find writing quite therapeutic really because you are in control of the whole world. I've finished writing a book, a novel, but I'm quite precious about it. One day I'll let it out there,” he says.

Having moved to London, David spent some time working as a silver service butler at functions attended by the great and the good, including David Beckham and Princess Anne (“great fun because I love people watching”) while auditioning for the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada).

He got in, and in his third year won a Special Commendation Award. And in a dream first job out of college he was cast in a production of Richard II at the Old Vic with Trevor Nunn. He played The Groom - and was also Hollywood star Kevin Spacey's understudy. He jokes that it put him in touch with his dark side.

“You find yourself wishing ill health on the leading man,” he laughs.

David returned to the Old Vic the next year, playing Frank Rice in the 50th anniversary production of John Osborne's The Entertainer with Robert Lindsay, Pam Ferris and the acclaimed RSC actor John Normington in his last stage role before he died.

He says that his favourite project so far has been playing Smike in the epic Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby Parts I and II.

“He's an abused boy with learning difficulties - it's a character I'll never forget. At the time I think I spent more time as Smike than as me,” he says.

Of course, having the chance to work with the RSC is another career highlight.

“I was astounded by how much support they give their company and how passionate they are about Shakespeare and bringing it to young people,” David says. “Sixteen to 25-year-olds can come and see it for a fiver. When I was at Rada I couldn't afford to see a lot of theatre, so for me it's important to encourage the next generation of theatre-goers.”

David says he's looking forward to a return visit to Norwich. In 2006 he starred in the war drama The Long The Short and The Tall at the Theatre Royal. And during his time in Norfolk he got to sample the delights of Cromer, and what, from his description, sounds suspiciously like the city's clubland, Prince of Wales Road.

“I'm very excited to come back to Norwich - I was there in one of my first jobs out of college. The Theatre Royal was a very intimate place, you feel incredibly close to the audience,” he says.

t Romeo and Juliet is at Norwich Theatre Royal until Saturday. Box office: 01603 630000 or www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk