Preview: Romeo
and Juliet

Michelle Collins tells Mia Vigar about the flipside to the romance in Romeo and Juliet

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Since her EastEnders days, when she spat and sizzled as the scheming femme fatale Cindy Beale, Michelle Collins has proven herself a versatile actor, achieving acclaim in the BAFTA-winning film The Illustrated Mum, notching up umpteen TV drama credits, appearing in an episode of French and Saunders and starring on the West End stage. What she hasn’t done before, however, is Shakespeare.

Looking back, she says: “When I was young, in the 1970s, we went to see some Shakespeare at the Young Vic and got thrown out. The language was alien and seemed so academic, and we were laughing at seeing men in tights. How seriously are people going to take men in tights these days?”

Luckily for artistic director David Thacker, Collins has come to see the merit of the Bard’s writing, and will be appearing as the Nurse in his take on Romeo and Juliet at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre.

“The language is the same but David Thacker’s version has a modern feel,” she explains. “The themes are just as relevant today – feuding families, gang warfare, prejudice and greed. This is why it stays on the national curriculum. There are still lessons to be learnt. With Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare is saying we should listen to people, especially to our young, and take more notice of what they have to say. In this play we can see that the older people have become more jaded, and in society now, when ‘the youth’ are referred to it seems to be a derogatory notion. There is something very special about being young and youthful.”

It’s not just the tights that are being thrown out for this production. “It’s a black set – simple and uncluttered, with a sense of starkness and appropriate lighting to make the action look stronger. It’s liberating not to rely on props.”

Also adding to the dramatic feel of the production is the fact it will be performed in the intimate theatre-in-the-round space of the auditorium, meaning the audience will see the story unfold from all angles. “A great deal of attention has been paid to ensuring the audience gets the best experience possible,” says Collins. “Recently, we spent a whole day making sure everyone would be able to hear from each part of the theatre. The audience comes first and foremost.”

Collins’ character acts as the go-between for the lovestruck youngsters. But having lost her daughter when she was a baby, the Nurse also considers Juliet to be a surrogate daughter. To relate to the suffering of her character, Collins has been able to draw on her own experiences as a mother. “The most important thing for me is to show how much the Nurse loves Juliet and to make it fun. She’s been with the Capulet family a long time – she was Juliet’s wet nurse and almost her surrogate mother, her confidante. But also she and the Friar offer light relief. I don’t often get to show a lighter side in the roles I play.”

In a further departure from the more traditional approach to Shakespeare’s most enduring love story, Thacker refuses to shy away from the play’s inherent violence. “Included are some quite dangerous fight scenes which will have a real impact. In real life, when people fight they do die and, when that person dies, everyone suffers.”

Collins’ role means she now joins an esteemed tribe of present-day actors who have demonstrated their classical sensibilities through the Bard’s words. “You need to eliminate from your mind many people who have done it before, and find your own way to play it. It’s no good to think of Judi Dench and do it like that, but instead be truthful to you – I think perhaps I am seen as a contemporary actress so am able to bring that to the role. I have found Shakespeare a challenge because it’s like speaking a whole new dialect and, of course, everything seems to get harder to learn as you get older,” she laughs.

However, being away from the glare of the West End seems to have its advantages.

“Being in Bolton, as tends to be the case with provincial theatre, it feels like you have more time to enjoy the process, and there are fewer egos to contend with. There is a lot of fantastic work being done up here and David Thacker is very inspiring – his reputation precedes him. He plants confidence in you. I have done a lot of telly but nothing can compare to theatre and the inclusive feeling of being part of it. When it’s good, you get the most amazing feeling.

“It’s very exciting – I almost feel like a young actor starting again.”

Romeo and Juliet, until 5 March, Octagon Theatre, Bolton.

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