Baffling, but bound to be a hit.

Sept 7 , 2004

(From The Northern Echo)


LOVE is in the air for Royal Shakespeare Company debutantes Joseph Millson and Rebecca Johnson, who play romantic leads in three of four fascinating Spanish Golden Age plays heading for Newcastle in November.

But don't mention heartthrobs to Millson, who feels that playing dishy Dr Sam Morgan in ITV1's Peak Practice did him few favours.

He says: "I never looked anything like my character. Short and chubby on screen and tall, lanky and dirty in real life. Bizarrely I did a few months on EastEnders and I had one week of my life when I found out what those poor buggers go through.

"I was only on the box for about seven weeks where I had a fling with the ugly Slater sister. But I was on TV for just long enough and I was on the Tube and realised that one person was clocking me and I thought 'that's okay' and by the time I looked back up the entire carriage was looking at me. It was like someone put a lightbulb above your head saying 'you saw this twit on telly last night'. And it was my last episode on telly the next day and it was gone, but what must it be like if you're on all the time?"

With a long mop of hair and a gleam of comedy in his eye, Millson features in the RSC Newcastle tour to the People's Theatre, Jesmond, with main roles in The Dog In The Manger, House Of Desires and Pedro, the Great Pretender.

His leading lady Rebecca Johnson is able to make jokes about signing up for all four 400-year-old Spanish plays heading to the North-East - the final drama being Tamar's Revenge.

She says: "In terms of a learning experience it's absolutely amazing. . .

and it's tiring, but I'll sleep when I die. You don't have time to overanalyse things and you seem to be able to work at your freest. It seemed to be at the outset that all 20 cast members would be doing all four players. I was cast quite early and it may have been their intention initially but later on, after I'd said yes, they took what they could get."

In The Dog In The Manger, by Lope De Vega, Johnson is a headstrong heiress secretly in love with Millson's secretary while comedic House Of Desires, by the poetry-writing nun and South American feminist icon Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, sees them as wouldbe lovers constantly kept apart by the trickery of others. The two are still busy creating their roles in Pedro, by Miguel Cervantes, ready for this month's opening at Stratford.

The shows have mostly been created around people playing similar characters and Millson, who confesses he feels like a walking ponytail in one role, adds: "I think it's sort of intentional because the same actors play similar roles like they would have done in Shakespeare's day: the boy who is always after the girl and the old gruffer always interferes. It's brilliant because you get a great relationship with other actors, but as modern actors you panic about making each show different."

He admits that playing similar roles in each play can be confusing:

"I considered giving each character a different accent, a limp or a hump so that I knew where I was. My character in The Dog In The Manger is the world's greatest secretary, but secretly he wants to be a great lover.

He's like Orsino in Malvolio's job. If we'd have played it straight it would have been very hard to swallow and I think the director Laurence Boswell has come up with this style of playing that is mad, basically.

You couldn't play it straight."

Both admit that they didn't understand the plots when they first read through the script, which was a literal Spanish translation described as "syntactically unbound" and so convoluted that it was a struggle until the actors performed in front of an audience.

Millson says: "The audience just got it. We were confused almost through the entire rehearsal period but the minute we had an audience we understood the plot and I've never known such amazing previews."

On the completely unknown nature of the plays, Johnson comments: "Instead of coming along and knowing the plot the audience can't say 'Oh she's wasn't as good as so-and-so' because they don't know who that person is."

The pair view the little-seen plays as opening a treasure trove.

Johnson says: "I'm not sure whether I believe in making all plays relevant to today. Most of the plays we do aren't to do with anything about our society." She compares them to Bollywood, where the status of a woman's marriage is far more important to Asian culture than in this country.

Millson adds: "The Dog In the Manger publicity says the play is for 'everyone who has ever been in love with anyone they shouldn't have been in love with'. " Before joining the RSC, Johnson was recently seen on TV in The Royal, Foyle's War and Midsomer Murders while working steadily in theatre. She actually trained as a dancer before being forced to decide between acting and dance.

A few years ago, Millson recalls all too vividly "bombing in Newcastle in front of about 300 people at most" with a two-week run of Noel Coward's Salad Days at the Tyne Theatre. He also appeared in Joe Orton's Loot at Newcastle's Theatre Royal.

He's looking forward to appearing at Newcastle's People's Theatre in Jesmond and confesses that he was never a great fan of the Playhouse stage - normally the RSC's second home in the city - which is currently undergoing a major rebuild.

He lives in Berkhamsted and decided to commute to rehearsals and appearances at Stratford because his wife is expecting the couple's second child soon. He and actress wife Caroline Fitzgerald have a two-year-old daughter called Jessica.

He says: "If I didn't have to commute it would be a heavenly job but it's okay, although I don't have the chance to do many touristy things. It's very odd being here because the first time I was at Stratford as a teenager and then I wanted to become an actor and daydreamed about working for the RSC at Stratford. Now it's odd that I'm here and not doing Shakespeare, after I spent time sitting by the river (Avon) and learning his words. I don't feel deprived about doing Spanish plays, in fact there's a bit of envy going the other way."

So will his TV GP experience help him when he heads for the maternity room for child number two?

"I'm the most squeamish human being on earth. I stay very much out of the business end and stick to moping the brow. I made the mistake of having a look last time."