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Adetomiwa Edun: A Romeo to die for

He's only the second black actor to play the tragic hero at the Globe. But, says Amol Rajan, it's Adetomiwa Edun's star quality and natural charisma that really matter

A side door of the noisy and bustling café at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre swings open, and as a stocky, dark figure appears, the swivelling of necks and raising of eyebrows among the assorted latte-sipping thespians is almost audible. Wearing light-tan brogues, corduroy jeans and a black T-shirt that grips his musculature just snugly enough to show he's been working out for the part, the new entrant is clearly causing excitement here. He's five minutes late, but Romeo has arrived.

He conveys the aura of a man with that rare thing, star appeal. It may be helped by the prominence of his role, as the lead in Dominic Dromgoole's latest production, or the improbability of his casting, or both. Adetomiwa Edun – Tommy to his mates – is only the second black man to play Romeo at the Globe and, at 25, he is one of the youngest.

Neither of which strike him as particularly relevant. "Of course there are people who think your blackness is the most interesting thing about you, but I don't," he says. I suggest to him that for headline-writers the enduring fascination of Chiwetel Ejiofor, for example, is at least in small part a function of his being perceived as that black bloke with the funny name who went to Dulwich College. Isn't there a danger that Edun, who was educated at Eton, will get lazily bracketed alongside him?

"My feeling on the relevance of blackness to actors is that the hard work was done decades ago, and we shouldn't be obsessed by it," he says. "There were pioneers in the Seventies, Eighties and so on, and they broke taboos. A lot of actors in generations that have gone before have done the work for me. I'm not saying race is irrelevant but this is a cosmopolitan age and these things matter less than they used to."

I confess that I know Edun from our undergraduate days together. He was one of those terrifyingly talented polymaths whose combination of academic rigour and prodigious extra-curricular creativity attracted all the right kinds of attention.

Allied to a disarming charm, it was enough to arouse envy in his peers – including this one – long before he was anointed Romeo in what will doubtless be seen, years from now, as his breakthrough role.

Born in Lagos to a Nigerian father and half-English, half-Ghanaian mother, Edun arrived in Britain aged 11 (he still speaks passable Yoruba) and enrolled at Eton two years later. His first acting experience there was an audition with a teacher, one Hailz-Emily Osborne, for a part in T S Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. "She said, 'Close your eyes and express yourself'," he recalls, "and the minute I did, I was hooked."

At school he distinguished himself as a Classicist, and went on to read the subject at Christ's College, Cambridge, winning the prestigious dissertation prize in his final year for a thesis on Homer's Odyssey and earning admirers for his performances in student theatre. He considered staying on for his MPhil, but felt a place at Rada was too good to turn down. The problem was that his father, who worked in finance and had funded a costly education, threatened to forbid it.

I recall a conversation that we had had in The Eagle pub, when Edun was considering applying to Goldman Sachs under paternal pressure.

"I think my dad just felt I ought to have gone down a safer or more secure route," he reflects. "When I said that I wanted to be an actor, and maybe go to drama school, I think he was a bit frightened. But eventually I convinced him about my passion and he became really supportive." Did Edun ever waver in his commitment to the stage? "Some people don't realise that drama school is so exhausting physically, mentally, intellectually, emotionally. I quite enjoyed the fact that I wasn't going down a conventional route, like some of my friends, but there was a lot of pressure and there are times when you think to yourself, 'I could be living on a beach in Barcelona, or working behind a bar – why am I doing this?'"

Not any longer. Edun had parts in small productions at the Almeida and Liverpool Playhouse last year, after which he met the casting director Matthew Dunstone. He failed an audition for him but within a week, his agent had received a call from Dromgoole, saying that Edun had been recommended, and asking if he would come in for an audition.

"So I turn up at the Globe, thinking to myself 'this would be an amazing venue to play', and walk in to see Dominic and he asks, 'Which Romeo are you going to do for me?'," he says. "I sheepishly responded with something incoherent and he said, 'God, I hope you're not going to do it like that!'

"That helped me because it meant that I didn't have to come along with any preconceived interpretation. I could just be my own Romeo. I could just connect to the material."

Edun describes Dromgoole as "fantastically no-nonsense", and says that his rapport with Ellie Kendrick, the star of the BBC's recent adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank and Juliet in the forthcoming production, is "wonderfully uncomplicated". She is young, beautiful and nymph-like, as Juliet ought to be. But what sort of Romeo is he?

"With Shakespeare you can't even try to think about the weight of performance history, because you'll just be swamped," he says. "The plays were written to be performed here, so the best thing you can do is to get the story of the play across, to really show you know and feel it. You've got to do your research, because the subtleties matter as much as the big impacts.

"There's a great scene where Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio are punning around, messing about and joking. I think it almost doesn't matter if people in the audience don't understand the jokes as long as you get the spirit of the scene right. Being a vessel for that spirit: that's my Romeo."

A laudable goal and one of which Dromgoole, no doubt, approves. It's only reasonable to enquire what Edun, with his schemes of experience and sentiment, feels will distinguish him from his predecessors.

When pressed, he implies that it's the incessant sense of conversing with antiquity that his education has given him. "Classics shaped me. It's the study of peoples, of civilisations, and you get a very strong sense of the role that drama plays in shaping their identity. Classics students are essentially cultural archaeologists, and that's a good thing for actors to be, too.

"One of my earliest memories is of reading a book in my house that was about gods, heroes, greatness, conquest and monsters – and being riveted by it. I remember going back and seeing that this was The Odyssey." It was a text he would revisit, of course, during his finals. "If I tell a story half as good as that I'd be happy."

Is he prepared for the consequences of a major breakthrough – not least dealing with that stubborn and strangling albatross, fame?

"I'll be nervous for half an hour before every show, sure," Edun admits. "It still feels a bit unreal, I come out and you see this sea of people, more than I've ever performed in front of. The size of the place is so daunting, so tangible and immense. Sure, I realise there's a lot to play for, but somehow I'm convinced I can handle it."

Romeo & Juliet at Shakespeare's Globe, London SE1, 23 April to 23 August (020-7401 9919; www. shakespeares-globe.org)