Starting at the top for the RSC

Matthew Rhys's debut is rather more than a spear-carrier: it's Romeo
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The Independent Culture

This is Matthew Rhys's RSC debut, but he's going straight in at the top - playing Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, directed by Peter Gill. "It is quite intimidating," Rhys says. "I felt the pressure of taking on the mantle of playing a lead in Shakespeare for the RSC. Audiences have seen a lot of Romeos," he continues, "and with a role such as Romeo, everyone has their own idea of what the character should be - people have preconceptions - so it's a lot to live up to."

This is Matthew Rhys's RSC debut, but he's going straight in at the top - playing Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, directed by Peter Gill. "It is quite intimidating," Rhys says. "I felt the pressure of taking on the mantle of playing a lead in Shakespeare for the RSC. Audiences have seen a lot of Romeos," he continues, "and with a role such as Romeo, everyone has their own idea of what the character should be - people have preconceptions - so it's a lot to live up to."

Another RSC newcomer is Sian Brooke, playing Juliet. "You are always worried that you won't get on with the person you're meant to be having a love affair with, that there won't be any chemistry, but Sian and I get on very well," Rhys says. "We play well off each other."

Rhys made his name playing Benjamin in the West End production of The Graduate. "Again, I was taking on the role that Dustin Hoffman had already immortalised in the film," he says. And not only that; he was playing opposite Kathleen Turner. "Kathleen has an amazing work ethic. We were rehearsing scenes right up to the end of the run. She was fantastic," he recalls.

As well as theatre, Rhys has appeared on television and in films, the medium that fomented his desire to be an actor. "I was a real film buff from an early age and thought that was what I wanted to do. But now I'm discovering that the immediate gratification of an audience is far more satisfying than the disjointed lifestyle of filming. There is an age-old myth that your performances are large on stage and small on screen, but I disagree with that. I think that as long as you are truthful, you can be whatever you want."

Rhys didn't always want to be an actor, though. "I got into it late. I wanted to be a farmer for years, but my family told me to get into something more secure - so I took up acting!"

Immediately after Romeo and Juliet, Rhys is doing three and a half weeks as Edmund in King Lear, also for the RSC. And after that? "I'm not sure, one of the things about being an actor is that you don't know what you're doing from one month to the next."

Rhys admits to being a recent convert to Shakespeare: "I didn't always like it, but I am certainly a big fan now," he says. Although Rhys is Welsh, he is playing an English Romeo. "We're all quite neutral with our accents - in our cast we have quite a collection of people from all over the country so it helps if you have a more neutral ground to work from. I studied for three years at Rada so I did a lot of voice and dialect work, which enables me to switch accents when I need to."

As for future roles, he says: "I wouldn't mind having a go at Henry V. And he was Welsh, too, so that makes it handy."

'Romeo and Juliet', Albery Theatre, London WC2 (0870 060 6621) 16 December to 8 January

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