Festival offers Shakespeare with love

The Shakespeare Festival returns to the evocative surroundings of Norwich Cathedral next week for outdoor performances of Romeo & Juliet and Twelfth Night. EMMA LEE reports.

The historic and picturesque cloisters of Norwich Cathedral couldn't be a more perfect setting for a summer's evening of outdoor theatre.

And there's a treat in store this week when the popular Shakespeare Festival returns to the ancient landmark.

GB Theatre Company is staging two of the Bard's greatest romances – Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night.

And it's a place that Neil Sheppeck, who is directing the tale of the ill-fated star-cross'd lovers, knows well – because he's performed there himself.

Neil grew up in Norfolk, at Brooke, and is a former Hewett School pupil. He got bitten by the performing bug when he joined Norwich Theatre Royal's arts course.

'I remember then what an amazing, awe-inspiring space it was,' he says. 'It almost becomes uber theatre, it's lifted beyond a normal theatre space and feels more special in many ways.'

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Romeo and Juliet is a play he knows inside out. He directed a modern take on the tragedy for his own theatre company, Love and Madness, and has played Romeo twice.

It is the second time Neil has been involved with the Shakespeare festival – he directed As You Like It for GB Theatre Company last summer.

Love and Madness is known for its modern twists on ancient tales. And Neil says that he's enjoying the change of taking a back-to-basics and traditional approach to the text.

'When the setting is set for you, you really focus on the words and text and characters. Sometimes concepts can overpower it,' he says.

Romeo is being played by Gabriel Thomson. Gabriel is known to millions of viewers as Michael Harper in the long-running BBC sitcom My Family opposite Robert Lindsay and Zoe Wanamaker.

He has also appeared in a number of feature films including Enemy at the Gate with Ed Harris and Jude Law.

Newcomer, Oxford School of Drama graduate Lucy Wray, is playing Juliet.

Neil says that the pair has a great on-stage chemistry.

'I worked with Gabriel last year, when he played Orlando in As You Like It,' says Neil.

'I auditioned him with four different Juliets and [with Lucy] you could feel that there was that energy there. There was a spark between them, which is absolutely what you need for a play like that. In the play they only have four or five scenes together, so it's important in those brief scenes that they connect.

'Lucy is so full of energy and ideas. She's not that long out of drama school, but she's very adventurous,' he says.

Neil credits Norwich Theatre Royal arts course director David Lambert as being one of the people that encouraged his talents.

'David did so well in inspiring us and helping us,' he says.

Neil attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He started out as an actor, but found himself branching out into directing, both for Love and Madness, of which he is founder and artistic director, and other theatre companies.

'I felt the creative side of me wanted other outlets,' he says.

'If you're an athlete you don't just work on your legs. You have to work on your core. It's lovely working for other companies as a director. I feel I know where the actors are coming from. If you're a musician you need to understand your instrument,' he says.

One recent project was directing a Love and Madness production of Richard III at Riverside Studios in London – and at the Tower of London – which starred Neil's old friend, another Norfolk actor Carl Prekopp, in the title role.

'We had been wanting to work together for a long time. Carl was brilliant as Richard – it won't be the last time we work together,' he says.

As for the future, Neil is working on several writing and directing projects, but he's keeping the details under wraps for now.

'I can't really give any details. Love and Madness are working on a big West End project next year, but I'm not going to say anything more than that.

'There are lots of spaces to watch,' he says.

? Romeo & Juliet will be performed at Norwich Cathedral on July 12, 14 and 16, with Twelfth Night on July 13 and 15, all at 7pm, �18 (Wed/Thurs/Fri)/�20 (Sat/Sun), �3 fee for tickets on the door, 01603 218323, www.gbtheatrecompany.com