THERE has been much debate over whether Shakespeare is still relevant – and can be understood – by modern-day theatre audiences, but if actor Adam Gillian has anything to do with it, we will all be falling in love with the Bard’s very particular poetry on stage.
He is currently playing Romeo in the Lyric’s abridged Romeo and Juliet and has been so immersed in his character that he is finding himself unconsciously typing Elizabethan English into 21st century texts.
“It’s bizarre,” he laughs, during a break before one of his ‘double’ show days – matinee and evening performance – “but that’s what happens when you are speaking Shakespeare’s lines for hours at a stretch.
“This has been great, because while I’ve done a lot of musical theatre, I have always loved Shakespeare, so it has been great to play my first Shakespeare role back in Belfast.
"To bring this iconic play to the stage of the Lyric has been a real privilege – challenging with its themes and language, of course, but like all Shakespeare, it is poetry on stage.”
Directed by Philip Crawford and adapted by Anne Bailey, the classic tale of love and loss, rivalry and revenge, is cut back significantly in length but still scripted in Shakespeare’s original text – this version delivered in proud Northern Ireland accents by a 20-strong cast.
But, instead of Renassiance Italy, the action fast-forwards to modern-day Verona, where two rival fashion houses, the Montagues and Capulets, are feuding in high style and as fiercely as ever they did.
Making her professional debut opposite Gillian’s Romeo is Emma Dougan as Juliet Capulet, with the two leads just meeting for the first time at the photo shoot for the play's promotional poster.
“It turned out, though, that Emma and I had a lot of mutual friends which helped break the ice and when you are with someone every single day for 10 hours at a stretch, you naturally get to know that person quite well in a short space of time,” argues Co Armagh-born Gillian who attended The Royal Belfast Academical Institution. He trained at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow and is now based in London.
His love in real life is actress Johanna Johnston, originally from Larne but also now living in London, the pair having met through an amateur dramatics production at the Grand Opera House several years ago.
Has the relationship helped him develop the necessary ardour of a love-sick Romeo, I wonder? He laughs good-naturedly but will only say that his “younger self” – he has now reached the grand age of 30 – could “find some parallels” with his stage persona in Shakespeare’s tragedy of the two star-crossed young lovers.
“I think many people have had that experience of young love that takes over every aspect of your life,” he ventures. “It is all-consuming and you just think your parents could never possibly understand how much this other person means to you... all that kind of stuff.
“The challenge for me at the start was wanting to play it more naturalistically, but we found it best to just let the heightened nature of Shakespeare’s language speak for itself. It is poetry on stage and it is meant to be heightened in a certain way.
“It was great that we had Anne Bailey, who adapted the script, in the room with us and also Michael Corbidge who works with the Royal Shakespeare Company as a voice coach.
"The entire cast had a lot of support and help to basically understand what our characters were saying and how to communicate that authentically to an audience.”
The role is already up there as one of his favourites but he still retains a soft spot for Christian in Moulin Rouge! The Musical, a lead role he stepped into in the West End production running at the Piccadilly Theatre. He has also starred in Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, playing King’s husband and song-writing partner, Gerry Goffin, at the Aldwych Theatre, London.
Musicals aside, screen credits include his acting debut in the 2019 BBC1 NI production, Counsel, as Gareth Fleming, a schoolboy who becomes inappropriately close to his female barrister, played by Valene Kane of The Fall.
He has featured in NI short film Copy That and A Belfast Story and, among other things, cites a "memorable" part in BBC’s long-running soap, Doctors, in 2021 where he played the part a bumbling “and not very good” male escort.
But nothing, he says, will compare to a guest appearance last year in local drama, Hope Street which left him stripped (almost) of all dignity.
“It was great fun,” he laughs, “but I was left shivering when the episode begins with my character on a beach with no clothes on. As far as I can remember, my so-called girlfriend turned out to be a criminal and had knocked me out on a date at the beach and then stolen my clothes, my car and my wallet.
“It was eight o’clock in the morning on Millisle beach and there I was with a full camera crew behind me and hiding behind a bush wearing nothing but a modesty sock. I thought they might have closed off the beach when they were filming that, but no, there were still people about, walking their dogs. It wasn’t Shakespeare, but sometimes every job has its own tragic-comic moments.”
Romeo and Juliet continues at the Lyric Theatre until Sunday March 5