From bored to bard

AFTER a decade playing Martin Fowler in EastEnders, James Alexandrou will this month make his stage debut in the 13th Leeds Shakespeare Festival. Rod McPhee asked him about moving from the square to the open air.

AN actor's exit from soapland is often a perilous one. Many turn their backs on guaranteed fame, cash and exposure in the pursuit of more fame, cash and exposure only to find things not going quite to plan.

But James Alexandrou is doing things differently, and he's doing it right here in Leeds.

Later this month he'll take on his first acting job since leaving Albert Square performing Shakespeare in the open air at Kirkstall Abbey where he'll star as Pistol in Henry V and Orlando in As You Like It.

Alexandrou, 22, is the latest famous face to be hired by the pioneering British Shakespeare Company which visits the city every year partly because its boss, Robert J Williamson, is Leeds born and bred.

So why has he shunned the usual path towards popular drama in favour of the Bard?

"When I left EastEnders I really wanted to cut my teeth as an actor because basically I'd been playing Martin Fowler for 10 years.

"But I wanted to do something really different – and to be honest I was offered a lot of crap as well as the odd good thing which I considered.

"I was lucky that because of the exposure I had through EastEnders I could pick and choose. I knew what I really didn't want to do, stuff like Celebrity Big Brother.

"But this is at the other end of the scale, there's so much credibility attached to Shakespeare and there is a bit of a stigma attached to being a soap actor and I wanted to try and shake that off big time."

Alexandrou certainly hasn't been short of offers since he left EastEnders in February this year.

Among the parts which have come his way have been the lead role in Equus, the West End production which saw Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe spark a media whirlwind when he stripped on stage.

"It was reported that I turned that down but I didn't," said Alexandrou.

"I was in the running for it and I still think I might be in the running for it, I'm just not sure what's happening with it at the moment.

"But I'd love to do it if they offered it to me, it's an amazing part.

"And I don't have a problem stripping off for it either – anyone who turns down great parts for that reason I don't think are real actors."

Alexandrou still has to prove his credentials as an actor with range, and there's no greater way of stretching your experience than with two of the Bard's greatest works, which the company has already performed this year in Windsor and Norway.

Taking on the lead role in As You Like It is certainly the greatest challenge, but even the part of Pistol in Henry V is a gem which requires careful handling.

He said: "It was a bit terrifying at first. Because I'd never read Shakespeare professionally before and it's so overwhelming when you don't know it.

"The key is getting to understand the language and the rhythm and realising you don't have to do it in a stiff, cod accent.

"Once you've got past the language you realise you just play it straight, just as you would with modern drama.

"The most daunting thing for me is the fact that I do it in front of a live audience, which may sound weird, but even though I've been watched by millions of people on the telly for the last 10 years I've never acted in front of a big crowd of people."

Moving on has been a big step for Alexandrou to take and though he's keen to leave his time in EastEnders behind him, he still holds the soap in high regard.

"I owe everything to Albert Square," he admits. "I have friends who are actors who would give their right arm to have the full-time, well paid job I had for all those years and I know how lucky I was.

"And although I want to move on now I wouldn't ever rule out going back because, well, never say never. For now I'm playing everything by ear.

"But it has been a strange transitionary phase, I remember I had one moment when we were on tour when I stopped for a second and thought 'Look at me: six months ago I was in one of the biggest dramas in Britain, now I'm stood in a pair of tights in Norway reading Shakespeare!'

"But it's good, it's all good."

The 13th Leeds Shakespeare Festival runs from July 23 to August 18. Call the box office on 0113 224 3801.

See tomorrow's Scene in the YEP for more details of this year's line-up at the 13th Leeds Shakespeare Festival.