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Brookside to the Bard

Reva Klein talks to Anna Friel about bringing Shakespeare to her young fans.

It is 75 degrees in this month's glorious sunshine and the world and its granny are stripped down to their T-shirts. Not Anna Friel. She's impervious to the weather, wearing a voluminous turtle-neck jumper down to her knees, jeans and Doctor Martens and nothing on her face except for a few hundred freckles.

She breathlessly dashes in to our appointed meeting place, laden with bags, proffering profuse, self-deprecating and utterly winning apologies for being late. What, I ask myself, is an hour and a half of waiting for someone who said she'd jump in and out of Marks and Spencer in 10 minutes, when that someone is the late lamented Beth from Brookside, one of the most beloved soap stars in the entire universe?

And who am I to complain, even when she answers her mobile every few minutes to have brief conversations with friends and agents. No, she won't go for that US television series offer from NBC. They haven't given her enough time to think about it and even if the money is beyond this particular hack's comprehension, she won't be rushed.

She may only be 19, but the girl is tough, astute and professional. I guess you would be, acting a character, Beth Jordache, who had been sexually abused by her father, had a couple of lesbian affairs, helped her mum kill her dad and buried him under the patio, gone to prison and killed herself - all within 18 months. And had, after all that, been named Best Actress at the first National Television Awards last summer (run by ITV).

The daughter of two teachers from Rochdale (her mum teaches special needs, her dad is the head of modern languages), Anna Friel is currently undertaking a role that is a million miles from the Close, filming an excerpt from A Midsummer Night's Dream for BBC School's Shakespeare Shorts, a series to be broadcast next April.

The idea for using such a celebrated youth icon in a schools' programme comes from the classroom audience itself, says series producer Anne Brogan.

"When I've gone into schools and talked to kids about Shakespeare, they've said they want to see people they know like Anna performing in the plays. They find Shakespearean actors too distant. By choosing the actors we've chosen, we're saying strongly that however you speak, whoever you are, you can enjoy Shakespeare," Anne Brogan says.

As well as Anna Friel in Midsummer Night's Dream (playing the part of Hermia), the series will also include Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night and Macbeth, using actors from popular television drama as a hook for young audiences who would otherwise have little enthusiasm for Shakespeare.

In the same spirit of making the plays relevant to a young television audience, the plays have been given new settings, designed to draw out contemporary resonances. The scene from Julius Caesar is set among back-stabbers in a barber's shop, while Romeo and Juliet is transposed to the Caribbean.

But are there any links between soap opera and Shakespeare? If you look at it in a certain way, there are similarities between Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Beth Jordache in Brookside. Both had fathers that were forcing them to do something they didn't want to do. Old Egeus was as much of a bully in his own way as horrible old Trev, considering death as a suitable punishment if Hermia refused to marry Demetrius. And both the young Scouser and the Athenian had looked into the abyss Beth during her many years of sexual abuse and then imprisonment, Hermia by being inexplicably and suddenly rejected by her two previous admirers.

Not that those parallels have made things easy for Anna Friel. "It was so difficult learning the lines. With the Brookside script, I'd read them over the night before and that was it. But I'd go over and over Hermia's lines and they just wouldn't sink in. I just didn't understand the words. I came to the director (Stephen Unwin of the English Touring Theatre) and said "I'm so worried and insecure about this. I never started a job before without knowing what I was doing. But Stephen's a good teacher and has given me confidence. He liked the fact that I found my own rhythm and understanding."

She admits that she would love to play Juliet and Ophelia (she studied A-level English and theatre studies) and likes the idea of helping to break down children's resistance to Shakespeare through her popularity with the young.

"The only boring bit about Shakespeare is the way it's taught. I love children and if this helps just a few of them say 'Anna's doing Shakespeare' and take a positive approach to it because of that, it will be fantastic."

That her young Brookside fans will ever be able to forget her as Beth is doubtful. Anna herself can't forget her. "I miss Beth incredibly. I love the character. When I watch the show on the television, I get a sinking feeling in my heart. But when I'm playing this role now, I thank God I'm out of the studio and doing something different and learning."

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