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Culture: The Castle Vale actor; Joe Dixon has finally completed the short journey from Birmingham to Stratford - via a Hollywood blockbuster, writes Terry Grimley.

Byline: Terry Grimley

There is a tiny Shakespearean reference buried in last year's blockbuster movie, The Mummy Returns, which few of the millions who flocked to see it on both sides of the Atlantic are likely to have picked up. In the film, British actor Joe Dixon plays a Middle eastern mercenary called Jacques. That wasn't the original name in the script, but director Stephen Sommers had seen Dixon play a very different character by that name in Cheek by Jowl's internationally-acclaimed production of As You Like It.This was the role which won Dixon the prestigious Ian Charleson Award for the best performance in a classical role by an actor under 30. His old friend Adrian Lester, who played Rosalind in the same all-male production, ended up being cast alongside John Travolta and Emma Thompson in Primary Colours after Mike Nichols saw the play in New York.

Dixon and Lester go back a long way - to the Birmingham Youth Theatre in the 1980s.

'I've known Adrian since he was about 18,' says Dixon. 'I think a play I did with Birmingham Youth Theatre was the first he had ever seen - or so he says, anyway. He joined the youth theatre and then he came to RADA just as I was leaving. And then we toured the world in As You Like It.' Since then Lester has played Hamlet for Peter Brook and Dixon is now at Stratford, where he has parts in three of the RSC's season of five Jacobean rarities, including the title role in Philip Massinger's The Roman Actor. Not bad for a couple of lads from Lee Bank and Castle Vale, respectively.

'I remember coming to see shows at Stratford as a schoolboy,' Dixon recalls. 'It's always been an ambition of mine to work here and for one reason or another I haven't in the past.

'I was asked to do things, but not things I really wanted to do. But this season I was really excited about. These are like new plays. It's very rare for an audience to come to the RSC and see a play where they don't know what's going to happen.'

Recently Dixon has been working in film and television and until the National Theatre's recent production of The Winter's Tale he had not been on stage for about five years. Filming The Mummy Returns was a particularly mindboggling experience.

'It was an extraordinary Universal, Hollywood event. The scale of it was amazing. In Morocco they built ten miles of road in the Sahara to get trucks and paraphernalia to the location.

'This was perfect timing for me. I had been away from theatre for a while and I was nervous about coming back because it's such a different discipline. Going to the National was perfect because it wasn't a scary part to play.

'Then I had this opportunity, which is a huge responsibility and very exciting and hard work. It's been a great way of getting back into theatre.'

In The Roman Actor Dixon's character, Paris, gets into trouble by incurring the jealousy of the tyrannical Emperor, Domitian. Given that being locked up for sedition was an occupational hazard for Jacobean playwrights, it seems reasonable to assume that Massinger was using Ancient Rome as a front to write about his own time.

'It's quite simple, the story, but the characters are so complex,' says Dixon. 'It's as though Massingham had worked through a lot of plays of the period and then decided to break their conventions. There are a lot of surprises. There's a woman trying to seduce a man, and he's saying no, I can't. All through the play there are twists and surprises.

'Paris is the nearest thing to a hero in the play, but he is flawed, and his flaw is that he lives in the world of theatre. There are lots of references in the play that would have been very clear attacks on authority. There were moves to close down the theatre because of its influence, and this must have been a very potent play at the time for that reason.'

Two years ago Joe Dixon married the actress Lesley Manville. She has just been in Cannes with All or Nothing, the latest film by Mike Leigh, with whom she works regularly - she played the social worker in Secrets and Lies and Lady Gilbert in Topsy Turvy.

'I live in Sussex now - we live right in the middle of a forest,' he says.

'Both my parents have died in the last ten years, so there hasn't been that pull to bring me back. But I feel very strongly about my roots and I'm proud of where I come from.

'We were a big family in a tiny council house - it's amazing that we all fitted in. I was very lucky to have good teachers at both Topcliffe Primary and Castle Vale Comprehensive who really pushed me and encouraged me to explore the arts.'

His careers advisor was discouraging about the acting profession, recommending the security of the nearby car plant instead. But drama teachers Ruth Burgess and, later, Ben Ball were more positive.

It was Ball who suggested Dixon join Birmingham Youth Theatre. There he came under the influence of Derek Nicholls, who formed the company when he was also working as a teacher. Later Nicholls directed Dixon at Birmingham Rep, when both had joined the professional theatre.

Dixon remembers Castle Vale as having a lot of green areas with signs saying 'Don't Play on the Grass', but he says: 'It had a bad reputation, but for me it was a wonderful place to grow up because of my friends, family and school.

'I went back to a school reunion last year, and it was strange to see how much it had changed. The housing is much better. I felt a bit like a tourist.

'Apart from that I hadn't been back for a long time. But there are some friends from school who are still very much part of my life now, people I have known from the age of six or seven who are still among my best friends.'

The Roman Actor previews at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until Wednesday; press night Thursday. Then in repertory until September 13. (Information: 01789 403403, ticket hotline 0870 609 1110).
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 27, 2002
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