Viv Hardwick talks to Darlington-educated Royal Shakespeare Company star Ruth Gemmell.

DESPITE spending most of her childhood in Darlington and marrying a well-known actor from Newcastle, actress Ruth Gemmell admits she's never returned to the North-East to perform before.

All that's about to change. The woman still best-known as Colin Firth's love interest in hit movie Fever Pitch, is playing three roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company's tour to Tyneside.

She's Lady MacDuff and one of the Witches in Macbeth and the murderous and ruthless daughter Regan in King Lear. Gemmell, who has appeared in just about every major TV drama from Band Of Gold and The Bill to Waking The Dead, jokes about ending up dead in about everything she does.

"I always seem to end up dead on TV. I'm playing a really bad mother or I end up dead and I'm dead here as well," she jokes.

It might be her first season with the RSC but she's already found fame as Lady MacDuff, having played the role for Michael Bogdanov's TV version. She does admit to being a little surprised by RSC director Dominic Cooke opting for the MacDuff children being killed rather gorily in front of the audience. "I've never seen that on stage before and the funny thing is the kids love it. They loved every minute of it and there would arguments about who was going to be next in rehearsal," says Gemmell, who isn't quite sure that having a child pinned to the table by a knife was actually mentioned in the original stage directions.

Asked about opting for the travelling life of an RSC actor, she comments:

"I think most people want to work with the RSC. I've found the rehearsal time for King Lear really inspirational because Bill's (Alexander) a wonderful director and it was lovely to watch the way he worked, even during the technical rehearsal. I'm very fond of it and I hope that people get where we were.

"I like being a bit of a cow as well."

Gemmell's acting dreams were fired from the age of ten thanks to Darlington girls' school Polam Hall regularly staging productions and attending the town's former drama centre.

"I think it was appearing in the Importance Of Being Earnest and as a fairy which made my mind up," she recalls. The actress, who has three brothers, moved to Darlington with her mother, a nurse from Barnard Castle, as a result of a marriage split.

Gemmell says: "My mother was brought up in Barnie and she trained in Newcastle and then my mother and father travelled all over the shop. Basically my parents had split up that's why I ended up back in the North-East and I moved to London because I assumed you had to go to a drama school in London.. I didn't know any better. Having not lived with my dad before I thought it was an ideal opportunity... which is crazy now."

An uncle still lives in Barnard Castle and her husband's parents live in Newcastle. Her husband is Ray Stevenson, recently seen in the movie King Arthur and performing as Jesus at York Minster.

For the RSC Macbeth, all the members of the cast were asked to do some research into the play's history.

Gemmell looked into the myths and legends linked to a tragedy which has a tradition of inspiring bad luck if the play's title is merely mentioned.

She comments: "You know this thing about the theatre superstition of saying Macbeth in case something nasty happens and saying 'the Scottish play instead' we made a point of saying Macbeth. Another of the superstitions is that the witches' chant is an actual spell and we had a witch come in to discuss this who didn't think it was."

"In fact the theory is that the parts of creatures and ingredients put in the witches' cauldron were aimed at creating a hallucinogenic drug."

Does the transformation from witch to Lady MacDuff cause her any problems?

"It's quite a lot of running about actually. I've been late once or twice and I thought it was going to be more of a problem than it is. In actual fact it makes me quite at ease to play Lady MacDuff because there's no time to get nervous." Of the November visit to Newcastle, Gemmell adds: "I'm really looking forward to it because I've never worked in the North-East before.

Currently husband Ray is working out in Rome with Kevin McKidd and James Purefoy on a BBC project called Rome based on Julius Caesar, Brutus and Mark Antony and it's seen through the eyes of a couple of soldiers. "I'm living like a student here and he's got this lovely big apartment with a pool so I think I've got a raw deal," she moans.

There's a chance the couple may be reunited for the Newcastle tour but she admits that "it's quite difficult to see him actually".

* Macbeth runs November 9-13 at Newcastle's Theatre Royal.

* King Lear runs November 16-20 at the Theatre Royal. Box Office: 0870 905 5060.

Published: 14/10/2004