MILLIONS still remember her as the feisty Cindy Beale, so it seems hard to believe that Michelle Collins’ last appearance in Eastenders was an incredible 14 years ago.

The star has taken on plenty of different roles since leaving the soap — but her next one could be her toughest yet.

For Michelle will be turning her hand to Shakespeare for the very first time.

She will be taking on the role of the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, under the guidance of the Octagon’s Olivier award-winning artistic director, David Thacker.

The production is currently in the second week of rehearsals, and Michelle says she is starting to get to grips with the archaic language.

“It is a bit like learning a new language in a way,” she says. “It’s difficult, but very exciting. Learning the lines is always the hardest part of being an actor. Soap people do have to learn their lines very quickly — often I think people don’t appreciate that. It’s a very different process in the theatre.”

The last time Michelle played the role of the nurse was in her audition for college — she says she deliberately chose the part over that of Juliet because she found it “more interesting”.

“She’s an Everywoman,” she says. “I think her intentions are always for Juliet to be happy. She’s a very honest, truthful character and she’s really the one who gets Romeo and Juliet together, even though she suggests that Juliet should marry Paris. She’s quite simple — she has no airs and graces — and quite maternal.”

Because most of her lines are written in prose rather than verse, Michelle says it is easy to understand the character’s emotions and her intentions, but that while working on translating the lines to modern language as an exercise in rehearsal, she realised how perfect Shakespeare’s original words are.

“The words that Shakespeare used are so right that when we were trying to translate them in rehearsal so we could understand them better we realised that you can’t find the modern words to describe what he’s saying,” she says. “That’s when you realise why he was such a genius.”

David Thacker previously worked as Director in Residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and won an Olivier Award for best director for his production of Pericles. And Michelle is full of praise for the way the director puts his actors through their paces and encourages them to fully engage with their roles.

“I’d rather do my first Shakespeare with David than with anyone else,” she says. “He has made me feel secure, he has a real eye and he’s a very clever director — I feel like I’m in good hands.

“I feel like he’s my safety net in a way; the way he works is quite amazing. It’s a bit daunting, but it is very liberating as well.”

When Thacker took over at the Octagon, he pledged that he would encourage more people to realise that the theatre was not the exclusive and snobbish institution that they might believe it to be. And it is a pledge that Michelle believes is reflected in some of his casting decisions.

“I think it’s quite clever of David to cast someone who hasn’t done a Shakespeare before,” she says. “I’d hope to bring in an audience that maybe haven’t seen Shakespeare before themselves.

“There’s a stigma about Shakespeare sometimes, but I want people to realise that they can come and have fun, and I think it’s nice to see someone who you might not expect to see in a Shakespeare production.

“The story of Romeo and Juliet is one that people can associate with how real life is now — it transposes so well to modern life.”

Michelle will also be appearing in The Demolition Man at the Octagon, in which she will play the role of Fred Dibnah’s widow, Sheila. Is she at all worried about moving so quickly between two very different roles?

“Not at all,” she says. “What every actor wants is a challenge and to show your versatility. I’ve always been one for taking a bit of a gamble. It’s something that’s important to me — even at my time of life — to do something different.”

• Romeo and Juliet runs at the Octagon from february 3 to March 5. Tickets cost £9.50 to £21.50 and are available from or by ringing 01204 520661.