Saturday, 25 October 2008 a play called Hamlet

What a difference a week makes. It’s a week since I travelled up to Stratford to see the best –ever Doctor Who starring at the Courtyard Theatre in the RSC’s latest production of Hamlet (and apologies for taking so long with my promised update on the performance – it’s a me thing, I suppose!). As my friends and I wandered out of the theatre, slightly gob-smacked by the stunning production we’d just witnessed, I remarked to one of them (hi, Janet!) that, much as I enjoyed David Tennant in Dr Who, it’s becoming clear that he’s such an accomplished, multi-facetted actor, that in some ways he’s being a bit held back by his commitment to TV’s Time Lord and that, if I’m honest, I’m quite looking forward to him leaving Dr Who just so we can see what he’ll do next. Because, believe me, this man can do almost anything, I reckon.

Lo and behold, just a handful of days later, in the middle of a diabolical National Tv Awards show, Tennant arrives on a videoscreen to thanks his fans for voting for him in the Best Dramatic Performance category and to announce – to much anguished shrieking from the audience – that next year’s four Dr Who specials will be his last and he won’t be back for season five in 2010. Incidentally, I had wind of this just before 8pm on Wednesday – an official BBC Press release, embargoed until 10pm, was ‘accidentally’ leaked on the website of the Guardian newspaper – and hastily removed again. But the cat was out of the bag in the Dr Who fan community so Tennant’s announcement wasn’t as much of a gut-wrench as it might have been.

And yes, it is a gut-wrench. Following Christopher Eccleston’s portrayal of the Doctor – giving both the character and the series the respect it hadn’t had for over 20 years – was always going to be a tough call. And it took a man of David Tennant’s verve, wit, energy, enthusiasm – and, above all, love of Dr Who – to do it and to take the series to the next level, to really fulfil the potential it had shown in that first run in 2005. As the Doctor Tennant had/has a lightness, a likeability which wasn’t always evident in Eccleston’s slightly distant portrayal. Tennant, gawky and geeky and sloppy in his stripey suit and long coat, his big grin and gormless charm, reaches out and connects with the audience in a way that no other act has since Tom Baker and, in appealing enormously to a female audience, perhaps even moreso. Tennant has been an ‘everyman’ Doctor, combining a wonderful vulnerability with that slightly aloof alien quality; he’s become a romantic hero (through his understated love affair with Rose, his unrequited relationship with Martha and the “don’t-touch-me-spaceboy” comic relationship with Donna) and this alone has effortlessly lifted Dr Who, to the frustration of some of its more earnest devotees, away from the realm of the men-only sci-fi show and into the area of the real relationship drama but with added monsters and the occasional spaceship. This is down to the writing and, more especially, David Tennant himself who has been able to open up the show and make it much more accessible to a much more diverse audience. But Dr Who thrives on change – some say it’s never better than when it’s changing, when there’s a new face aboard the TARDIS and the audience has to get used to the new boy. But Tennant leaving will be the new show’s real test and I remain as fascinated and excited as you probably as to how new show-runner Steven Moffat will rise to the challenge of reinventing the series after Tennant.

All of which has somewhat led me away from talking about Tennant as Hamlet. I’m a bit ashamed to admit that, until a few weeks ago, I didn’t really know much about the play. Prince of Denmark – check. To be or not to be – check. Alas poor Yorick – check. But that was pretty much it. A crash course on the narrative – if not the whole play – had me psyched up for the live production. And I’m so pleased to say I wasn’t at all disappointed. This was my first experience of Shakespeare ‘live on stage’ and at times I was on the edge of my seat.

This new RSC production dispenses with the idea of Hamlet-as-period-piece. Here the characters are almost exclusively in modern day costumes – dinner suits, evening gowns, T-shirts, trainers, anoraks and even a bobble hat. This might seem a bit disconcerting at first, set against the theatricality of the dialogue, but after a while you really scarcely notice. The point is that the play’s the thing and not the trappings; Hamlet’s a timeless story and its themes and its story work as well in the 21st century as they do in the 15th. And here, performed in the intimate environment of the Courtyard Theatre, Hamlet is never less than mesmerising. The slick production uses a number of clever visual tricks and stirring bursts of music and off-stage sound effects, sparse but effective sets and props and, of course, its actors. The RSC are blessed to have secured the talents of the redoubtable Patrick Stewart as Claudius and The Ghost, TV character actor John Woodvine as the Player King, Penny Downie as Gertrude, Peter de Jersey as Horatio and, of course, Tennant as Hamlet himself.

Tennant plays Hamlet with a real modern edge. Once again the actor displays the raw energy he’s become famous for on TV; there’s not an inch of stage he doesn’t use, bounding, running, leaping, skidding, spinning…his crackling vitality seems to take the roof off the place. He wrings all the humour from the piece (such as it is – Hamlet’s not exactly a laff riot) and there are moments – “To be or not to be” obviously being one – where the back-of-the-neck hair does its obligatory rising up bit. It’s a beautiful moment, stunningly, starkly realised. There’s even a well-considered cliff-hanger to bring the first half to a close, as Tennant looms over Stewart, dagger in hand, ready to dispatch the man who had usurped his father. And yes, there are some moments which evoke the spirit of the Doctor – especially when Hamlet, bound to an office-styled wheelchair, is brought to Claudius whom he then taunts in a style not unreminiscent of a certain Time Lord in ‘captured-by-the-enemy’ mode. The play rushes to its conclusion in a thrillingly-staged, manic swordfight and when the lights go down and the cast take their curtain call, there’s no doubt that Tennant is the star of the show, such is the rapturous reception he receives from a delighted full house audience.

So yes, David Tennant is leaving Dr Who and maybe the series will be that little bit poorer without him. But let’s rejoice in the fact that his leaving will free him up from its nine-month filming commitment and allow us to see him in any number of thrilling, exciting roles and I’m genuinely keen to see where this most magnetic and enthralling of actors will find himself once he leaves the TARDIS behind. If you get the chance to see Hamlet, either at Straford or at its limited forthcoming run in London, please don’t miss out because it’s a wonderful production in its own right and you really won’t regret seeing David Tennant at the height of his powers and the height of his current popular acclaim.

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