Magazine article The Spectator

Doctor Who in Elsinore

Magazine article The Spectator

Doctor Who in Elsinore

Article excerpt

Hamlet

Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Starcasting at Stratford runs the risk of propelling a show into an orbit hard to track or make sense of. Such is inevitably the case with the casting of David Tennant as Hamlet. Director Gregory Doran apparently got the idea from the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? In quest of his bloodline, Tennant was visiting a church in Northern Ireland and casually picked up a skull from an excavation. 'I saw your audition for Hamlet, ' ran Doran's text message. Doubtless he'd also not forgotten that the play's very first line just happens to be 'Who's there?' -- and the thing was settled.

In his pre-fame days Tennant had done superlative work with the RSC (as Romeo, Antipholus of Syracuse, and Jack Absolute in The Rivals among other roles), so this wasn't quite as mad an impulse as it might sound. The end of the triumphant latest series of Doctor Who would have been in sight. Hamlet would have been a liberational challenge to an actor chafing at too long an imprisonment in the 1950s police phone box. For the RSC there would be publicity to die for, with fans fighting for tickets at more or less any price.

There's no way that the expectations surrounding such a show could be fulfilled.

Who knows what Tennant's telly fans will make of his translation to Elsinore, or what mainline Shakespearean addicts will make of him. We can at least be clear that his Hamlet is as wild-eyed, jaw-droppingly wayward and histrionically orbital as his Doctor -- presumably his caperings in that role would also have been another part of his 'audition'? But whatever happened to the consummate skills of the actor who once only had to raise an eyebrow or twitch a corner of his mouth to make you smile or convulse you with laughter?

The settings and costumes by Robert Jones are in tune with a bang-up-to-the minute Elsinore to suit its star smartly. The reflective back wall reminds us that the show holds its mirror up to us the audience, guilty creatures sitting at our play. Elegant in his black mourning suit, Tennant begins well enough in his tartly clipped exchanges with the King. But left alone with his 'too, too solid flesh' soliloquy, he's in no time bent double, weeping and then collapsed on to his knees. He pulls himself together for a powerfully moving encounter with his father's Ghost, and there's justification enough for the manic intensity with which he swears his fellow witnesses to silence, maybe even for the self-inflicted wounding with which he commits himself to vengeance. …

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