The scene was a modern-day royal court when he walked out on stage for the first time — a tall, spare figure sharply dressed in a black suit, dark hair tightly slicked back, expression sombre. He stood, silent and upright, in one corner of the stage, a champagne glass in hand, seemingly oblivious to the events being celebrated by the others. And the thought that went through your mind was: “Is that…? No, that’s not him. Really? That can’t be him…”
And then he was left alone. His composure collapsed, and you witnessed the degeneration from a poised prince to a broken man — a moment that was meant to be intensely private. On a dark, solitary stage, he crumbled to the floor, ravaged by his grief. And that’s when you recognized the voice. And you were amazed by the emotion in the scene, the complete, utter desolation in the words as his pain tore him, the melancholy of one man struggling to come to terms with his loss. And that was when you told yourself, “Oh my, they are really performing in front of me!”
And that’s when he stopped being David Tennant. He was Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
It was very fitting that my first experience of professional theatre had to be Shakespeare. Performed by none other than the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-Upon-Avon’s Royal Courtyard Theatre — a company that has had illustrious names like Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ben Kingsley, Sir Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart associated with it. Stewart, of course, was Claudius to Tennant’s Hamlet in what I can now call MY show.
This particular production has come to be know as the Doctor Who Hamlet, which perhaps was unavoidable though also understandable. Its sci-fi appeal was fuelled by the presence of Patrick Stewart of both Star Trek and X-Men fame. For me, personally, it was watching Tennant and Stewart on stage that was the highlight. While Patrick Stewart was undeniably the star of the show — cold, suave and calculating as Claudius, and commanding yet ephemeral as the Ghost — David Tennant did make it a little bit more special.
But even taking them away, the rest of the cast was excellent. Three theatre shows later, Hamlet is still the one that impresses me most. For one, I cannot get over how hard the actors must need to work, learning all those lines and bringing them to life, and performing up to five days a week. Some of the actors play more than one role in a season (Tennant, for instance, will also be Berowne in Love’s Labour Lost October onwards). Edward Bennett, who was fantastic as Laertes in his RSC debut season, was Tennant’s understudy, and it would have been interesting to see him play the title role too. Penny Downie (Gertrude) and Mariah Gale (Ophelia) were other actors whose performances stood out. Oliver Ford Davies was an endearing and bumbling Polonius, tending to go off on a tangent by himself. He got a lot of laughs from the audience (and he was very nice when I got my programme autographed!).
Humour is one thing I never expected from a story as depressingly tragic as Hamlet’s, but there was an ample amount of it. Whether it was the obvious laugh when Ophelia finds condoms in her brother Laertes’s case just after he has given her a speech on chastity and abstinence, or the result of the actors using a line a certain way — Hamlet’s lazy “He will stay till you come” when the attendants are rushing off to find Polonius’s body had the audience in splits. There was also a slapstick moment when he went “Whee!” as he was wheeled off at the end of that same scene.
Not that I’m particularly equipped to judge, but Hamlet is widely acknowledged as one of the most difficult Shakespearan roles to pull off and Tennant did appear to be a very engaging Hamlet. (Thankfully, it was modern clothes, and this Hamlet even wore jeans and a beanie; I don’t think I could take Tennant in one of those frilly Elizabethan costumes — he is too skinny — though he will wear one in Love’s Labour Lost!) Even though the sheer presence of Patrick Stewart stole the show, Tennant held his own end up memorably. He brought into it a physicality that is one of the trademarks of his role as the Tenth Doctor on TV. When he goes to greet Horatio, running up to hug him, one is amazed Horatio didn’t keel over and land on his behind! As Hamlet, Tennant is constantly on the move, pounding the stage, even with bare feet — a lot of the scenes, especially around the time of his madness, saw Hamlet barefoot — which added to his tormented existence and his vulnerability, and went quite a way to engage more fully the audience’s empathy.
This particular Hamlet is fidgety, physical — very physical. He flits from being frighteningly intense to flippantly off-hand, and even humorous, in seconds. When he is ranting maniacally and leaping about madly, you wonder if he really is mad or he is just pretending. The most famous lines of the play are performed most naturally — quite low-key and without any fanfare. When he drapes himself across the throne with the crown on his head in a cheeky angle, you can almost see the Doctor again. When he makes some suggestive gestures towards Ophelia, you cringe at his lewdness but laugh nonetheless. When he confronts his mother in her bedroom and drags her across the floor, throws her on the bed and proceeds to rail, you wince with Gertrude, and almost feel the pain as his fingers dig into her arms and he shakes her and batters her with his relentless tirade. Moments later he has his head in his mother’s lap and is being comforted, and you never noticed the change.
Tennant’s acting ability has never been in doubt, and Doctor Who certainly does not showcase the extent of his skill. Whether prancing around the stage trying to convince the world he is mad, weeping curled up in a ball of woe, or whether it is that supremely memorable and intense scene where he confronts his mother about the incestuous relationship with Claudius — it does make you see how much TV and the big screen can sometimes take away. Certainly, the impressive sets and realistic locations on screen add to the glamour, but it is when you sit barely 10 metres from the actors and watch them perform in real life and real time that it hits you, that this is it— these individual men and women and their skill, brought together by a story well told and directed, performed in front of you, for you.
The actors’ faces when they took their bows told a story all of their own, something that is so difficult to put down in words. It was the David Tennants and Patrick Stewarts of the world thanking you, when all you really wanted to do is thank them for giving you a night you’ll never leave behind.