Gratuitous David Tennant blogging (now with rich and creamy Hamlet coating)

image credit: promo-shot from the RSC via

The reviews of the latest RSC production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (starring David Tennant) are in, and they’re somewhat mixed. (Although not for Patrick Stewart, whose Claudius appears to be universally praised.)

Mostly good, a few highly laudatory, and a sad rump apparently unable to forget Doctor Who (celebrity casting! the horror!) while watching the goings on at Stratford – quite a few reviews only mention DT’s performance, with perhaps a perfunctory nod to Stewart’s, and don’t mention the performers playing Gertrude, Ophelia, Laertes or Polonius at all, let alone the smaller roles.

In some ways this is understandable – and not only because many of these reviews are from general culture pundits rather than from theatrical afficionados per se. Although each of these supporting characters has a memorable speech/scene or two, the narrative bulk of The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark is overwhelmingly Hamlet’s opinions and actions (and procrastinations).

image credit: dress rehearsal shot from the RSC (thanks to Jamie Wallace), via

That’s why it’s not particularly a favourite of mine as far as Shakespeare goes (I’m a Scottish Play person) – despite the magnificence of the language I find the other characters emotionally underdeveloped, which disappoints because they are all introduced so very clearly, then go nowhere much, largely having to play “perplexed by Hamlet” the whole way through (then again, aren’t we all? perhaps I merely don’t take very well to being perplexed). Yet despite lacking a certain rounding, these other characters are key ingredients in any production of the mad Dane. Reviews that focus only on the Prince miss something crucial: that Hamlet is still above all an ensemble piece, and simply cannot work on the performance of the actor playing the title role alone.

image credit: dress rehearsal shot from the RSC/Ellie Kurttz, via

Despite the impressive showboating and fireworks license it gives to the younger actor playing Hamlet, the play would never have achieved canon status without those other actors’ fine lines, with all the rich wordplay and warmth and irony within, to anchor the audience to the world beyond the neurotically introspective Prince. It would be nice to see more attention paid to the efforts of these actors to produce a Hamlet that’s truly dramatic instead of merely a rollicking melodrama*.

image credit: dress rehearsal shot from the RSC / Daily Mail / Alastair Muir, via

In furtherance thereof, here’s the complete cast list from the RSC Website (alphabetical by actor’s surname):

DAVID AJALA – Reynaldo
SAM ALEXANDER – Rosencrantz
RICKY CHAMP – Lucianus
TOM DAVEY – Guildenstern
MARK HADFIELD – Gravedigger
KEITH OSBORN – Marcellus
PATRICK STEWART – Claudius/Ghost

image credit: from the RSC/The Telegraph, via

It’s interesting to read various current reviews and also retrospectives of previous productions – more than one claims that there has never been “a definitive” Hamlet, or at least not one for the current generation, although I’m not entirely sure why anyone would actually want one. Surely one of the reasons for lasting audience fascination with the great roles in the theatrical canon is that they don’t know exactly what to expect, because such roles are written with complexity and opportunity for varying nuances in interpretation? Does anybody really want a tragedy performed as a series of catchphrases?

It may not be the most compelling example (seeing as the character is a comic grotesque rather than a dramatic lead), but take one “definitive” performance that has straitjacketed the role ever since, to wit Dame Edith Evans’ famous elongated gliding pitch on “A handbag?” as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. That moment’s reputation meant that not only she but most other Bracknells subsequently have felt compelled to reproduce that delivery every single night instead of actually reacting to the other performers as the lines are said. I’d rather have an engaging performance “in the moment” than a definitive ossified exhibit, thanks.

image credit: from the RSC/Ellie Kurttz, via

Perhaps what they really mean is that there is no one outstanding interpretation of Hamlet against which to measure new productions. Again, I’m not sure that this is a necessary aim for any current production, although of course it would be nice to still have one’s staging being talked about decades later. But the whole point of these productions here and now is to put bums on seats and keep the repertoire alive to fight another day. There have been many celebrity actors** who been invited to take on the role as generators of guaranteed box office receipts, and also many successful productions starring less well-known Hamlets for whom the role has been a leaping board to greater fame. Any longer lasting kudos is gravy, surely.

So, onto DT: even the more unimpressed reviews are at least not totally dismissive – there’s nothing approaching the infamous cattiness of James Agate, for example.

“does not speak poetry badly. He does not speak it at all.”
James Agate on Laurence Olivier playing Hamlet in 1938

image credit: dress rehearsal shot from the RSC/Ellie Kurttz, via

There’s perhaps a touch of condescension in a few of the reviews regarding their surprise at DT’s range and finesse, but again not from the constant theatre reviewers who remember him from his earlier days for the RSC as a classically trained stage actor. (It’s amusing actually that some articles are using a photo from the RSC 2000 production of Romeo and Juliet rather than a shot from this version of Hamlet – if he’s wearing puffy sleeves it’s the feuding Italian rather than the brooding Dane.)

The BBC has a review round-up with a mixed bag of pullquotes. has a page full of the most flattering reviews. I found it interesting that at least one reviewer wondered whether DT wouldn’t do better to use his natural Scots burr instead of sticking to the traditional RP accent, and that several suggested that although his exploration of the humour that can be found in the Dane is both refreshing and impressive, he needs to allow himself room to explore the depths of his emotions as well (although they acknowledge this will probably naturally evolve as the production settles in).

image credit: dress rehearsal shot from the RSC / Daily Mail / Alastair Muir, via

I understand the reservations expressed by some about the cutting of certain key scenes, particularly poor old Rosencrantz and Guildenstern only getting a metaphorical chop in this version, but then again the full play is very long. Someone has to work on getting the balance right, and inevitably it won’t suit everyone.

Still, all in all, mostly good reviews for a first press night, for DT, the ensemble cast, and the director Gregory Doran.

Perhaps my favourite line in the reviews comes from the Beeb’s Caroline Briggs, where she notes something that Mt. Fandom has been keenly keeping track of for some time:

Tennant also uses his hair to great theatrical effect. From the sleek combed-back style of his first scene, he ruffles it to display despair, rage and madness. It deserves a credit of its very own.

Oh yes indeed.

From ihasatardis
image credit: hms_surrender on ihasatardis

* mind you, there may well be a place for perhaps a Hamlet On Ice that dresses Claudius as Snidely Whiplash [back]
** including Christopher Eccleston in 2002 For the Yorkshire Playhouse, to creditable reviews, before he was Tennant’s predecessor as Doctor Who [back]

Categories: arts & entertainment

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28 replies

  1. Oh, how I wish I could see this live. There’s talk that the RSC might release it on DVD, but it’s not the same.

  2. Not the same at all. I’m waiting to see what sort of reviews this Hamlet gets when the production shifts to London in a few months. The cast are all very fine, and they should have tweaked any rough spots to rattle along like a finely tweaked thing by then.

  3. First year I was in the UK I saw Patrick Stewart doing his one-man A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic. He’s pretty hard to rival let alone top (and the poor bloke was sick as a dog that night). I also prefer the bloodier end of the canon (though the Antony Hopkins film version of Titus Andronicus was pretty impressive) but it looks like I’ll have to forgo Hamlet as it’s sold out already.

  4. I first fell in love with Stewart’s larynx back when he played Sejanus in I CLAVDIVS.
    As I was further perusing image galleries, I came across this one which is rather fun for those who remember the Second Doctor.

  5. I hope it will be out on DVD or on American Public Broadcasting sometime in the future, because I will not get to see it otherwise. *sigh*
    Actually, that doesn’t just have to do with David Tennant or Patrick Stewart, but England’s RSC overall to me would be an experience for the books! Shoot, a vacation of any kind….;}

  6. I saw Stewart play a fine, grizzled Antony, but against Harriet Walter’s Cleopatra, and she’s never really done it for me.
    I notice Tennant gets a rave from Michael Billington, who must have seen more Hamlets than almost any other living soul. I also notice Charles Spencer of the Telegraph, who should have been made to retire years ago, managed not to say anything sexist for once.
    It’s crazy to suggest there could be a ‘definitive’ Hamlet. A distinguishing feature of all Shakespeare’s plays is the way they lend themselves to all of us projecting what we want, or expect, to see onto them. This is probably the most true of Hamlet, so everyone has their own, individual Platonic Hamlet. Asking people who their ideal actor for Hamlet would be is a great way to get them to reveal something about themselves.

  7. Asking people who their ideal actor for Hamlet would be is a great way to get them to reveal something about themselves.

    Excellent dinner party question! My darling and I often like to play Shakespeare casting as we’re watching other shows e.g. “he’d make a great MacDuff, but not MacBeth, and won’t he be a terrific Lear in 20 years?”
    Speaking of which, my Friday Hoyden today will be someone I’d be thrilled to see as Lady M. I’ll be interested in your reaction.

  8. Is the first picture related to the Hamlet? I love it.

  9. @ orlando: OH MY GOD Stewart’s Anthony was amazing.

  10. Laura, the first picture is indeed related to the Hamlet – it was the RSC’s promo shot for much if not all of the PR material leading up to the actual production (Tennant was confirmed in the role in ’07).
    It is rather lovely, isn’t it?
    Orlando, the Guardian let Billington loose on an exposition about Hamlet last week, which is rather enjoyable. He doesn’t seem to be much for the idea of a “definitive” Hamlet either, opening with a Wildean sally:

    Oscar Wilde famously said that “there is no such thing as Shakespeare’s Hamlet … there are as many Hamlets as there are melancholies”. One sees his point: there is something elusive and unpindownable about the role and, of all the great parts, this is the one that most encompasses an actor’s individuality.

  11. It’s appropriating this painting.
    It seems to me that there’s no clash between the quote you just put up and the idea that some hamlets are more persuasive and memorable and right for the moment than others. That sort of conviction and rightness can function in practice as definitive, in the sense that it’s the interpretations later ones are measured against, until the memory fades, I guess.
    In theory anyhow. I’ve never seen a Hamlet on stage or on film who I found more interesting than the one you get from just reading the play, though.
    My experience with Shakespeare in performance has been fairly disappointing overall.

  12. My experience with Shakespeare in performance has been fairly disappointing overall.
    Heh, I know what you mean. The first time I saw the play, the Hamlet had a spitting problem– and I was in the front row of the audience.

  13. Laura, you’re quite right that there’s not necessarily a clash – I didn’t link to the more superficial reviews which seemed to be making a big deal of the “definitive performance” thing, because I think they were really just using a term of art that they know of but don’t really understand. Spencer and Wilde appear to both understand the concept in a more nuanced fashion.
    Shakespeare in performance – I wonder if perhaps that’s why MacBeth is my favourite tragedy? It’s harder to totally stuff up than some of the others, I think – although the directors who fart about overly much with the witches as various forms of social commentary do appear to be trying their best to do so.

  14. Oh, and thanks for the picture link – Wanderer above the Sea of Fog is such a fabulous title for that landscape, and it suits the play perfectly.

  15. Where’s my Friday Hoyden/Lady M.?? You can’t leave me dangling like that.
    He is looking a bit Delacroix in that promo shot, isn’t he?
    Sydney Hamlets still always get measured against Richard Roxborough from the early 90s.
    I do agree that a Hamlet can be an ideal fit for a particular cultural moment, precisely because of that mercurial quality we’ve all noted. As he can hold a mirror up to the individual, so the play can to the society that gives rise to the production.

  16. Where’s my Friday Hoyden/Lady M.?? You can’t leave me dangling like that.

    Sorry – we seemed to have so many posts yesterday, and I had to do some of the other things on my To Do list (no matter how often I “lose” it, it still turns up). She’ll arrive sometime this weekend, promise.

  17. I think there’s a good chance David Tennant could be a good Hamlet for the zeitgeist, quite apart from his personal abilities, if he’s allowed to use his Doctor Who persona in the part. There are all sorts of good resonances between their situations. Hamlet even has a different sense of time than the people around him.

  18. The production has just opened in London, but poor DT has had to miss the preview performance and the press night due to a back injury, and is out for a few more at least. It’s all that running down corridors that RTD makes him do, I tells ya!
    The Laertes stepped in as understudy and did a stellar job though, so good on Ed Bennett and congratulations on the standing ovation.

  19. Ooh, poor David Tennant– I imagine he’s the sort of actor who’d be devestated to miss a performance for any reason. I’m glad he’s taking care of his health though.

  20. Looks like he wont get much more than a week of Hamlet in the west end. David Tennant is having surgery for a prolapsed disc tomorrow and wont be back on stage until after Xmas at the earliest (and the run is due to end on the 10th of January).
    I’d say ‘poor baby’ but am worried that I’ll just come across as a creepy stalker-type despite being genuinely sympathetic to the guy’s situation. Surgery is the WORST.

  21. Eh, why not. Poor David. He’s rather young to have that sort of problem.

  22. An opinion piece on how this allegedly “proves” the folly of celebrity casting. I don’t agree entirely with Tim Walker’s premise, but he makes some good points.

  23. I’d not agree that Tennant was cast for his Dr Who celebrity, but that WAS why the production was able to transfer to the West End after the run at Stratford.

  24. @ Deus Ex Macintosh:
    I hadn’t realised that – I thought it was reasonably common for the RSC to transfer productions for a West End Run, especially over the Christmas period.
    The remarks about Tennant failing to rely on “Doctor Theatre” to go on stage despite his injury reveal the ignorance of someone who has never experienced back pain due to disc problems. Would he really have enjoyed a Hamlet who had to limp and crouch about the stage like the worst possible caricatures of Shylock, Iago (ETA: and Caliban) combined?

  25. Hmm… Hamlet – played as a penknife.
    Deus Ex Macintosh’s last blog post..‘Flash’ Gordon

  26. Yes, because celebrities so often fail at theatre because of legitimate medical conditions…right. Not to mention that Tennant was a member of the RSC ages ago.
    This is, after all, not only Tennant’s Hamlet, though–or is Patrick Stewart no longer performing with the company?

  27. Would he really have enjoyed a Hamlet who had to limp and crouch about the stage like the worst possible caricatures of Shylock, Iago (ETA: and Caliban) combined?
    Or indeed, would he have liked to have put him out of commission for so long that it affects the filming of the Doctor Who specials next year?
    I appreciate that this is a damn shame for people who wanted to see Tennant specifically (I know I’d be devestated if it was me), but actors are human too, and I’m pretty sure that the RSC has some sort of disclaimer when you buy the tickets to say that there’s a possibility that you may see an understudy in the case of illness or injury.


  1. Friday Hoyden*: Michelle Gomez at Hoyden About Town
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