Saturday, 10 January 2009


London transfer, with and without David Tennant

(Written by Penelope)
I liked Edward Bennett, I really did. He was a good Hamlet. (Bennett was understudy for David Tennant, who was absent from the RSC's London run of Hamlet for three weeks, while Tennant had an operation on a prolapsed disc). Bennett was clear, focussed, his 'To Be or Not To Be...' was moving and effective. I believed in his love for Ophelia, his love for Gertrude and his death scene made several people in the audience around me cry.

I was incredibly lucky, though, a week after seeing Edward Bennett to see David Tennant play the role.I don't mean to be cruel, but the two actors really are in a different league. Bennett shows promise and has poise. Tennant is an actor who makes you suspend your disbelief, forget where you are and who inhabits a part. He doesn't just speak the verse, he becomes the words and the emotions in it. It was the most extraordinary performance I've ever seen at the theatre (the only other that comes close was seeing Patrick Stewart play Macbeth a year ago).

So what was so special? Tennant shows an understanding of Shakespeare and of the part that makes you forget he's best known for playing a 900-year-old Time Lord. He seemed to absorb all the joys and miseries of Hamlet and make them his own. His descent into madness was both moving and very funny. He manages to make 400 year old verse sound contemporary and fresh. Watching his 'To Be or Not To Be' was amazing - there was such a spontaneity that it was as if Hamlet were formulating his thoughts about what he should do right in front of your eyes. He convinces you that he feels every emotion and and that the revelations in the final duelling scene are making his heart break.

He's very physical and athletic, he moves around the stage a lot, but his Hamlet is more than just about perpetual movement; it's about the words. From his acerbic disapproval of his mother's marriage to his uncle -- "I shall in all my best obey you, madam" -- to his preposterous labelling of Polonius as a 'fishmonger' and finally, his wretched, premature death -- "I thou didst ever hold me in thy heart" -- all of these were delivered in such a convincing way that you were whisked into another, darker world and made to not only understand, but feel the meaning of the verse.

He plays to the audience but also to his fellow actors. David Tennant's impact on the other members of the cast was also very marked. Oliver Ford Davies, who played Polonius, was described by one critic as the best ever in that role. He was good with Edward Bennett. But against Tennant's Hamlet, he was funnier, louder, bigger, sadder, more tragic, more exasperated and more loveable. Hamlet's accidental murder of Polonius was somehow more tragic in the Tennant version. Penny Downie as Gertrude was different too -- their scene in her chamber was so tender and passionate that it was almost painful to watch. Her later realisation that Claudius had duped her and that her son had been right was shocking in its intensity. And with Tennant, Hamlet's love for his faithful friend Horatio (Peter De Jersey) was palpable.

Patrick Stewart was magnificent in both versions, but his interaction with Tennant's mocking Hamlet sent shivers up your spine. Seeing two talented Shakespearean actors playing against one another was joyous.

If I wanted to be critical, I would say that years of television mean that Tennant needs to work on projecting his voice better. A couple of times he was almost inaudible to those sitting in the upper tiers of the theatre. And while I found his grief for Ophelia at her graveside astonishingly affecting, I wasn't entirely convinced by his love for her in their earlier scenes together. But overall, I would say that I can't quite believe my luck that I managed to have a ticket to see one of the most magical performances from an actor who is clearly on top of his game and who promises so much more in the years to come.

And while I'm not exactly a screaming teenager, I would say that David Tennant really has amazing talents and is so much more than Dr Who, wonderful as he is in that role. If I were the RSC, I'd line him up now to play Macbeth in 5-10 years.

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