Evening Standard 04.01.08
Gregory Doran must be hugging himself. The director's summer production of Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company comes as the RSC is finally back on an even keel after years of turbulence.
And Shakespeare himself is newly, wildly popular again thanks to Patrick Stewart's West End Macbeth, the RSC's own King Lear with Ian McKellen, and Chiwetel Ejiofor's magnificent Othello at the Donmar Warehouse.
Doran is also pipping two more high-profile Hamlets to the post: Sam Mendes's long-planned production, starring Stephen Dillane as the Prince, and Michael Grandage's with Jude Law for the Donmar's forthcoming residency in the West End, are both scheduled for 2009.
Greatest of all the advantages Doran enjoys, though, is that he has David Tennant in the lead - an actor whose Shakespearean triumphs in 1996 and 2000 with the RSC pale into virtual insignificance beside his performance as the nation's favourite Time Lord in Dr Who. As Doran himself rather understatedly puts it: "David will bring a whole generation of young audience members with him to Stratford for Hamlet, who might not otherwise have come."
It should be no surprise that Tennant wants, for a while, at least, to set down his sonic screwdriver and pull on Hamlet's inky cloak. The role is as dramatic and demanding, and as illuminating of the human condition, as King Lear. It is as challenging for a young actor as Lear is for an older one. And as with Lear, there is always the chance that by the time you are mature enough to play it, you are too old to play it.
Thanks to Dr Who, Tennant has accrued the requisite amount of charisma to play Hamlet. But when he takes to the stage of the Courtyard Theatre in July, he will be a young-looking 37, and most estimates put Hamlet at 33.
He couldn't afford to miss this chance. A successful Hamlet wipes out the potential competition until it begins to fade from memory, as David Warner's did for an entire generation of Sixties theatregoers.
Back in 2004, Toby Stephens told me of his (quite justified, as it turned out) worries that his RSC Hamlet that year would be overshadowed by Ben Whishaw's earlier, preternatuarally young reading of the role for Trevor Nunn at the Old Vic. Stephens added that his friend Joseph Fiennes felt this brace of Danes ruled him out from playing the role for at least a year.
But although iconic Hamlets loom large, productions tend to arrive not singly but in battalions.
The early Sixties saw a slew of Hamlets: Ian Bannen, Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, Warner. Back in 1989 Mark Rylance's (to my mind) near-definitive performance was unfairly eclipsed by the breakdown Daniel Day-Lewis suffered while playing the same part at the National (he reportedly saw his own dead father, the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, as the ghost of Hamlet's father).
Pity poor Daniel Webb, who was playing a very creditable prince for Russian maestro Yuri Lyubimov down the road at the Old Vic, at exactly the same time, and who therefore barely got a look in. In 2000 - the play's popularity perhaps boosted by millennial angst - Adrian Lester, Simon Russell Beale and Mark Rylance (again) took the part.
By the time Tennant's Hamlet makes its anticipated transfer to London after the Stratford run ends in November, he will be within soliloquising distance of Law and Dillane. And our anticipation of these performances is sharpened, though we may not like to admit it, by a sense of competition. Who will be the greatest Dane?
Doran enjoys the advantage of being first out of the gate. He also enjoys the advantage of having an ensemble company who will perform not only Hamlet, but also Love's Labour's Lost and A Midsummer Night's Dream, and who will benefit from the close interrelationship and variety such an arrangement brings.
Tennant himself will twin Hamlet with Berowne in Love's Labour's, while his Claudius in Hamlet will be that other screen star reminding us of his Shakespearean pedigree, Patrick Stewart.
It's too early to expect Tennant to have an idea of how he will play Hamlet, or for Doran to comment on the look and setting of his production. But the director is certain of both the appeal and the ability of his leading man (the two are also friends, having worked together on Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound and Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy at the Donmar).
"David Tennant's talent as a Shakespearean actor became immediately apparent when he cracked the difficult comic role of Touchstone in Stephen Pimlott's As You Like It," says Doran. "Shakespeare's clowns are really hard to pull off.
"He then went on to broaden that scope with Edgar in King Lear at Manchester, and then Romeo for Michael Boyd in 2000 alongside Antipholus in Comedy of Errors, both for the RSC.
"The combination of Hamlet and Berowne really suits his considerable range of talents and I am thrilled that we have been able to make this work. His combination of a great ability to juggle with words, his wonderful comedic skills, and searing intelligence will stand him in good stead in tackling the role they say lies in wait for every great actor."
Jude Law and Stephen Dillane will surely be watching with bated breath.
• David Tennant's Hamlet is at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon from 24 July. Information: 0844 800 1110; www.rsc.org.uk.
This article is at thisislondon.co.uk/theatre/ from the Evening Standard.
I just know David is going to be magnificent in both "Hamlet" and "Love's Labour's Lost". I'm anticipating rave reviews for his performances.