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Saturday, August 9, 2008


David Lister: RSC's Tennant triumph

Saturday, 9 August 2008

David Tennant has triumphed as Hamlet this week. OK, the universally good reviews (see Performance Notes below) are of the "very, very good if not quite great" variety. But great Hamlets don't come along that often. And Tennant's debut in the role with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon has clearly knocked both critics and audiences sideways, helped by a production that has also received rave notices.

What struck a number of critics was an unusual sight in the audience: teenagers and even younger children watching the three-and-a-half hour play with rapt attention. Children are not of themselves an unusual sight at Stratford, but usually they are less than rapt and asking when the interval is.

These children and teenagers, fans of Tennant as Doctor Who on TV, had clearly made the running, asking their parents to take them or buying tickets for themselves. And they loved what they saw. This piece of celebrity casting may have paid real dividends in turning a new audience on to Shakespeare in particular, and the theatre in general. And, yes, I know that it is strictly speaking unfair to David Tennant to talk of celebrity casting.

He is a tried and tested actor and was with the RSC before becoming a television star. But let's be honest. It's pretty unlikely that the RSC would have suddenly plucked him out of the ranks of the country's actors to play Hamlet if he had not acquired a national reputation as Doctor Who. TV stardom played a big part in this casting decision. These decisions can be slightly trickier than they seem. They don't always guarantee the packed houses that Tennant's Hamlet has achieved. In 1995, just after the BBC's massively popular Pride and Prejudice, the RSC brought the screen's Elizabeth Bennet, that fine actress Jennifer Ehle, also RSC-trained, back to Stratford to star in John Vanbrugh's Restoration comedy The Relapse. It most certainly did not sell out.

But Tennant and his massive TV fan base have done the trick. So where does that leave those of us who have always been undecided about "celebrity casting", if one can use that term also to cover those much better know for TV and film than theatre work?

I think it leaves us having to reconsider. It might be tough on other actors who have been solidly working their way up the ranks of the RSC to see Tennant drafted in for the most famous role in the English language. Not only has he done it well, but he has also managed to bring in and transfix a new, young audience.

Sir Peter Hall, the founder of the RSC, once said that he had hit upon three words to please pretty well everybody – royal, Shakespeare and company. I'd say that now the three most sacred words in the theatre are new, young and audience.

One only has to look round the auditorium at any theatre in Britain at the moment to see the desperate need to interest a younger audience in the art form. Drafting in Hollywood stars, with limited acting ability, for one "novelty" production achieves little. But a TV star, who happens to be a fine actor and has a young fan base, is not a bad way of finding that audience.

The rapt young audience at Stratford is likely to try another play, and another Shakespeare play. It was engrossed not just by Tennant but by the story of Hamlet and the excitement of seeing it on stage rather than reading it in a classroom. The RSC has found the way to renew its audience. I doubt that there will be any turning back.

It's so fantastic to read that the younger people are watching the play with such rapt attention.


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