If you ask theatre director Anna Mackmin why she cast multi award-winning comedian, actress and writer Catherine Tate as sluttish middle-aged maths teacher Michelle in the carnal merry-go-round that is David Eldridge’s comedy Under the Blue Sky, she says, “I’d have been a fool not too! Catherine is a very good actress. She’s incredibly funny, totally unsentimental and has huge reserve for feeling. She’s a real grafter, whose ambition is all for the play and the ensemble.”
When the same question was put to Royal Shakespeare Company associate director Gregory Doran about David Tennant being the latest actor to take on Hamlet, the longest role in Shakespeare, he answered: “David has great intelligence to tackle this role. It feels that there is no such thing as a definitive Hamlet – there are only an infinitive number of Hamlets. What he will get is the excitement of the role, the drive – Hamlet’s experience of grief, his experience of what it is to grow up. All those things he will approach with a freshness, a kind of ‘new’.”
Given their current TV cred, neither actor could ever be said to be out of joint with the times, unlike the alienated Hamlet. And when Tennant takes command at the RSC’s Courtyard Theatre (and later this year at the West End’s Novello Theatre) and Tate romps around the bedroom as slapper Michelle in Under the Blue Sky at the West End’s Duke of York’ Theatre, it’ll be possible to see two actors on stage who have both been time travelling together in Doctor Who – one starring in a timeless classic (Tennant also appears at Stratford as Berowne in Love\'s Labour\'s Lost), another in a timely sex comedy (when Under the Blue Sky was first staged at the Royal Court Upstairs in 2000, directed by Rufus Norris, the Guardian’s Michael Billington called it “a teachers’ La Ronde which deals, in a wittily circular fashion, with romantic and sexual agony among the academic classes”).
If Tennant ever had a dream acting role it was never the moody Dane on stage, always the mighty Doctor on TV. Wind the clock back to the age of three. Even then the toddler was apparently telling his parents that he wanted to become an actor because he was mad about Doctor Who. Later, when the teenage David McDonald was studying at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (he was soon to adopt the professional name Tennant – apparently inspired by seeing Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys in Smash Hits magazine), he told his old school magazine, the Grammarian, that the only role he had set his sights on was Doctor Who, “because I have a fetish about men dressed in plastic suits”.
Tennant finally – and famously – achieved his ambition in 2005, when he was cast as the tenth – and surely most popular – Time Lord from Gallifrey in the BBC series, and was soon joined in the Tardis by Tate as his companion Donna Noble, the runaway bride turned galactic commuter, battling aliens and monsters, like the potato-headed Sontoran, or releasing tentacle-faced Oods from slavery. As Tate quipped at the time: “I\'m honoured and delighted to be joining David aboard the Tardis. I was holding out for summer season at Wigan rep but as a summer job this’ll do.”
A default way of being
As the current series of Doctor Who comes to an end, Whovians will be eagerly anticipating Tennant’s Great Dane (no doubt vying with Trekkies eager to see Patrick Stewart as the Ghost and Claudius) and fans of Tate and her gallery of sketch comedy characters will be hot-footing it to the West End. But no one should be surprised that they are both doing time on the boards. As anyone who has seen Tennant playing a gallery of non-sci-fi characters in the theatre will confirm, to be or not to be one of our finest stage actors was never in doubt. He’s a natural. As Tennant once said himself, stage work is his “default way of being”.
In 1996, when he was just 25, Tennant joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, winning high praise for his Touchstone in As You Like It, his Jack Lane in Peter Whelan’s The Herbal Bed, his Romeo in Michael Boyd’s production of Romeo and Juliet, his Captain Jack Absolute in The Rivals and his Antipholus of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors (for which he received a 2000 Ian Charleson Award nomination for best classical actor under 30).
Tennant also walked off with the 2005 Critics’ Award for Theatre in Scotland Best Male Performance, as Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, having already earned himself a 2003 Laurence Olivier nomination for Best Actor for the role of Jeff in Lobby Hero at the Donmar Warehouse. Late in 2005, the Evening Standard’s Nicholas de Jongh singled out his stand-out performance in Martin McDonagh’s nightmare-ish The Pillowman at the National Theatre. “Tennant’s wonderful, emotionally wracked performance as Katurian, desperate for his stories to survive his death, conveys the essence of McDonagh’s dark vision of police state machinations.”
But as Tennant told Whatsonstage.com back in 2003, when he was in The Pillowman, Hamlet, Berowne and Jimmy Porter were already on a long list of stage roles he still wanted to play. “Starting with Shakespeare, there are a load: Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, Berowne in Love\'s Labour\'s Lost, Angelo in Measure for Measure, Richard II. I tried to persuade Michael Boyd to let me do Hamlet, but he’d already gone and signed up Toby Stephens! Other parts? Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, Jack in The Importance of Being Earnest, either of the men in Closer.” How quickly before he ticks the others off that list?
Standing up & standing out
Apart from daring Donna in Doctor Who, Catherine Tate (she was born Catherine Ford, but changed her name when she got her Equity card) is still best known for her groundbreaking award-winning BBC series The Catherine Tate Show and her freak’s roll call of catchphrase monsters, including insolent teenager Lauren Cooper (her “Am I bovvered?” is now an official entry in the Oxford English Dictionary), foul-mouthed cockney Joannie “Nan” Taylor and Derek Faye, the camper-than Christmas bachelor in denial (“Who dear? Me dear? Gay dear? No dear!”).
“I don’t know why, but people tend to look at stand-ups and think they can act, which actually isn\'t the case,” Tate once said in an interview. Indeed, Like Tennant, she’s no stranger to the stage classics. Go back in time, to before her stand-up comedy career took her off into another dimension entirely, and well before she last acted in the West End alongside former Friends star David Schwimmer in Neil LaBute’s Some Girls in 2005, and you’ll find Tate at the RSC playing Smeraldina in A Servant to Two Masters.
This Goldoni classic was one thing, but chiming with the Bard’s arcane comedy was something else, Tate admitted last year when she spoke at one of the RSC’s “Shakespeare and Me” series of talks. “It’s got to strike a chord with us. We can’t write Shakespeare off, but wearing bells on knees isn’t going to work,” adding that she had once impersonated Ian McKellen delivering a Shakespearean speech, which apparently helped her pass her drama school audition for Central at the age of 17. It must have worked. After graduating, she soon landed roles at the National Theatre, including Peg in Phyllida Lloyd’s 1995 production of The Way of the World (in the same year that Tennant was also at the National, playing page boy Nick in What the Butler Saw).
But joining the National, Tate once recalled, wasn’t the anticipated step up the theatrical ladder. “You go in at a low level, you come out as you go in. There’s a hierarchy that’s impossible to climb.” It was then that she tried stand-up comedy, and never looked back: “It was such a relief to take some control back.”
Looking back on Tate’s laughter-making, Under the Blue Sky playwright David Eldridge observes, “the comedy was something she did for herself, but she never considered herself anything other than an actor and always had an interest in doing plays. I saw her in a reading at the Donmar and she was fantastic in it, so when they first talked to me about sending Catherine Tate my play, I was delighted. She’s very well cast and, really for her, this is a coming home more than a departure.”
So do you still consider Tennant (voted Most Popular Actor at the National Television Awards 2007) and Tate (the real people’s choice at the 2008 National Comedy Awards) as just a couple of Doctor Who stars doing time on stage between jobs? As Derek Faye would say, “How very dare you!”
Under the Blue Sky opens this Friday 25 July 2008 (previews from 15 July) at the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre, where it continues for a limited season until 20 September. Hamlet runs at the RSC’s Courtyard Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon from 5 August 2008 (previews from 24 July) until 15 November, and is joined in rep by Love\'s Labour\'s Lost from 2 October. Hamlet then transfers to the West End’s Novello Theatre from 9 December 2008 (previews from 3 December) to 10 January 2009.
A longer version of this article appears in the current July/August issue of What’s On Stage magazine, which is available now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online version. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatre Club - click here to subscribe now!!
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