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Review Round-up: Is Tennant Hamlet Hype or Hit?

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After all the hype and nearly a year’s wait, Doctor Who star David Tennant’s has at last given us – or at least the critics – his Hamlet. Gregory Doran’s wildly anticipated Royal Shakespeare Company production of the tragedy - with Tennant (pictured) as the Prince and Patrick Stewart, following his Tony-nominated Broadway turn in Macbeth, as the Ghost and Claudius (See News, 11 Sep 2007) - opened last night (5 August 2008, previews from 24 July) at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Courtyard Theatre where it will run until 15 November 2008. It will then transfer to the West End’s Novello Theatre for a limited Christmas season from 9 December (previews from 3 December) until 10 January 2009.

The Stratford season is long sold out (See News, 5 Aug 2008) – with queues forming daily (starting the night before) for returns and a limited number of ten £5 tickets held back for under-25s – and the London dates have nearly sold out to RSC members, who’ve had priority booking access since 16 June ahead of public booking which opens at 10.00am on 12 September, when a further allocation will be released.

Prior to their screen successes, Tennant and Stewart had both racked up myriad RSC and other stage credits. They’re joined in the cast by Penny Downie (as Gertrude), Oliver Ford Davies (Polonius), Peter de Jersey (Horatio), Edward Bennett (Laertes), John Woodvine (the Player King) and Mariah Gale (Ophelia). The production is designed by Robert Jones, with lighting by Tim Mitchell, music by Paul Englishby, sound by Jeremy Dunn, movement by Michael Ashcroft and fight direction by Terry King.

Critics couldn’t resist a Tardis quip or two, but despite this, for the majority, Tennant was able to overcome the hype and prove his abilities as a “really fine, athletic and technically accomplished classical actor”. A few noted that if he hasn’t yet entered the “pantheon of the great Hamlets”, there’s still time for improvement before the production’s London transfer. Elsewhere there was high praise for Patrick Stewart’s “supremely composed” Claudius, Mariah Gale’s Ophelia and Oliver Ford Davies’ Polonius. A few critics were sceptical about Gregory Doran’s cuts to the original text, particularly in the final scenes, but overall, there was great excitement surrounding this “full-value production”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (five stars) – “In the first place, Hamlet should be exciting. And Gregory Doran’s full-value production for the RSC in the Courtyard is exactly that. In the second place, we should respond to Hamlet himself as a funny, fast, sardonic, headstrong prince with a streak of fatal prevarication and sense of his own intellectual superiority. And that we certainly do. David Tennant may be television’s Doctor Who … but he’s a really fine, athletic and technically accomplished classical actor to boot … We know Hamlet as much from what he says as from how he treats people. Tennant is brilliant at this, honing his wit at Polonius’ expense, delighting in the stage-loric grandness of John Woodvine’s Player King, or tolerating Osric (freshly done by Ryan Gage) with an appreciative playfulness. And he moves and speaks with the speed of light, a chameleon, a prankster, a misunderstood maverick. This is easily the most complete Hamlet of recent years, and one of the most enjoyable … A great evening, and a humdinger of a hit for the RSC.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “The big news from Stratford is that Gregory Doran\'s production is one of the most richly textured, best-acted versions of the play we have seen in years. And Tennant, as anyone familiar with his earlier work with the RSC would expect … is a fine Hamlet whose virtues, and occasional vices, are inseparable from the production itself … This is a Hamlet of quicksilver intelligence, mimetic vigour and wild humour: one of the funniest I\'ve ever seen. He parodies everyone he talks to, from the prattling Polonius to the verbally ornate Osric … Tennant is an active, athletic, immensely engaging Hamlet. If there is any quality I miss, it is the character\'s philosophical nature, and here he is not helped by the production … But this is an exciting performance that in no way overshadows those around it. Stewart\'s Claudius is a supremely composed, calculating killer … Oliver Ford Davies\' brilliant Polonius is both a sycophantic politician and a comic pedant … I can scarcely remember a better Ophelia than that of Mariah Gale, whose mad-scenes carry a potent sense of danger … Audiences may flock to this production to see the transmogrification of Doctor Who into a wild and witty Hamlet. What they will discover is a rich realisation of the greatest of poetic tragedies.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “Tennant isn\'t in the pantheon of the great Hamlets yet … What\'s lacking, at present, is weight and depth. He delivers the great soliloquies with clarity, but he doesn\'t always discover their freight of emotion … There remains much to admire. It\'s hard not to warm to a Hamlet who makes you laugh, and Tennant discovers almost every ounce of sarky humour … I have no reservations at all about Stewart, who delivers the strongest, scariest performance as Claudius I have seen. A modern tyrant in a surveillance state full of spies, informers and two-way mirrors in Doran\'s thriller-like production … But Stewart also suggests a man terribly burdened with a guilt he knows he can never expunge and you almost feel sorry for the bastard. This is acting of the highest order with Stewart also doubling as a superb and terrifying Ghost. Penny Downie harrowingly charts Gertrude\'s decline …; Mariah Gale makes a deeply poignant Ophelia; while as Laertes, Edward Bennett transforms himself with aplomb from goofy Hooray Henry to fearsome assassin. With fine support from Peter de Jersey as a touching Horatio and a genuinely funny gravedigger from Mark Hadfield, this is a gripping Hamlet that could become great if Tennant finds the courage to raise the dramatic stakes still further.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent – \"Tennant is adept at most aspects of the role but he excels when the prince becomes a prankish provocateur … I rate Tennant very highly, but I wouldn\'t put him in the absolute front rank of contemporary Hamlets … Or not yet, at any rate. The performance has time to grow. This actor has most of what it takes: the braininess, the breadth of spirit, the reckless irony, the bamboozling banter, the sense of layered depth … So what\'s missing? Well, the part of Hamlet constitutes a special case. However hard you analyse his behaviour and motivations, this character remains to some degree a tantalising mystery … In the soliloquies, the finest performers seem to be, partly, laying bare their own souls to us, too, and laying us bare to ourselves. At the moment, that strange double-feeling of exposure and spiritual connection is not as strong here as one could wish. There may be technical reasons for this. It\'s a pity, for example, that Tennant is using an RP accent rather that his natural incisive Scots lilt that might promote greater intimacy of rapport … I expect that by the time the production reaches London, these problems will have sorted themselves out. Meanwhile, this is a stirring and impressive theatrical event.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “Although this Prince of Denmark will not make the angels weep, Tennant still achieves something sensational and never managed in the past 40 years. He unlocks the key to the mystery of Hamlet and offers a convincing explanation for the prince\'s famous delay in avenging his father\'s murder … His humorous Hamlet emerges as an undiagnosed manic depressive, whose mood swings render him temperamentally incapable of fulfilling a revenge scenario … I was dazzled and excited by this concept, but never enthralled by it in the way I was by the great Hamlets of Mark Rylance, Simon Russell Beale and Ben Whishaw. Tennant elegantly goes through all the motions without being caught up in them … There remains something disconcertingly solid and invulnerable about his prince, even when facing Patrick Stewart\'s unspooky ghost, a role Stewart doubles with a fascinating, original Claudius ... Tennant wears his melancholia, grief and anger as if they were accessories rather than elemental feelings … It is Mariah Gale\'s superb Ophelia, dancing half-naked, flourishing a vast bunch of flowers, who pierces the heart. Doran\'s production, with odd cuts and textual rearrangements, lacks sufficient sense of Denmark under threat of war ... By the time it reaches London I hope Tennant can endow his historic Hamlet with what it crucially misses - a heart.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “Gregory Doran’s fluent, pacey, modern-dress revival of Hamlet gives Tennant the chance to show the world that he has the range to tackle the most demanding classical role of all – and, praise be, he seizes it. I’ve seen bolder Hamlets and more moving Hamlets, but few who kept me so riveted throughout … Tennant isn’t the sort of reductively Oedipal Hamlet who should ideally be stretched out on Dr Freud’s sofa bed. Nor is he one of those Hamlets who, while faking mad, actually becomes mad or half-mad … Tennant is restless, curt and mocking when he needs to be, affectionate when he can be, and, apart from an occasional tendency to gabble, pretty impressive. But most noticeably he’s so dreamily reflective that you feel that Claudius’ fatal mistake was refusing him permission to resume his philosophy degree in the safety of faraway Wittenberg … There can be no complaint about the supporting performances, least of all Oliver Ford Davies’ Polonius … With him in top form, Stewart demonstrating his versatility, and Tennant definitively quitting his Tardis, this is a revival to relish.”
  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail – “For all the stage door excitement and box office success, this is not the greatest Dane. Some parts of the role, particularly the manlier, more noble elements, are underplayed. Director Gregory Doran has made odd cuts which dilute the statecraft in the epic tale and rob young Hamlet of traits which make him such a complex figure. Tennant is also upstaged by a deliciously subtle turn from Patrick Stewart as the wicked but practical King Claudius … Peter de Jersey delivers an empty Horatio, not so much sturdy man of honour as mere camp-follower ... Mariah Gale is suitably touching as the doomed Ophelia and Oliver Ford Davies, one of the English stage\'s chewiest yarners, is in his element as waffling Polonius, the old courtier who meets a sticky end … Doran\'s cuts mean we never learn what happened to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - vital evidence of Hamlet\'s ruthlessness. The finale, similarly, is shorn of the invader Fortinbras\' arrival … We also lose the line about how royal he would have prov\'d, had he been put on. Given the gaucheness in Tennant\'s spirited but unripe rendition, that observation might not have been justified.”

    - by Kate Jackson

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