So. David Tennant and Shakespeare. Do I go fan-girl or literate? I'll try for literate this time:
As I sit down to write this review, I must confess that I am tempted to feign a greater level of expertise and familiarity with Shakespeare than I in fact possess. My mother was an English professor at the college level, and I grew up with the classics in the air. And, bluntly, I’m very vain and like to appear smart. But I have to be honest. I have huge holes in my reading of the classics, and the last time I read what little Shakespeare I have, was many years ago in school. The only Shakespeare plays I have seen recently have been at my daughter’s school performances, a Shakespeare-in-the-park or two, and the movie of Midsummer Night’s Dream with Kevin Kline. I do remember watching the televised Shakespeare long ago, with either Richard Burton or Laurence Olivier. I remember lots of ornate, heavy period costumes, elaborate sets and very little movement. I seem to recall that the style of delivery, especially the soliloquies, to be minimalist – the actor stood rather still, face composed, the words delivered in great, rolling, rich tones of oration. My overall impression was dusty and musty.
So, maybe my reaction to seeing David Tennant’s Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet is skewed. Maybe many modern renditions of these works are just as exciting, just as joyful, as riveting, as entertaining, as enthralling – but I doubt it. This is thrilling theater. My reading these days is mostly science fiction, but after watching these two plays, I wanted to grab a copy of Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet on my Kindle and read them right away, if only to answer my question of, “Did Shakespeare really write that?”
In both productions, as different as they are, the entire cast is fantastic. Catherine Tate played Beatrice to a T (lol), although she did veer into comedic mugging on occasion. But then again, that might be something Beatrice would do. I thought the father in Much Ado was excellent, as well. As for Hamlet, what a joy it is to watch Patrick Stewart devour the role of Claudius. But…
Yes, I’m not an impartial viewer. I’ve labeled myself as a David Tennant fan. But I simply could not take my eyes off him, whenever he appeared. The versatility of the man is awesome.
First, there’s his sheer physicality. The way he moves – ! He’s like a great force barely contained. He absolutely owns the stage. He strides, slouches, glides, dances, slumps and pirouettes. He’s a master of comedy, using his long, gangly limbs to amazing effect. Tennant in drag, with a mini skirt, lace pantyhose and red patent-leather army boots, prancing on tiptoe, is a sight that I’ll die happier for having seen. Yet the brilliance of this performance of Much Ado is that they didn’t contort the play to have DT clown around like this. (Truthfully, though, I could have done without Tate dangling around in the air, her bosom threatening to pop out – don’t ask.) And the scene where Benedict “overhears” how Beatrice “loves” him, in which a stray tray of house paint is used to brilliant comic effect… Well, David Tennant in a Superman T-shirt with paint smeared all over his face and chest, grinning madly and with eyes sparkling, is an image clicked on and saved by many Tennant devotees. Yet for all the slapstick in that scene, I remember best the play of emotion on DT’s face – disbelief, amazement, dawning realization, and finally, incredulous love. I believed every moment.
Moving on to Hamlet, DT again brings his physicality to the role. He is contained and quiet in the initial scenes, but as the Moody Dane’s emotional torment builds, his mental energy is echoed in his body. Indeed, it’s as if the churning of Hamlet’s mind is so forceful that it propels his body with its energy. DT has said in interviews that while Hamlet was a role that he’d dreamed of someday playing, when the role came, he felt rather terrified by the weight of all who’d gone before. How do you take those hoary soliloquies that have been done so many times before and make them fresh? Well, I assure you that no one else has performed these like David Tennant. His “To be, or not to be,” is masterful. In an early scene, his Hamlet, in despair, crumples to the ground like a child – yes, like a child who has lost his father, making this cultural iconic figure intensely personal and real. And in the quiet agony over his wondering whether he wishes to live or die, Tennant’s amazingly expressive eyes reach out and grab you. If you’re not moved, I’d say it’s time to check for a pulse.
DT then goes from these moments of quiet, deep despair to the “Am I a coward?” speech while jumping around – no, not jumping; rather, leaping like an enraged lion about the stage, all in a heartbeat. I’m not very knowledgeable about theater, but the staging here seems to me fresh, bold and exciting.
After the physicality – or rather, another aspect of it, because what tools does an actor have but his/her physical self? – is DT’s ability to emote honestly and transparently without seeming artificial. With the slightest movement, he lets us see so very many nuanced emotions as they flit across his face. Thoughtful, skeptical, somber, tortured, enraged – he makes us feel it all right along with him. He swallows, and the movements of his throat and Adam’s apple, along with a hollow look in his eyes, says it all. His face can communicated more in his pauses between words than others can say with paragraphs. He never seems to be “acting;” he merely inhabits the role completely. And with these filmed versions of staged theater, the camera can be close up, allowing Tennant to shine with these subtle, intense, and very personal moments.
"Much Ado About Nothing” is available only through Digital Theatre (www.digitaltheatre.com), for now at least. “Hamlet” is available on DVD. I can’t recommend these more highly to both Tennant fans and anyone looking for a fresh view of these plays.
OK, enough with the "literate." Now, can I just tell you that DT is so adorable and hot and squee-worthy in both of these? I never thought of Shakespeare as, uh, before-bedtime reading, shall we say, but watching either of these would definitely put me in the bedroom mood. Wowza.