It’s a time-honored strategy. A skilled actor defined by one major role does some “challenging” work on a serious project to show that they’re flexible in anticipation of moving to a more serious and major level of their career. In the UK, the practice often involves a run in theater. For David Tennant, who had extensive theater experience anyway, it was the natural move – use the gap year opened in the production to do some high profile bit of theater.
Meanwhile, the Royal Shakespeare Company was in a position that could only be described as “in dire need of a hit.” The decision to terminate its relationship with the Barbican Centre in 2002 had left it with a vastly diminished presence in London, which, as it turned out, was not necessarily a great thing for a theater company, especially given that its Stratford-upon-Avon facilities were, at the same time, undergoing a lengthy renovation. The result was several years where the Company hemorrhaged money.
The two were natural partners, in other words. Tennant allowed them to have a high-profile production with a celebrity actor that would amount to a license to print money, and Tennant had a nice, high profile “respectable” role to use as he attempted to transform his post-Doctor Who career into, ideally, something American. And so we got the 2008 production of Hamlet in which Tennant pairs with Patrick Stewart, mostly running in Stratford. Adding respectability to the affair (on Tennant’s end) was him being a good RSC citizen and taking up a production of Love’s Labour Lost alongside Hamlet that, for a variety of reasons, was not treated as nearly as big a deal.
For all that this makes perfect sense on paper, it was in some ways an awkward marriage. The RSC was in many ways unprepared to handle the sheer popularity that it had, and found itself trying to avoid looking too much like a populist circus, grumpily banning audience members from asking for anything other than RSC memorabilia to be signed and generally acting as though they were a bit annoyed that a bunch of sci-fi fans were giving them piles of money for what rapidly became the summer’s hottest theater ticket. And things got decidedly awkward towards the end of 2008/beginning of 2009 when Tennant suffered a back injury requiring surgery and ruling him out of the bulk of the London run of the play.
But that this was such a controversy as to get repeated news coverage, and that a theater ticket in Stratford would be the hottest ticket of the summer speaks volumes about just how popular Doctor Who was at the end of 2008/beginning of 2009. Not only is Stratford a hundred miles and a two-hour train ride outside of London, it’s simply not a very big town – its population of 25,000 is smaller than that of Newtown, Connecticut, meaning that anyone wanting to see the production had to travel to a town with little else to do but tour a few museums and churches specifically for it. And they did, en masse, because that’s how major a production this was. Hamlet simply put, is an integral part of the story of Doctor Who in this period.
In many ways what jumps out most is that, for all that the RSC stomped its feet, it wasn’t a bunch of anoraks wanting Tennant to sign sci-fi merchandise that hit Stratford. For all that the production is clearly designed as “Doctor Who vs Captain Picard in Hamlet,” Patrick Stewart almost found himself swallowed off the bill, and, apparently, stopped doing stage door appearances after the first night (when I saw it in Stratford, the owner of the bed and breakfast I stayed at somewhat haughtily asked me if I knew who else was in it, visibly assuming that everyone only knew about Tennant). Tennant, meanwhile, would do about ten minutes of signing a night, such that the only way to actually get to see him was to go on a night you weren’t actually seeing the play or, alternatively, to skip the back half of the play in favor of queuing.
And yet the focus was clearly on Tennant as a celebrity. The Doctor Who connection was part of the story, yes, but really not part of the marketing or paratext – it is not as though Stratford exploded with long brown coats and sonic screwdrivers during the run. Sure, there was one fish and chips shop that stuck a Dalek in the window with a caption reading “EXTERMINATE YOUR HUNGER,” but that was a lone bit of crass marketing in a town that otherwise retained its status as a second tier tourist trap. Perhaps more tellingly, the simultaneously running production of a play called Under the Blue Sky in London, featuring Catherine Tate, did nothing like this sort of ecstatic business.
There’s a line of argument that suggests that this is primarily driven by female fans attracted to David Tennant who merely watched Doctor Who because he was in it. This is, however, clearly fallacious on several levels. For one, it’s not like Tennant was a major star prior to Doctor Who. He didn’t have a built-in fanbase, and any one he acquired came from people who watched Doctor Who and fell in love with him. With no large ratings boost between the first and second seasons, there’s no real way to argue that there was an influx of Tennant fans who previously hated the show. Beyond that, the underlying argument is bracingly sexist – the usual term is “fangirls,” a term that tacitly emphasizes their gender so as to insinuate that their only real interest is that they fancy the actor, as though male fans of Doctor Who didn’t compile lists of all the times you could see Katy Manning’s knickers.
But more to the point, it’s visibly untrue – a simplification that ignores the much larger audience Doctor Who actually commands. When I saw it, my then-wife and I were seated next to an older couple who were just RSC regulars, but who also greatly enjoyed Doctor Who. The theater was dotted with fans of various genders, as you would expect from a mass cultural phenomenon. This wasn’t some simple bit of demographics at play, but a subtler interplay. After all, it wasn’t even Love’s Labour Lost that was drawing people in, but the phenomenon of David Tennant being in Hamlet.
Hamlet is, of course, the Genesis of the Daleks of Shakespeare – the one that is so canonically the best as to render further discussion oddly superfluous. Like Genesis of the Daleks, it has more than enough oomph to live up to its billing, and yet its status seems oddly out of proportion. Sure, it’s very good, but it’s tough to argue that it’s head and shoulders above King Lear or Othello. But Hamlet is nevertheless the prestige piece – the big one, if you will. Tennant, for his part, is very good at the role. The same skill that makes him a good Doctor – his ability to insert an unusually high volume of decisions into his reading of a given scene – helps him just as well in Shakespeare. He can deliver Shakespearean dialogue at speed in a way that makes the content of the lines clear. This is no mean feat – Shakespeare is brilliant, but the fact that the language is not normal conversational English makes it difficult to pick up on things at conversational speed. Being able to add, in effect, a second channel of communication through gesture and tone of voice helps in a big way. And it’s not particularly distinct from how Tennant is capable of having dialogue about, say, Z-neutrino energy and using it to deliver actual information instead of the patent nonsense that it actually is.
Tennant also adds an energy to Hamlet that is useful for the character. “I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth,” he says, but in far too many productions it becomes impossible to see where any such mirth might have come from in the first place. The play is about a man who used to be witty, charming, intelligent, and to have a couple of proper rogues as friends, and yet in its ossified status as The Greatest Play by The Greatest Writer all of this is often lost under the play’s seriousness. Tennant pries it out again, and in a way that makes Patrick Stewart’s casting (and particularly the impact of his double role as both Claudius and the ghost) fortuitous. Stewart, in effect, plays Claudius more like the standard issue Hamlet (and the ghost as an over-the-top austere role), giving Tennant room to define his character differently.
And, of course, there’s a tragic quality to the role that is interesting. Hamlet dies. He does not regenerate. There is no get out of jail free card that extends the narrative. Hamlet is defined by the fact that it has a definite ending. Its status as a play makes this all the more powerful. Movie version or no, the actual events in Stratford in the summer of 2008 cannot be revisited. Hamlet really does have an end, both as a character, a text, and as an event. In this regard it’s telling that Tennant does not pitch the character all that differently from the Doctor. His Hamlet is still manic energy flecked with angry steel – a wheeling performance full of reversals in every line.
It is of course absurd to suggest that the Royal Shakespeare Company would put on a production of Hamlet to serve as a metaphor for Doctor Who, or that Tennant’s fannishness extends so myopically that he’d play the role that way. And yet equally, whatever the intent of everyone involved, that is clearly what the production was – a story where Tennant plays a version of the Doctor who is not merely mortal, but already dead. Which, in point of fact, his Doctor already was. In this regard, Hamlet became, in effect, the Tenth Doctor’s real regeneration story – the story where his character faces impossible odds and dies in the face of them.
We’ve talked more than once about the unique cultural role the Davies/Tennant era of Doctor Who had. And we’ll keep doing so over the next two months as we get to The End of Time. But for now it’s worth remembering that the end of it was a cultural event in a way that nothing since the end of the Tom Baker era ever had been before. And even then, Tom Baker left decidedly after the peak popularity of his Doctor. Tennant and Davies announced their departures at the peak of their popularity, and at a time when the question of whether there was such a thing as Doctor Who after them was a reasonable one.
In that context, Hamlet becomes an odd phenomenon. It played the cultural role of showing the end of Tennant’s Doctor. In a real sense, Hamlet ends so that Doctor Who doesn’t have to, giving the fully cathartic and tragic end of one vision of Doctor Who that the series, defined as it is by its immortality, never quite can. This was not, perhaps, what was expected by anyone when the production was put together. And yet it was what happened, and, ultimately, why the production took off where Under the Blue Sky and Love’s Labour Lost didn’t, and why the otherwise quite high profile casting of Patrick Stewart disappeared under the weight of things. All three were marvelous in their own ways, but they were not needed interventions in a larger cultural narrative. The existence of David Tennant, the Tenth Doctor, as Hamlet, Prince of Denmark was.
Put another way, for one brief summer, Doctor Who was, in terms of its psychochronographic footprint, bigger than Shakespeare.