11 Nov 2013

Tennant on Shakespeare: ‘I love doing the plays’

David Tennant’s widely-praised Richard II will be broadcast live from the RSC to cinemas on Wednesday. The former Dr Who actor says it gives people “the chance of being live in the theatre”.

In a very unscientific straw poll in the days leading up to my interview with David Tennant, it was clear most people had a favourite Tennant-realised character.

Doctorr Who, naturally, was a big contender. Casanova was another (that part came back in the heady days of 2005 when the actor wasn’t on TV seemingly all the time). His DI in Broadchurch was a favourite (he got to use a Scottish accent close to his own in that one). Nobody though cited Tennant’s Hamlet. Or his Richard II.

Clearly, that’s unlikely to be anything to do with the way David Tennant gets his tongue around Shakespeare’s words; it’s just the natural way of things. Four hundred years ago, perhaps, Tennant would have been a big star precisely because of his mastery of the bard.

These days, we don’t consume Shakespeare like we used to.

Broadcast live to cinemas

I was granted an interview though (he doesn’t do many these days, though he seems to prefer TV and radio interviews to the mainstream print media) because he will be bringing his Richard II to a wider audience on Wednesday. Well, that’s the RSC’s intention.

The live performance from Stratford-upon-Avon that night will also be broadcast live in cinemas across the country.

So what does David Tennant think about the argument that’s been rumbling, most recently after Julian Fellowes adapted Romeo and Juliet for the big screen by modernising the language? Fellowes has been quoted as saying you need a “very expensive education” to understand Shakespeare.

The man playing Richard II disagrees. Of the plays he said: “I don’t have an expensive education, I went to a comprehensive in Paisley, and I don’t think they’re remote or difficult”. (He told me, for any of you worrying that they are remote, that in rehearsal there’s plenty actors don’t understand, it’s a process of working out what the language means.

But if the plays are realised well on stage, it’s easier he says, to understand what’s happening).

But neither does he see it as his job to bring Shakespeare to the masses. It is selfishness, he told me, that has him returning to the RSC. “I love doing the plays.”

Lucky talisman worn on stage

There’s been much comment about his long-haired Richard II. When we met, the hair extensions were neatly tucked away in the kind of French plait my daughter would love me to be able to manage.

Another story that’s emerged from this performance concerns the ring he wears on stage every night. It belonged to Ian Richardson who wore it when he played Richard II, the last big Scottish actor to do so. So Ian Richardson’s widow sent it to David Tennant – and he’s worn it on stage ever since, a “talisman” and a link to a great Shakespearian actor of the past.

As for the live screenings, David Tennant admits honestly he doesn’t know what the experience will be like for audiences. There’ll be “more spitting than on TV as the cameras will record what’s actually happening on stage. It’s an attempt to give cinema-goers the “experience of actually being live in the theatre,” he told me.

As for his next roles, the Dr Who 50th Anniversary special later this month sees him on screen with two other doctors. He’s off to the States to star (with an American accent this time) in the remake of Broadchurch – and of course, he’s on TV now in the terrifying Escape Artist (as a footnote, he doesn’t think that show gets the violence-quotient wrong.)

He’s rarely been unemployed since he started acting and the parts keep on coming. What would he like to do next? Well, it’s difficult to think of something for TV as it hasn’t been written yet, he laughed, “The notion I want to play a vet or a fireman, it’s quite nebulous. But if someone wrote a fantastic script about a fireman vet, I’d do it.”

The gauntlet is down……