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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

the show goes on without Tennant

As reader BillM (and others) noted in comments, David Tennant has had to drop out of West End performances of Hamlet through at least Christmas. At first it was just a nonspecified “back injury” that forced him to miss one performance, then a second, then it was “out for weeks to recover from surgery for a slipped disc.”

The fanblog Totally Tennant reported yesterday — sans source — that “David’s surgery is done and the word is that all went well.”

In shocking breaking news, the Telegraph reports that fans are disappointed not to see Doctor Who to-being-or-not-to-being. Tennant’s understudy, Edward Bennett, who usually plays Laertes, stepped into the role, to mixed reviews — certainly none as good as Tennant’s worst reviews.

Now, I made a special trip to Stratford-on-Avon in September to see Tennant in Hamlet (and in Love’s Labour’s Lost), which I wouldn’t have done if Tennant hadn’t been appearing in the plays. On the other hand, I am an idiot, and hadn’t even realized that I’d been neglecting my loves of theater and of travel — which are, of course, easy to neglect when money is tight, as it has been for quite a while for me. That trip reminded me that I used to consider travel and theater essentials to my mental health, and forced me to figure out how to make sure I can get my recommended annual allowance of both. And so I’ve already got another trip to England planned — to London in February, with theater tickets to shows with no stars already purchased (though I’m not ruling out purchasing last-minute tickets to shows with stars once I’m on the ground in the West End). That trip means I have to sacrifice my attendence at the Boston science fiction conventions Arisia and Boskone this winter, which I’d been making a point of getting to for years, but that’s fine. I wish I could do it all, but I can’t. And that trip to Stratford and to the theater in the fall was so rejuvenating — not to mention enormously helpful as I try to expand my pop culture coverage to what’s happening in the U.K. — that the decision was easy.
It also means that I’ve already got tickets to several productions of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Fall 2009 slate in Stratford: I know what the plays are, but they haven’t even been cast yet. I don’t care: my Shakespeare gland has been reactivated, and must be accommodated. And I know that the RSC is worth seeing even without superstar actors… and when there are superstar actors featured in a production, they’re actors first and stars last.

Of course, if we’re all standing in bread lines come summer, the 2009 trip to Stratford will be off. But if not, I’ll figure out something else I can economize on to pay for that trip.

And then, I’d like to spend a stretch of a few months in England in 2010, by which time my Irish dual citizenship and accompanying European Union passport will have come through. But that’s a dream for another day.

Anyway, Tim Walker in the Telegraph is wondering whether it’s a good thing for the RSC to indulge in stunt casting, even if the actor stunt-cast is a damn fine actor as well as a big name. Walker attended a performance of Hamlet with Bennett in the lead role, and this is what he saw:

As the performance got under way, I heard a great many sighs and yawns from Tennant’s fans. That [director Greg] Doran seemed to expect these people, not one of them a natural theatregoer so far as I could see, to sit through almost four hours of Shakespeare without so much as a glimpse of their hero clearly seemed to them to be adding insult to injury.

Say what you like about how boring and contrived a play Equus might be, but at least the Harry Potter fans got to have a glimpse of Daniel Radcliffe’s little wand when that star vehicle opened in the West End. The Doctor Who fans who fought for their first-night tickets had got absolutely nothing for their money, and I doubt they will ever be able to forgive the RSC. There were a great many empty seats around me when the second act began – and no wonder. This was never really about theatre – only star-gazing – and theatre managements shouldn’t ever pretend otherwise.

Let those fans refuse to forgive the RSC, if they must — if they were really there only for Tennant, they were never going to come back anyway.

And hey: I’m off to see Equus on Broadway tonight (via discounted tickets, of course). It’s reportedly been playing to half-empty houses, even with a nude Daniel Radcliffe. So much for stunt casting.



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  • Mark

    Equus? “Boring and contrived”? Excuse me?

    What’s next? Is Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead going to be panned as an “empty intellectual exercise”? What’s the world coming to?

    Ek! Ek!

  • bitchen frizzy

    I’d call Equus dated, not contrived. It could be boring without a good lead, and I can believe that people that aren’t much into theatergoing would be bored by it.

  • Oh noes. I was looking forward to seeing you all at Boskone! Glad you get to travel, nonetheless.

  • Totally Tennant probably got the word from David Tennant.com which is his official website.

    Last update posted there:

    David texted Christian O’Connell this morning as he was listening to the show over the internet in hospital. He said he was doing well after the operation and asked Christian to play Letter From America by The Proclaimers for him.

  • Gee

    Well, I was fortunate to get a last minute ticket to Hamlet’s opening night to add to my ‘proper’ one. I was disappointed when I discovered DT was off, but was prepared that it might happen because he’d not been able to perform on the previous night either (very widely reported in the press, blogs etc.)

    When Greg Doran announced that DT would not be appearing, there were some sounds of dismay, but he was also greeted with huge cheers as he explained that the fully rehearsed RSC understudy process meant that the show could go on!

    I was sitting in the front row (never achieved that before!) and didn’t hear any sighs and yawns. I don’t know where this critic was sitting but it can’t have been that far from me. It is also nonsense to suggest that the DW fans had got “absolutely nothing for their money”. This production of Hamlet has an incredibly strong ensemble, with Patrick Stewart (Claudius/Ghost), Penny Downie (Gertrude) and Oliver Ford Davies (Polonius) being outstanding and none of the other cast being less than good. Ed Bennett aquitted himself well, and no doubt will continue to improve as he explores the role and his interpretation.

    I can’t comment on how many people left at the interval because I didn’t even think to check! No one around me had any hesitation in jumping to their feet at the end to give Ed a standing ovation (which isn’t that common in British theatre) although who knows what was happening further back! Ed was in tears at the end. It was pretty emotional.

    The lady I was sitting next to had also got a last minute ticket and was disappointed that DT wasn’t able to perform. By the interval, she was beaming and making plans to see some more theatre next year in Stratford.

    Here’s a great interview with Ed Bennett:
    http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/stage/theatre/article5326758.ece

  • MaryAnn

    Totally Tennant should have said as much, then.

    Equus? “Boring and contrived”? Excuse me?

    I’ll let you know after tonight. I’ve never seen the play before, nor have I read it, so I’m coming to it fresh.

  • Gee

    Oh, and P.S., MaryAnn, Derek Jacobi has just opened in Twelfth Night to great reviews. That might be one on your ‘to see’ list if you haven’t already booked for it.

  • I guess I’m confused as to how critics define stunt casting.

    This is not Tennant’s first stage play, Shakespeare, or even RSC production. Does having more mainstream fame than other theatre actors automatically relegate you to a “stunt” that producers pull when they need to put more bums in seats? I didn’t think the RSC were doing too poorly without Tennant.

    As for possible disappointed fans – tsch. I assume anyone with the means to snag a ticket might also be clever enough to enjoy the production on its own merits. When we were in Stratford, you could definitely tell the NooBs – they were annoyingly giggly and fannish and rather casually dressed, but one the plays started, they were just as enraptured as the rest of us. If there were a lot of whiners at the London production(which I kinda doubt) then why is it the RSCs fault for casting a talented, experienced Shakespearean actor who might have been seen on the telly? Derek Jacobi, Sir Ian McKellan, K. Branagh and Judi Dench will never be allowed to work on stage again. And I suppose they should also fire Patrick Stewart right quick.

    I think that some critics are just crabby. Shorter Tim Walker: Stupid David Tennant. Famous for stupid sci-fi kiddie show. Stupid new audience that is younger than me and wears jeans to the theatre, and has honest reactions to the play. Stupid famous people. In my day, only Serious People went to see Serious Plays with Serious Casts. And we were very Serious. You kids get off my lawn!

  • MaryAnn

    MaryAnn, Derek Jacobi has just opened in Twelfth Night to great reviews. That might be one on your ‘to see’ list if you haven’t already booked for it.

    Yes, I know about that production. I don’t have tickets to it, but that’s definitely one to try for when I’m there (or even before I leave).

  • Jennie

    MaryAnn, Have you thought to catch James McAvoy in ‘Three Days of Rain’? It’s opening in February in the West End.

  • spikewriter

    My ticket for Hamlet is on January 10, closing night. I don’t know if it’s going to be Tennant or Bennett, but there’s also Patrick Stewart, Penny Downie, Ricky Champ and Oliver Ford Davies, all of whom my friends have raved over. It’s the RSC and I haven’t been in London in 21 years, so whether he’s recovered or not, I’m going to enjoy myself.

    Yeah, I felt my heart stop a little when I heard the news because this trip is huge outlay for me and something I can’t do regularly, but I can do NYC (I’m in LA) and we do have some good theatre here. David Tennant was the starting point, but, like you, I’m rediscovering my love of theatre, something I’d let slip away. That’s changing. Oh, and I’m seeing Jacobi in Twelfth Night on January 9 — the reviews are marvelous and that’s another high point. Every other night I’m there, I’m just going to see what’s on and what looks interesting.

  • MaryAnn

    James McAvoy in ‘Three Days of Rain

    Sounds like an excellent possibility.

  • Jasmine

    “Totally Tennant should have said as much, then.”

    Actually, Totally Tennant does credit David-Tennant.com in it’s blog for Friday, 12 December.

  • MaryAnn

    That later post does not credit David-Tennant.com for the info in the earlier post.

  • Gee

    Here’s an interview with Edward Bennett about taking over in Hamlet, press night and what it’s like to be an understudy. Which is worse – teenage girls or the critics?! The interview also includes a couple of clips of Ed performing. It’s from yesterday’s edition of ‘Broadcasting House'(BBC Radio 4), available for seven days on the BBC “listen again” service. The interview is near the end of the programme, at about 52:20 in.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/news/bh/

    He seems to be taking it all very sensibly!

  • Magess

    You know what though? If I stayed up until 5am to get a ticket, managed to get one, paid $600 to fly overseas and hundreds of dollars in a hotel stay to see Tennant play Hamlet and didn’t get to see Tennant play Hamlet, I’d be pretty damned mad.

    Maybe I didn’t get nothing for my money, but I didn’t get what I was paying for either. I’m sure RSC productions are all that and a box of cookies, very well and good, but I wouldn’t spend nearly a grand just for the privilege.

  • Gee

    I understand and sympathise where that’s happened, Magess. I’d be mad at the fates and vagaries of fortune, too.

    The top price ticket including online booking fee etc is £41.50 (USD 63.50). Even if the RSC were to refund this instead of offering to exchange it or re-sell it (which they will if they can), you’d still need to recover travel and accommodation costs if that is possible.

    I suppose you could plan to do and see more than just the one play to guard against a complete washout if spending so much money. However, when your heart is set on the one thing, and you’ve been looking forward to it for a long time, I agree it’s very upsetting.

  • MaryAnn

    I’d be mad, too, but if it would all be a complete waste a money if you couldn’t see one particular actor in one particular role, then it was probably all a big waste of money anyone. I mean, if you can’t get something worthwhile out of an RSC production of one of the greatest plays ever written, no matter who is appearing in it… well, that’s just sad. :->

  • Susan

    I’ve just bought tickets for Hamlet, via the Novello website, having explained to my 17 year old daughter that the King of Navarre would now be playing Hamlet and she said “can we go?”

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