In 2008, David Tennant and Gregory Doran, now the RSC’s Artistic Director, worked together on two highly praised Shakespeare productions, Hamlet and Love’s Labour’s Lost.
Tennant’s long relationship with the RSC stretches back to a production of As You Like It in 1996 and the pair collaborated for the first time in 1998, on a double bill of Black Comedy/The Real Inspector Hound in the West End. As they prepared for their third Shakespeare play together, Richard II, I caught up with them one lunchtime in the RSC’s south London rehearsal rooms.
Fiona Mountford: Why Richard II?
Gregory Doran: It’s a great lyric tragedy. On one level it’s a play about regime change, where people who think they have a God-given right to power attempt to cling on to that power beyond its sell-by date, so it has a great resonance [with current world events].
David Tennant: I saw [it] at drama school [and] was completely transported by it and by Derek Jacobi’s performance. It’s a play I have always loved.
DT: Because it’s quite unknowable. There are no heroes and villains in it, just people trying their best and not managing to get on with their lives. These people happen to be ruling a country, which makes their shortcomings all the more grossly played out. I love the greyness of the moral lines.
GD: It’s all delivered in the most beautiful poetry [ever] written.
FM: I think the most haunting line from Shakespeare is from Richard II: “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me”…. What can you tell us about the production? Is it modern dress?
GD: No. [But though] it’s a play with a lot of jousts and horses and castles, we don’t want to drown it in a lot of heraldic embellishment. We want to make it appear that it’s elsewhere and elsewhen, but it’s nevertheless talking about now.
FM: I’ve just noticed, the two of you seem to be having the same packed lunch. Is it company issue?
DT: No, I wandered up the road for it.
FM: Can you do that without being hassled?
DT: Low-slung cap and a fast walk!
FM: How would you describe each other’s working methods?
GD: David has a natural facility with the language. The lines don’t sound like 400-year-old lines.
DT: You have a very good way of being genuinely collaborative and yet at the same time always being the captain of the ship.
GD: It’s because directing is tyranny masquerading as democracy! To begin with it can seem like a head-banging process, because [when I direct Shakespeare] we read [the play] round the table and nobody reads their own parts. So, for the whole first week David didn’t get to read Richard II. We [also] put it all into our own words.
DT: I was a very good Duchess of York.
GD: What it does is give the company a sense of investment, because we are all together working out what the play means.
FM: I should imagine that it’s pleasurable for both of you to know that people who might not otherwise see Shakespeare or even go to the theatre come because of David?
GD: I was criticised at the time of Hamlet, with people saying, “Oh yes, it’ll just be Doctor Who fans coming”. They said, “They’ll listen when David’s on but for the rest of the play they’ll be rustling their sweet papers”. What was absolutely palpably obvious was that that didn’t happen.
FM: I so enjoyed seeing lots of rapt young faces watching that production, even during that lengthy Act Four period when Hamlet is offstage.
GD: One of the challenges of taking over the reins at Stratford is “how do you make each play an event?”. The danger of Stratford, and the RSC doing 36 plays continually as the main staple of their work, is that somehow you get into the conveyor-belt mentality of “If it’s Tuesday it must be As You Like It”. That is why I’ve allowed a six-year cycle of all the plays [starting with Richard II] so that it gives us a chance to think ahead.
FM: David, do you feel that you need to prove yourself “live” after working so much in television?
DT: Theatre still feels like the day job to me. I just think that this is what I do and sometimes I go off and do bits of filming as well.
FM: If we might for a moment take a slightly wider view, there is the very real threat of further cuts to arts funding. Do you believe that the arts are increasingly under-valued in this country?
DT: I think we have to be very careful, because the arts are interconnected. There are some areas which need help in terms of national funding, but they, in turn, are connected on many levels to our film industry and our television industry. They all work as a piece. If you cut any bit of it you’re going to start starving the whole.
GD: If we starve those grassroots places where people are learning their trade then the whole ecology suffers, because you can’t just start at the RSC.
FM: This government seems peculiarly unwilling even to listen to the economic argument: for every £1 invested in the arts, £5 goes back to the Treasury.
DT: That’s the bit that baffles me, I agree. That feels like a very straightforward bit of maths.
FM: What do you both wish you’d known at the start of your careers that you know now?
GD: There’s no ladder. You think, “I see, you go there and then you go there” and then you realise that actually it doesn’t work like that and you can get way along in your career and discover that you’re still out of work for six months.
DT: I’d say something which almost means the same: “Nobody knows anything”. Everyone will tell you they know exactly how everything works, but nobody actually knows anything.
FM: David, unless I’m mistaken, Greg partly owes his job to you, because you were on the selection committee to choose the new Artistic Director at the RSC ….
DT: That was a bit weird. I was there at the interview.
GD: I bribed him!
DT: I declared that I might have some sort of conflict of interest.
GD: I thought, “Oh dear, I should have talked to David beforehand”, because he looked at me with this wan smile.
DT: I was very aware that I must be…
DT: Impartial is exactly the word. But in the end Greg won himself the job. If anything, I found myself going: “Let’s look at the others again! There may be an obvious winner here, but let’s go round the block one more time!”
Six of the best: David Tennant on stage and screen
Lobby Hero: Donmar Warehouse, 2002
In the theatre, he may be best known for tackling great Shakespearean roles, but his range is broad, as demonstrated by the acclaim he received for his relatively early performance as a feckless security guard in this play by American playwright Kenneth Lonergan.
Blackpool: BBC1, 2004
His first winning policeman role was as the quirky DI Peter Carlisle in this stylishly dark and innovative BBC part-musical, part-comedy, part-drama. It was also the performance that first introduced him to mainstream television audiences.
Doctor Who: BBC1, 2005-10
What is there left to say about Tennant as the Time Lord? Well, only that he was, for our money, the best of the three Doctors who have thus far graced the reboot, bringing just the right balance of light and shade to the role.
Hamlet: RSC, 2008
His was a witty and particularly hyperactive Prince of Denmark in Gregory Doran’s spot-on modern-dress production.
Much Ado About Nothing: Wyndham’s, 2011
Tennant shone as Benedick, one of Shakespeare’s feistiest lovers, beside Catherine Tate as Beatrice. His obvious relish of the verse and verbal sparring was a joy.
Broadchurch: ITV1, 2013
His thoughtful , moody work as tortured policeman DI Alec Hardy was set off perfectly by Olivia Colman’s more open performance as the down-to-earth DS Ellie Miller and their winning partnership saw the murder mystery become the must-watch television show of early 2013.
‘Richard II’ is at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, from 10 Oct to 16 Nov (rsc.org.uk) and at the Barbican 9 Dec to 25 Jan (barbican.org.uk). It can be seen in a live cinema screening at various venues on 13 NovReuse content