What are the qualities that David Tennant will bring to the role? Why did you cast him?
It is a play that waits for the right actor to come along. It is a self-defining role. The Hamlet will be to some extent who David is. At the same time you have to have an actor who can be, as Ophelia describes him, 'the poet, the soldier, the scholar'. You have to have someone who is all those things – someone who is charismatic and can be brutal and coarse and can be witty and moving and can physically take on the demands of the part – not just the fighting, but the sheer length of the role. It's the longest role in Shakespeare. And it needs someone who can give you something of those prismatic colours that the role contains.
Hamlet is both fatalistic and aspirational. He is both forlorn and melancholy and very witty and there are parts of the role that David will play with great ease. His skills with language are exceptional. It might be that there are areas of his melancholy and his reflection that David may have to tackle. David has great intelligence to tackle this role. It feels that there is no such thing as a definitive Hamlet - there are only an infinitive number of Hamlets.
What I think he will get is the excitement of the role, the drive – Hamlet's experience of grief, his experience of what it is to grow up. All those things I think he will approach with a freshness, a kind of 'new'. Having worked with David before, I don't think he will be haunted by the line of Hamlets that came before him. Of all the parts, since it was first performed in the 1600s, it's been going on somewhere in the world ever since. There's been an unbroken line from Richard Burbage right through to David Tennant. Even through the closure of the theatres in 1642, you can trace the line. Richard Burbage we know handed it on to Joseph Taylor (his apprentice and understudy). We know that William Davenant saw Taylor play the role and taught it to Betterton when he took over the role and the restoration. And then right through to Garrick to Kean, Irving, Gielgud, Olivier, Branagh etc. There is this unbroken line of people experiencing Hamlet and in this particular company since 1879 after the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre was built, Hamlet has never been far from the repertoire.
It isn't that long since Toby Stephens played Hamlet in Michael Boyd's production, nor indeed that Sam West did it. I think it's a glory. When we closed the RST last year we had a special performance to mark the very last moment in the theatre. During the event – Toby Stephens spoke the first line of the 'To be, or Not to be' soliloquy and then Sam West stood up, then Mark Rylance, Alex Jennings, Michael Pennington and right back to David Warner, who is currently in the company. David played it for Peter Hall back in 1965. So you had a long wonderful handing on of this role. I think that actors hand on some of the experiences and practical advice of performing the role. For example, the first few lines of the play, the first drive of the play through the ghost scenes, you are carried by the momentum of the play. Then there is the long stretch of the play within the play to the closet scene which you drive. Then you get a little breather, then you have to do the duel right at the end. So actors tell each other how to pace themselves. But I think that David won’t be working out what Alex Jennings or Sam West did, or indeed what David Garrick did, as there is plenty of reference for all of this.
Funnily enough, I am usually a great historical ferreter of theatrical tradition. On this one I haven't. Because if the play is self-defining for the actor playing Hamlet, it is also, I feel, defining for the director too. I'm aware with the simple act of cutting the play that you are already shaping your own likes and dislikes and prejudices. My own personal sense of the play is structured by David and the audience that may be attracted to this production and also by the other actors that we've got. If we’ve got Patrick Stewart playing Claudio, Penny Downie playing Gertrude and the wonderful Oliver Ford Davies playing Polonius and Mariah Gale playing Ophelia it makes you look at those particular parts in a particular way with a kind of respect that they are about to be tackled by those brilliant actors. I remember John Barton saying to me once, cast actors like that in those leads and they will sort that out. It's more important that you sort out those other parts. How Rosencrantz is distinguishable from Guildenstern, and what exactly Osric doing in the part and how you'll get the humour from the grave-diggers.
How did you come to cast David Tennant
I was reading the 'bad quarto' which includes lines like 'To be or not to be, Aye, there’s the point' which could maybe be replaced with the folio line 'To be or not to be, that is the question.' I thought you could discover a two hour Hamlet which could really exciting. And just as I was playing around with the idea I was watching TV, and David Tennant was on 'Who do you think you Are' on BBC1. He happened to go to a church in Northern Ireland, where they had been doing some work, and excavating the church floor. And there amongst the planks on the floor was a skull. And David, dressed in this great coat, picked it up and I thought – that's like an audition for Hamlet. In fact, I texted him that night and said 'I saw your audition for Hamlet' and later we chatted. I asked if he had ever thought about playing Hamlet. He said that the two roles he really wanted to do were Hamlet and Berowne in Love's Labours Lost. I had already decided that I would be directing Love's Labours Lost as it had been fifteen years since we'd done it and thought it was an extraordinary coincidence The part waits for the actor to be ready and readiness is all. It all came together in a perfect flash of coincidence and synergy. There was a long time where we had to keep it under our hats whilst the BBC sorted out his temporary vacation of the Tardis.
Can you tell us something about the costumes for the three plays?
It's early days, and I may change my mind, but essentially I can't see David Tennant in tights. He's not quite a doublet and hose man.