/ 6 August 2008

Sci-fi stars do Shakespeare

It’s Hamlet, but not as we know it.

The Royal Shakespeare Company usually draws genteel, theatre-loving crowds to the serene town of Stratford, the playwright’s birthplace. It has never seen anything like the fan frenzy surrounding a new production of Hamlet, which stars not one but two science-fiction icons: David Tennant, hero of the BBC’s beloved Doctor Who, and Patrick Stewart of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Tickets for the sold-out run are trading on the internet for hundreds of dollars, screaming fans have thronged the stage door after each preview and the management has banned autograph-hunters from bringing TV-themed merchandise to the theatre.

All this before critics even passed judgement at the show’s opening.

“The last thing I lined up for was ET when it came out,” said Clayton Doherty (53), waiting hopefully for a chance to buy last-minute return tickets.

The United States-born Stratford resident was there because his 10-year-old daughter is a huge Doctor Who fan. He thought having famous names in the cast made the show “a great introduction” to the theatre.

“If it pulls them in and they’re tweaked by it and it gets them interested, then it’s good for Stratford, it’s good for the RSC and it’s good for Shakespeare,” Doherty said.

Not everyone is so happy with the decision to cast Tennant (37) as Shakespeare’s melancholy Dane. Veteran director Jonathan Miller recently sniffed that the choice of “that man from Doctor Who” was an example of the theatre’s “obsession with celebrity”.

That’s not entirely fair. Tennant has an extensive theatre background and has appeared in several RSC productions over the past decade. This season he’s also playing the less high-profile role of Berowne in the comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost.

But the gangly Scot has become one of Britain’s biggest stars — and gained a cult following across the Atlantic — since joining Doctor Who in 2005 as the title character, a galaxy-hopping Time Lord with a knack for witty banter and for saving the Earth from alien attack. The show is a 45-year-old institution, and its recent season finale drew 10-million viewers in Britain, half the entire TV audience for its time slot.

Stewart, who plays Hamlet’s father, Claudius, is known to millions as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise and as Charles Xavier from the X-Men movies. But he also is an acclaimed Shakespearean actor, nominated for a Tony Award this year for his performance in Macbeth on Broadway.

The two actors have brought a showbiz flair to Stratford, a town nestled on the River Avon 160km north-west of London. They’ve also upstaged its one long-running star: William Shakespeare.

The playwright was born in the town, lies buried in the local church and draws hundreds of thousands of tourists to Stratford each year.

Faced with armies of teenage — and older — fans thrusting model spaceships at the actors as they emerged from the stage door, the RSC released a statement sternly telling fans that “only Royal Shakespeare Company or production-related memorabilia will be signed”.

Tennant, who convinced Doctor Who producers to take a year-long hiatus so he could return to the stage, has said he finds the prospect of playing Hamlet “exciting and humbling and terrifying and thrilling”.

“Your job is to try to see it as a play, just another play, to take each scene as it comes and play it as truthfully and as energetically as you can,” he told the BBC recently.

Whatever the critics say, Hamlet‘s Stratford run is all but sold out, and tickets are scarce for a London transfer this winter. Those who have managed to get tickets are feeling quite pleased with themselves.

“I bought mine at Christmas for £14 each,” said Katherine Allaway, who came with her friend Debbie Whitehouse to see the show as a birthday treat.

Neither considers herself a Doctor Who fan. But Whitehouse was attracted by the show’s other big-name star.

“Patrick Stewart — I love his voice,” she said. — Sapa-AP

Hamlet runs at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford, until November 15 and at the Novello Theatre in London from December 3 to January 10 2009

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