“I found the channel changer and watched the end of an episode of Doctor Who. The David Tennant configuration, the only Doctor Who for me.”
Patti Smith, M Train.
I often see more young, student-looking people when I go to Shakespeare than at other plays, but there seemed to be even more this night. I was seeing Richard II, the first play in a cycle by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I went with trepidation, as I do regularly when I go to Shakespeare. By now, I have seen many productions. Do I really enjoy Shakespeare? The honest answer is “not always,” or perhaps, “not usually.” Through the years some productions of Shakespeare have blown me away, including the first one I saw, Peter Brooks’ Midsummers Night’s Dream. And there have been many outstanding ones since, but the truth is, I have truly enjoyed only the minority of Shakespeare plays that I have seen. Oh, yes, even in the ones that have not fully appealed to me, there are usually some lines whose brilliance or beauty is noteworthy, but three hours for a few appealing lines can make for a long night.
Then why go, you might ask. Because every so often, as I have indicated, some Shakespeare production is breathtaking, and I never know which one it is going to be. I attend four Shakespeare plays because one of them will be magical. I won’t fault you for wondering if that is really worth it, but that is what I do.
And this Richard II was a heartstopper. The actor portraying Richard was a wraith with flowing hair over flowing robes, and by intermission he had already moved me. I had not examined the cast notes before the play began, but as the house lights came up, I quickly went to them, and saw that David Tennant was Richard II. David Tennant. That sounded vaguely familiar. Then I saw that he had been in Broadchurch. I had just watched the first year of that British series, and I said to myself, “Of course, Tennant—Alec Hardy.” Having identified Tennant to my satisfaction, I turned my attention back to the stage.
(I found the first year of Broadchurch satisfying. It was my kind of show. Over the eight or so episodes, a story was told from beginning to end. No cliffhanger. No feeling that as long as the show gets renewed, the producer will find a way to string it out. Instead a complete narrative arc with good writing and mesmerizing actors. Thus, I felt cheated at Broadchurch II, when instead of a new story, the story that had seemingly concluded was given a twist so that it could continue, or begin, anew. I may have thought that that was a cheap trick, but still I found the second year engrossing. My jury is out on whether I watch the third year.)
I had enjoyed Richard II so much that I broke my only-nod-at-a-celebrity rule. If my eyes catch a celebrity’s eyes, I merely nod and move on. Nothing more. No smile. No conversation. After seeing Richard II, but before seeing the next play in the cycle, I walked passed a sidewalk café near the theater. Three men were at a table, and I said to myself that I knew at least one of them, but I could not place him. As I continued on, it came to me that he was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. I went back, and when they looked up at me, I asked if that was so. Yes, came the reply, and I told them how much I had enjoyed Richard II and how much I was looking forward to the other productions. They said something gracious, but I felt awkwardly intrusive and quickly left.
David Tennant was not one of the three. After seeing Richard II, I read an article that said he was not in the other plays in the cycle and often commuted between the UK and Brooklyn during the run. I learned that he was a long-time member of the RSC and had done much Shakespeare. And I finally learned why so many young people had been at the production—Tennant was Doctor Who, or at least one of them. The article quoted Tennant to the effect that he knew that one of the first lines of his obituary would refer to Doctor Who.
Once again, it was clear to me that fame was not an ingot with universal value but depended upon the experiences of those who gaze on the famous. For some, Tennant is famous for Shakespearean roles. For me, he was Alec Hardy. But for many more he was an incarnation of Doctor Who. In essence, who Tennant is depends upon who we are and what we have done. (I have heard many references to Doctor Who. I know that it has been incredibly successful, but I have never watched it. Is it worth watching?)
And although I said that for the actors at the sidewalk table I broke my celebrity-nodding rule, in some sense I didn’t because their fame was limited. Few passersby, I am sure, recognized them or would have recognized their name. Only because I had seen and remembered one of them from a few nights before did I recognize them. I wonder if in London can they sit so little molested.
With my awkwardness, however, I blew a chance to ask these actors something I have wondered. Just as I ponder how often playgoers really enjoy Shakespeare instead of attending as some sort of cultural duty, how often do actors truly enjoy doing Shakespeare versus tackling the plays because serious actors are supposed to hunger after Shakespearean roles?