David Tennant has a deliciously disrespectful theory about Shakespeare. It comes up when he is telling me how Michael Boyd, the man who is directing his performance as Romeo in a new RSC production of the Bard’s most famous love story, decided to "tweak" the script. This tweaking, he explains, included the alteration of references to Juliet’s age. After extensive studies of the original play, Tennant says, he has come to the conclusion that Shakespeare was, basically, a dirty old man. "He makes it specifically clear that Juliet is 14, and then, not much further on, he makes it very, very clear that she’s been f****d," he says. "I think he was probably something of a dirty old man ."
Still, he is enjoying playing what he calls the "ultimate romantic lead". This is the Scottish actor’s second time with the RSC, and he talks of the "terrifying baggage" that working for the company brings. Then again, Tennant has plenty of baggage of his own. I know this because I was a fellow pupil with him at Paisley Grammar. We have to avoid the temptation to spend our entire 45 minutes howling with laughter and comparing notes on our headmaster, Sooty (his name was Corbett), his appalling secrets of the Playschool toys and arguing over our favourite Teletubby. Tennant has met Po, who - it turns out - is a rather charming girl called Polly.
Tennant left Paisley Grammar after a school career in which he never missed a prize-giving. He always wanted to be an actor but the arts weren’t exactly a priority at Sooty’s school. Its motto was Disce Puer Aut Abi - "Work boy, or get out!" So Tennant concentrated on English. His first proper foray onto the boards was with a local church group in a show called Wanted, One Body. Somewhat raunchy-sounding for a Church of Scotland production, but apparently it was a murder mystery.
A stint at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama’s Saturday morning junior school led to the RSAMD proper. And when the twentysomething Tennant emerged, he joined 7:84, the genre-creating, angry young theatre company whose work made Das Kapital look like the Conservative manifesto. Tennant wasn’t particularly into the politics, he says, just the employment.
The thing that he says "changed my life" was a lead role in the 1994 TV drama Takin’ Over the Asylum, which he won after spending one day on another drama called Strathblair. It was enough to impress Strathblair’s director, David Blair, who went on to offer him a role in a discarded pilot for a sitcom with Arnold Brown, and then auditioned him for Takin’ Over the Asylum. As Tennant recalls, "they needed someone who could believably act 19 and bonkers". He could, and did.
It had, he says, "a great director, great cast and great scripts", and since that break, Tennant has continued to do well with all of these - Touchstone in As You Like It at the RSC, a season at The National and now back with the RSC to combine Antipolus of Syracuse in Comedy of Errors, Jack in The Rivals and now Romeo. The new RSC Romeo and Juliet is directed by Boyd, and like many of his productions it takes a less-than-traditional approach. Tennant says Boyd has pared it back, making it stark and harder than usual.
The production has, he admits, polarised opinions. "Some people come round after the show and they’re in floods of tears and others are saying it’s a disgrace". But he says he would rather have strong opinions than indifference.
Romeo and Juliet is at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, 14-18 November, then at the Barbican Theatre, London, 11 January 2001 until 8 March 2001.

Kate Copstick
Thursday, 9th November 2000
The Scotsman