Can David Tennant and Catherine Tate make Shakespeare the year’s hottest ticket?

TV's favourite Tardis crew are the most anticipated pairing in years for one of Shakespeare's best-loved comedies. Michael Coveney hears about happy landings with Catherine Tate and David Tennant.

Earlier this year on Graham Norton's BBC television chat show, David Tennant and Catherine Tate gave a mock preview of their appearance together in Much Ado About Nothing opening next week at the Wyndham's Theatre in London. After Doctor Who, in which Tate played a bickering Donna Noble to Tennant's extrovert time-traveller, we have Much Ado, in which Tate plays Beatrice, "My Lady Disdain", one of Shakespeare's most affecting comic characters, to Tennant's boastful and self-sufficient Benedick, "Signor Mountanto", in a "merry war of words". They fooled around on the chat show sofa, answered questions, denied they were lovers in real life ("really good actors do have sex when they work together" teased their host) and exchanged romantic anecdotes with a gay couple in the audience whose text messages to each other were exposed.
There's a lot of saucy eavesdropping in Much Ado, too, notably in the famous double-gulling garden scene where first one, then the other, is deceived. Tennant climbed all over the soft sofa in a pretend paroxysm of hurt pride and frustration. The challenge of that scene, says Tate, is of doing it "for real" without hiding behind a pot plant. Apparently, there is a lot of slapstick involving decorating materials, which makes the show sound like a pantomime. And, at one of the previews, Tennant drove a golf buggy straight off the stage; shame he's not, as far as we thus far know, keeping that piece of "business" in.
Tate revealed that she had an American fan who had been trying to marry her for the past four years. He had written her a song, despite her agent telling the lovelorn troubadour that "it ain't gonna happen". Tate never even saw his picture, and then didn't want to, when the agent told her that the bozo had a pony-tail.
It all made for a fairly good work-out, or warm-up, for the real thing, illustrating the deep-dyed friendship between Tate and Tennant. That underlying friendship is crucial factor in a play in which the characters have a back history of public squabbling exacerbated by the Sicilian wars.
As Tate says: "We meet them at a time when you get the sense that they've been the coolest people in the room, and they're getting to an age when they're going off to get left on the shelf and start looking sad. They both very quickly cave in when they think the other loves them."
Tennant admits that it's the ideal play to do as, "increasingly, I like going to work with my mates; it's good to have a shorthand," pointing out that Benedick and Beatrice are "a couple who can't live with each other, can't live without each other," and that this is the very first such comedy that, three-and-a-half centuries later, achieves its modern apogee in Noël Coward's Private Lives.
The play takes what Tennant calls "a left turn" into darkness and cruelty when a young bridegroom, Claudio, denounces his fiancée, Beatrice's cousin Hero, as a wanton whore, at the altar. This is the interjection we all fear at that heart-stopping moment when the priest asks the congregation if there is any known impediment why the couple should not be married, and it drives the play from prose into verse, as well as driving Beatrice and Benedick into the foreground.
Until that moment, they are gloriously peripheral. They start to grow to an inevitable point of understanding, and you realise, finally, that their sex life will probably be secondary to non-stop giggling and bright conversation all the way to the grave.
The audience has always come to see this play because of the actors in the leads, and the commercial packaging of Tate and Tennant is what is sure to make the latest one the hottest ticket of the summer.
It is wrapped in a 1980s Mediterranean setting – Gibraltar, perhaps, or Malta – where the sailors are taking a break en route back from the Falklands conflict. Why the relocation? More than any of the comedies, Much Ado needs some kind of decisive conceptual overhaul. An austerely Elizabethan, somewhat neutral, 1981 National Theatre production with Michael Gambon and Penelope Wilton – who obviously had never romped together on a television chat-show sofa – lacked the shiver and sparkle of the first NT revival, by Franco Zeffirelli, back in 1965.
That emphatically Sicilian version, with coloured lights, human statuary and a town band, featured a soon-to-be-married couple, Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens, as the lovers in denial, mining their own fascination and irritation with each other.
This was a significant break, too, for better or worse, with the well-behaved high-comedy tradition promulgated through various productions in the 1950s by an already over-aged John Gielgud, first with Diana Wynyard, then Peggy Ashcroft.
Kenneth Branagh's hugely successful and exuberant 1993 film version exploited his own marital status with his Beatrice, Emma Thompson (with Emma's mum, Phyllida Law, playing Ursula, Hero's gentlewoman), in a Tuscan terrain stalked by Keanu Reeves's malevolent stirrer, Don John. Who could forget that extraordinary opening sequence with the women rushing from their hillside picnic to shower and change while the returning soldiery loom on horseback over the horizon like the Magnificent Seven?
It's interesting that Tate and Tennant have cooked up this production between them, and that director Josie Rourke (hovering between her artistic directorships of the Bush Theatre and the Donmar Warehouse in succession to Michael Grandage) only came on board once the West End's current lead producer, Sonia Friedman, took them on.
"At different times," says Tate, "it's always been my favourite comedy, and I always thought that David would be ideal. It's also nice to have a laugh." Tate, best known on television as a foul-mouthed old nan, or a belligerent ("am I bovvered?") teenager, trained at Central School, arriving at this, her professional Shakespearean debut, via serious unemployment, stand-up comedy and television stardom.
But she proved her stage mettle in Alan Ayckbourn's Season's Greetings at the National last year, playing a raw and raunchy suburban housewife who instantly develops the hots for her sister's unexpected guest in her own house on Christmas Eve. Was she "bovvered"? Yes, and bewitched, and bewildered. She revealed inner turmoil, and great timing, in a nasally intoned comic delivery.
Whether she sustains that into the more demanding archness of Beatrice we shall see. She was asked recently on BBC Radio's Today programme how she would react if she was panned and Tennant wasn't. "Oh, that would be awful. But I never read reviews anyway." The duo don't seem to have been involved in the editing of the play, which has followed the cop-out policy of simply deleting lines that one thinks people won't understand, or not like (eg "If I do not love her, I am a Jew," which is thought to be unsayable any more).
Even in 1965, the NT's literary manager, Kenneth Tynan, had recruited the poet Robert Graves to "clarify" some of the more recherché jokes and references. Three hundred minor alterations were proposed and many adopted. But Maggie Smith – would Tate be so bold, or so skilful? – refused point blank to accept any alteration on "I had rather lie in the woollen", among other phrases, and proceeded to show Tynan and Graves how both to convey hidden meaning and win genuine laughter in seemingly adverse conditions.
About Tennant's serious stage credibility there is no doubt, though he's refreshingly candid about why people might be buying tickets to see him and Tate: "The West End is powered by people who've been in other things, it's how it works, and that's not new. It's a commercial venture, after all. The only problem arises if people are expecting you to be the same as you were in something else."
He already had two or three seasons with the RSC under his belt before he played Hamlet for them in 2008, with Patrick Stewart as Claudius (a dream box-office team of Doctor Who meets Star Trek), though his London opening after a triumphant season in Stratford-upon-Avon was marred by a back injury and an enforced lay-off.
Still, he was the biggest new-style, anti-heroic matinée idol in the role since David Warner in 1965, his charismatic star status boosted by an obvious technical proficiency: he was a chameleon, prankster, misunderstood maverick all at once, and brilliantly funny. He may not have been as tortured or as philosophically supple as either Mark Rylance or Simon Russell Beale, but he was more plausibly and energetically princely than either: as Fortinbras says in the play, "he was likely, had he been put on, to have proved most royally."
Much Ado should suit the limber, untrammelled-by-tradition comedy style of both actors. And the wrenching of it into a new cultural context has plenty of precedents, not least within the RSC itself. The 1976 RSC revival directed by John Barton, starring Donald Sinden and Judi Dench, not only wallowed in their friendship and mutual respect, it also redefined the idea of casting "older" actors (Gielgud had been an almost risibly ancient Benedict) in the last-chance saloon, jolted into action on the brink of a late middle-age crisis.
The setting was the afterglow of the British Empire in the Indian Raj. Sinden was in his mid-fifties, Dench 10 years younger (Tate is 43, Tennant 40), and the master of the watch, the oafish and Malapropism-prone constable Dogberry, was brilliantly re-imagined as an obsequious colonial apparatchik in a turban.
What's more, he was played by a blacked-up white actor, John Woodvine, a move which drove the critic Harold Hobson to write a mischievous "rivers of blood" speech, a two-pronged satirical attack on the politician Enoch Powell and "racist" casting, predicting riots in the Asian communities around the RSC headquarters in Stratford-upon-Avon (there were none).
This historical process of adjustment came full circle 10 years ago in the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, when director Rachel Kavanaugh updated the British take on the comedy to the Second World War, and governor Leonato's country house – where most of the action is set – became a retreat from the doodlebugs, a sunny place of brittle conversation, tennis foursomes, cunning topiary and fancy-dress balls, with Beatrice arriving as Marlene Dietrich and her attendant as Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz.
The ingenuity of all this tended to swamp the lively playing of Tom Mannion and Nicola Redmond as Benedick and Beatrice, but the new clothes were a perfect fit; Dogberry and his tattered platoon were even recast as Dad's Army, with readily identifiable versions of Captain Mainwaring as Dogberry and his subordinate and deputy manager at the bank, Sergeant Wilson, as "good man" Verges.
It is possible that another spur to prick the side of Catherine Tate's intent was the totally unexpected performance five years ago by Green Wing comedy star Tamsin Greig as Beatrice, in Marianne Elliott's delightful 1950s pre-Castro Cuban setting of the play for the RSC in Stratford and the West End. She was paired with rising star Joseph Millson, but the comedy was unbalanced, the chemistry not quite right, no doubt because Greig and Millson didn't share the same sort of friendship as Tate and Tennant.
Greig was certainly the funniest Beatrice I've seen, bidding Millson's Benedick to "come into dinner" through a megaphone so that his response – "there's a double meaning in that" – was all the more sheepish and hilarious. There was lots of wrought iron and wrought irony, too, as the heat and dust of the location seeped into the atmosphere of the acting.
Within a year, the National's artistic director Nicholas Hytner cast Simon Russell Beale as a bearded, pot-bellied, bookish Benedick, unlikely, perhaps, as both soldier and casual ladykiller; and Zoë Wanamaker as a skittish, straggle-haired, slightly dipsomaniac Beatrice. They batted the dialogue like badminton players until each was shocked into recognition of reality. They also reversed the Sinden/Dench age difference but were equally touching as last-chance merchants sleepwalking towards missing the boat. Russell Beale's Benedick, in fact, just hadn't been bothered till now, so his glazed astonishment at evidence that Beatrice cared a little for him was all the more cataclysmic.
The hiding place this time was not Tate's dreaded pot plant, or the red brick wall and manicured topiary of the previous National version: it was an onstage swimming pool, into which Russell Beale belly-plopped as a reluctant last measure when caught out in the garden – peering over the edge, soaked and mystified, asking, "Love me? Why?" – and into which Wanamaker accidentally nosedived while disguised as a housemaid engaged on a cleaning up operation.
But where were we, exactly? In an all-purpose Italianate setting with brown wooden slatted box-like structures and a curvilinear backing of white-washed walls and garden balconies and apertures; but, in effect, we were heading back towards a late-19th-century description (by AB Walkley, later to be drama critic of The Times) of "a composite picture of the multifarious, seething, fermenting life, the polychromatic phantasmagoria of the Renaissance."
Nothing so vaguely artificial should be on view at Wyndham's, and one doubts if the word "Renaissance" has even cropped up in the rehearsals. But I thought I'd better check that out with the director, at least. Were Tate and Tennant ever locked in any sort of intellectual argy-bargy over the meanings of the play "then" and "now"?
Josie Rourke, who has directed King John for the RSC, Twelfth Night in Chicago, and Much Ado twice before, as a student and at the Sheffield Crucible, surprises me by saying that they've spent a lot of time in rehearsal thinking about the period in which the play was written: "It's impossible not to; you understand the play as 'then' in order to deliver it as 'now'.
"David and Catherine are completely contemporary as actors, absolutely alive in the moment with their audience, and they play as they think, at an incredible pace. We also spent some time looking at sparring couples in other plays and films, notably Oscar Wilde and His Girl Friday, things like that. And other Shakespeares, especially Twelfth Night."
She comments on the particular way of "dextrous talking" that Tate has: "She understands completely the difference between, say, the Restoration style, where the comic emphasis usually comes at the start of a line, and these Shakespeare plays, where it comes instead in the middle, with a sting in the tail... it's an unusual and instinctive gift."
And what had she noticed about their friendship feeding the rehearsal process and the playing of their roles? "I have never laughed so much in a rehearsal room. My memory of this will be of wandering into a room and finding one of them making the other laugh.
"They are incredibly quick and intuitive in their response to each other, and that carries over directly into the play. They are such great company, and they set the tone for everyone else, charging us all up with the effervescent quality of their friendship."
Whether or not that quality transfers to the stage remains to be seen. There's always a danger that the joy of creation pre-empts the joy of the performance. But it seems improbable that audiences will suddenly start finding Catherine Tate unfunny or David Tennant an actor who peaked in the Tardis and fell to earth with a bump; we probably like them liking each other too much for that.
'Much Ado About Nothing' , Wyndham's Theatre, London, June 1 to 3 September (0844 482 5120)

Source: The Independent