It's 15 years today since David Tennant made his debut as Romeo in the previews of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Romeo and Juliet in Stratford-upon-Avon.
To celebrate here's an interview that David gave about his thoughts on the play in 2009 for a publication by the RSC.
How old did you imagine your Romeo to be?
I think Alex (Gilbreath, who played Juliet) and I both felt we were at the far end of being able to get away with it, but it's more difficult for Juliet because her age is stated so explicitly. Strictly speaking Romeo could be any age, in that there's no textual evidence to suggest exactly how old he is, but of course there's something in the character which suggests teenage angst and perhaps hotheadedness. I didn't focus too specifically on an age because I was 29 when I did it, and I didn't want to spend the whole production feeling like I was trying to play a teenager. I didn't want that to be my focus. So I kept it, even to myself, slightly vague. I suppose I thought of him as a young man, and beyond that I didn't spend too much time worrying about exactly how old he was. I think as humans we tend not to focus on what age we are when we're having whatever experiences we're having. So I tried not to make it too big an issue, which was perhaps partly my own fear of being slightly too old to play it.
How did you set about conveying to the audience the difference between Romeo's love for Rosaline and his love for Juliet?
Well, we never see Rosaline. Michael Boyd (the director) was always determined that Rosaline was a novitiate nun, and he encouraged me to think that from the off; the idea being that Rosaline was the ultimate unachievable goal, and that part of what Romeo was doing to himself was that especially (although not exclusively) adolescent thing where people fall in love with the unattainable. Whereas Juliet is certainly very real. I think the relationship with Juliet is a much more mature relationship, within the terms of the whole relationship itself being very young. Rosaline is unattainable and really more of a crush, whereas we have to believe that he falls for Juliet. He believes his life has found meaning when he finds her. With Rosaline, he is in love with the idea of being in love; with Juliet, he's in love with Juliet. I think that's the biggest difference. The love for Rosaline is a kind of melodramatic exhibition of self-perceived complicated maturity, which by definition proves that he isn't very complicated or mature. When he meets Juliet he genuinely falls in love with another human being, rather than the concept of love itself.
To what degree does he change in the course of the play? Does he go from being one of the lads to isolated lover, or has he always stood apart from the rest?
There's certainly something of the self-dramatist in Romeo. I think that's how he likes to cast himself, even within his group of friends. He likes to see himself, and for them to see him, as the slightly complicated, Byronic tortured soul, and what I think happens is that he genuinely becomes that. Rather than it being a part he plays, it becomes his life. So I think by the end of the play he has found the purpose that he pretends to have found at the start of the play.
And does Romeo's language seem to grow in maturity in the course of the play?
It's not something that I remember noticing at the time, but that's not to say that it doesn't. I try not to be too objective about things like that because then you get into a self-consciousness which is, dare I say, an old fashioned way of approaching Shakespeare and one which I try to avoid. I think you've got to try and focus directly and solely on the text that a character is speaking in that moment if you're trying to interpret that character for a stage experience. You have to try to get within it, and not be too aware of anything going on 'without' it, which might be relevant to somebody studying the text for a thesis (and I'm not saying that it's not there and those points aren't there to be made). So I don't remember noticing that in the rehearsal rooms, but I suppose what I'm saying is that maybe I was trying not to.
It's about the most famous fictional love affair of all time, and the window/balcony scene is one of the most celebrated ever written, so how do you get past the cliches, the historical inheritance?
Did you have any special tricks for making the part and the play your own?
The fact that they come with that baggage and expectation is possibly the most difficult thing about doing those famous roles, and Romeo and Juliet more than most, becaue everybody's got an opinion on it and everyone has an expectation of what it is. Even people who've never read or seen the play think they know what Romeo and Juliet is. And actually I think most of the time they're wrong! What I remember particularly about Romeo and Juliet is that people expect a chocolate box love story. I think that's what people imagine the story is, even though they now it's tragic and it doesn't end happily. They're expecting some great essay on love. I don't think that's what the play is. Romeo and Juliet spend remarkably little time on stage together and, when they are on stage together, the longest chunk of time you see them interacting with each other is the balcony scene, where the very definition is that they can't touch, they can't be together, there's a physical and emotional barrier between them. I think the play is about all sorts of things, but I don't know that it is about love. That's one of the things that you have to get over when playing Romeo, because if you come to the part thinking 'I've come to play a great lover', that's not a very helpful place to start. Certainly our production was set in a quite bitter, tough environment. The play is as much about society and the politics of the world they're in as it it is the meditation on love which people expect.
But to answer your question, no, I don't have any particular tricks. I'm always feeling the need to discover those tricks, but I don't know that I've quite done it yet. Having just finished Hamlet, which is another one that comes with all those expectations and preconditions, I still don't know what the answer is. You just have to try and see past it. You have to breathe a bit in the rehearsal room and try to see the scene that you're playing and the text that you're playing, rather than the weight of the history - easier said than done, of course! I think another way of doing that is to try not to approach it as an English Literature exercise, which is always very tempting with Shakespeare and something that you can clearly do; there is so much to be said about every line. If I do have a 'trick' or a way of approaching it, it's to just see each line for what it immediately is, in dramatic truth and emotional context, rather than to see it in the context of what one might be looking for if you were writing a book about it.
Do you see the play as a battle between the young and the old, parents and children? Or are there some important bonds between the lovers and older mentors?
We probably get to understand the relationship between Romeo and the Friar more clearly than we get to understand the relationship between Romeo and Juliet, just in terms of stage time. It's more immediately explicable. It's not immediately clear why Romeo and Juliet fall for each other, a bit like how, when people fall in love in real life, it's not immediately clear why they do. The relationship with the Friar is easier to unpack; it's very important to who Romeo is, more so than his parents because we don't get to know Romeo's parents at all in the play, in the way we do with Juliet's. I suppose there is a battle. There is a generation gap in the play and a conflict between the idealism of youth, who believe that love can conquer all, as opposed to the pragmatic, cynical older characters who can see the woods from the trees and know that it's not going to be that simple. I think there is an interesting debate in the play as to whether love can conquer all or not. It was explored in our production in terms of the older characters; there were design nods towards them being from a different world - the older the character, the more traditional their dress was. I was in quite a modern leather bomber jacket, whereas at the other end of the scale you had Alfred Burke (Escalus) wearing full Elizabethan doublet and hose, and then all the characters in between. Michael Boyd was clearly interested in that, and that was something we explored, yes.
In the seventeenth century theatre, there was a rumour that Shakespeare decided to kill Mercutio off halfway through the play because he was upstaging Romeo. Is the sheer brilliance of Mercutio's language a problem for Romeo?
I don't think it's a problem for Romeo. I suppose if the rumour true, it may be a problem for the audience. I think Romeo has genuine love for Mercutio. I think his brilliance, his energy and mercurial wit is something that Romeo clearly cherishes. There are all sorts of questions as to quite what their relationship is. and I think there are decisions that you have to make about that in performance; about how close they are, about whether Mercutio might need Romeo more than Romeo needs Mercutio. Whether he got killed off because he was upstaging Romeo we will of course never know, but it's certainly a well-worn theatrical device: to create a character that you invest in and become fascinated by, and then kill him off for shock value.
Of course it takes the play in a completely new direction. I think it's unlikely Shakespeare didn't see it coming, and just made it up because he was writing a part that was too good! I can't imagine that's the way he went about things! I imagine if he was really that entranced by that character he would have written a play called Mercutio and we would get to see more of him. I'm not really sure that Mercutio's language is a problem for Romeo because I don't think that Mercutio is a problem for Romeo. I think Romeo is a problem for Mercutio.
The critic William Hazlitt said that 'Romeo is Hamlet in love' - do you agree?
Hamlet is a more grown up version of Romeo in that he is more aware of himself. I think Romeo has the capacity for introspection and self-knowledge - but it's a bit raw, and again with Hamlet you get someone who is beginning to understand himself and is tussling with that. Romeo believes he understands himself, but I don't think he quite does. The way he is with Rosaline is clearly a fairly immature way of interpreting what it is to be in love. Of course he comes to understand what it is to be in love and to grow when he meets Juliet, but yet we never quite get to see Romeo grow up. It's quite possible that Hamlet could have been a bit like Romeo when he was younger. They certainly share a gift for language. I think we get to see Hamlet in love actually, because albeit briefly, I think Hamlet is in love with Ophelia, and I don't think it's quite the same as for Romeo. So I don't think they're the same person, but I suppose there are echoes and similarities between the two.
What do you think Romeo would like his epitaph to be?
I suppose what seems to be important to Romeo is that he is true to himself, as far as he knows what that self is. The very fact that he kills himself because he can't live without Juliet is the mark of an idealism backed up with a pure hedonism and a certainty: certainty about who he is and what is important. I think he would like to be remembered as someone who has purity of purpose. That's important to him: the fact that he doesn't give in to the pressures of what we see as the adult world, although he wouldn't see it that way. I suppose he'd like to be remembered as somebody clear-headed and true. I think he'd probably see the world around him as quite morally and emotionally bankrupt, so he would like his epitaph to be something that recognised he was the opposite of that. It's not exactly pithy, that answer, is it?! I think you were after a soundbite that I haven't quite been able to provide!