David Tennant is a little baffled by the Cultural Olympiad: “I’m a bit hazy as to what it actually means, what it all adds up to,” he says. “But if it means more Shakespeare, it’s fine my me.”
In cultural terms, the Bard is a world-beater, Team GB’s biggest hitter. (“Well, him and Adele,” offers Tennant. “I think they’re the book-ends of our culture.”)
Themes from The Tempest will form the centrepiece of the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games and this week sees the launch, as part of the Cultural Olympiad, of BBC’s Shakespeare Season, with new productions, for Radio 3, of Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet (which is broadcast next Sunday).
Tennant, who picked up the Best Actor award for Kafka: the Musical in the BBC Audio Drama awards in January, takes a part in both productions. Despite a dose of flu, he’s closeted with fellow cast members in the green room at Broadcasting House, prior to recording his performance as Malvolio in Twelfth Night.
Power of radio drama
As the company waits for the green light, talk turns to the special significance of radio drama in British arts.
“I think there can be a tendency, in modern theatrical productions, to rely on setting to tell the story,” says Tennant. “When you hear something like Shakespeare on the radio, you’re forced to go back to the words. Because that’s all there is. And that close, unfiltered connection to the text is immensely rewarding.
“Also, as an actor, radio drama is very immediate. You don’t have the luxury of a six-week rehearsal process, which you tend to have in the theatre. You’ve got maybe five days to get the whole thing in the can. So you’re coming to it quite fresh. You have a very instant reaction to the script, which I think makes it ‘live’ in a slightly different way.”
Rosie Cavaliero (BBC Audio Drama Best Actress for Lost Property: a Telegram from the Queen), who plays Maria in Twelfth Night and the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, agrees: “With radio, you’ve also got the intimacy of the mic. When you’re on stage, you have to ‘push it out there’. Working with a microphone you can keep it very natural and real.”
And as Ron Cook (Toby Belch, Friar Lawrence) points out, these stripped-back production values are true to the original spirit of Shakespearean drama. “If you look back at the Globe Theatre, they didn’t have elaborate sets; it was just a bare stage, with maybe a bed or a throne. And they did it in contemporary dress. You just have to listen and Shakespeare sets the scene for you.”
Love across the divide
Radio 3 has taken Shakespeare and Love as its theme and the two plays present starkly different accounts of that complicated condition. At 40, Tennant seems too young (and, frankly, too attractive) for the part of Malvolio, the deluded hypocrite who sighs after his young mistress, but the actor makes a spirited case for the casting.
“I’m making him slightly puritanical and I think he can be any age, really. He’s often played by an older gent, but there’s nothing in the text to tell you to do it that way.
“He’s the butler and I think it’s the social divide rather than the age gap that matters. That’s what he dares to presume he might be able to traverse, and I think it’s really interesting in that he might believe himself to have a chance.”
If Viola’s some hot young thing and Malvolio’s being played by some septuagenarian, that seems rather less likely. “Not,” adds Tennant, hastily, “that there aren’t relationships like that which work. Take my wife!” [in January he married 27-year-old Georgia Moffett].
“But,” he argues, “I’d say they’re quite rare. Though obviously if I finally play Malvolio aged 75, I’ll be arguing against that.”
Impact of the Olympics on theatre
While Tennant is delighted to take part in the Shakespeare Season – “It’s a lovely cast to be part of and we’ve done it with a lot of care” – he’s keeping an open mind about the ‘2012 effect’ on the cultural life of the capital.
“I’ve heard some theatres are going dark this summer,” he says. “It is, apparently, generally understood that in cities where the Olympics are on, nobody goes to the theatre.
“It seems unlikely to me, but I guess if foreign visitors are coming to London this summer, they may be looking for something specifically to do with the Olympics. Or maybe they’re staying away from London because it will be too expensive. I hope it’s wrong. I hope the Olympics makes London all the more vibrant.”
Trystan Gravelle (Sebastian, Romeo) is more optimistic. “I think it’s a fantastic opportunity, now that the focus of the world is on us, to show what we’ve got and what makes this country great.
“Maybe we don’t see it because we’re up too close, and Shakespeare is something we do in the classroom. Shakespeare is our equivalent of the Bolshoi Ballet. He’s one of our greatest exports. I think it’s great that, for once, sports and the arts are going hand in hand.”
Vanessa Kirby, hotly tipped for a move to Hollywood following starring roles in the BBC’s Great Expectations and The Hour, takes leading roles in Twelfth Night (Olivia) and Romeo and Juliet (Juliet).
She, too, is an enthusiastic supporter of the Cultural Olympiad. “I think it’s amazing to allow the arts to be such a big part of our Olympic summer,” she says. “Shakespeare is just a brilliant ambassador for British culture.”
“Ultimately,” says Tennant, “the proof is in the plays. People keep mounting productions of Shakespeare because people keep wanting to see them. Or hear them. We don’t require a Cultural Olympiad to inform us of this, but it’s a nice excuse for an airing.”
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 17 April 2012.
David Tennant plays Malvolio in Drama on 3: Twelfth Night at 8:30pm on BBC Radio 3