Are big names good news for theatre?

I am delighted that David Tennant - TV's infectiously enthusiastic Dr Who - has proved to be such a critical and commercial success in the RSC's latest production of Hamlet.

Andrew Clarke

I am delighted that David Tennant - TV's infectiously enthusiastic Dr Who - has proved to be such a critical and commercial success in the RSC's latest production of Hamlet.

The reviews have been almost universally ecstatic and with Patrick Stewart in the other major role as Claudius, it was always going to be a great box office winner but I can't imagine that even the Royal Shakespeare Company in their wildest dreams could have predicted the way that the tickets have been beamed up by both science fiction fans and by curious theatre audiences. The Stratford run is completely sold out and there are very few tickets available (usually at vastly inflated prices for the short London run in December and January).

This should come as no surprise because both David Tennant and Patrick Stewart are tremendous actors and the fact that they have made their name on television shouldn't diminish their talents.


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What makes me a little nervous about their success (and I don't begrudge them it, one little bit) is that the promoters will learn the wrong lessons from the experience. Instead of seeing two great classical actors being given an opportunity to stretch their wings and escape from the confines of their TV roles, they will see a sure-fire way to sell lots of theatre tickets and attract big audiences by casting big name stars in limited run theatrical roles.

The press coverage will be huge, demand will out-strip supply and basically they can charge what they like. From a business man's point of view everyone wins except the impoverished theatregoer and the talented up and coming actor.

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How will the next Derek Jacobi or Kenneth Branagh gain their big break if all the juicy roles are being taken by telly stars? How can ordinary theatre enthusiasts afford to pay the inflated ticket prices that these all-star productions would charge?

Also what is the quality control going to be like? Tennant and Stewart are more than equal to the task but not every television performer has their deep-seated theatrical roots. How would the stars of Hollyoaks cope with a streetwise version of The Taming of the Shrew?

Apparently, there are theatrical stories circulating that EastEnders star Martine McCutcheon found the role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady rather challenging.

I don't have a problem with big name stars returning to the stage but the casting has to be driven by their ability to play the part rather than their box office potential.

My ambivalent attitude to big name casting is also tempered by the hope that people who previously would have given Shakespeare or theatre in general a wide berth a chance to see what they had missing. Hopefully they would have enjoyed the experience and would be encouraged to go other theatres to see other performances.

As our local theatres - The New Wolsey, in Ipswich, the Colchester Mercury and Bury Theatre Royal - have proved they are more than capable of producing first class productions and are living testimony that you don't need big names to create memorable theatre - however nice it is to see a famous face in action.

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