IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Engage warp drive: Sci-fi stars do Shakespeare

The genteel crowds of theater-goers at England's Royal Shakespeare Company have been replaced by sci-fi fans, thanks to stars Patrick Stewart and David Tennant.
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's "Hamlet," but not as we know it.

The Royal Shakespeare Company usually draws genteel, theater-loving crowds to the serene town of Stratford, the playwright's birthplace. It has never seen anything like the fan frenzy surrounding a new production of "Hamlet" that stars not one but two science fiction icons: David Tennant, hero of the British Broadcasting Corp.'s beloved "Doctor Who," and Patrick Stewart of "Star Trek: The Next Generation."

Tickets for the sold-out run are trading on the Internet for hundreds of dollars, screaming fans have thronged the stage door after each preview and management has banned autograph-hunters from bringing TV-themed merchandise to the theater.

All this before critics were to even pass judgment Tuesday night at the show's opening.

"The last thing I lined up for was 'ET' when it came out," said Clayton Doherty, 53, waiting hopefully for a chance to buy last-minute return tickets.

The U.S.-born Stratford resident was there because his 10-year-old daughter is a huge "Doctor Who" fan. He thought having famous names in the cast made the show "a great introduction" to the theater.

"If it pulls them in and they're tweaked by it and it gets them interested, then it's good for Stratford, it's good for the RSC and it's good for Shakespeare," Doherty said.

Not everyone is so happy with the decision to cast 37-year-old Tennant as Shakespeare's melancholy Dane. Veteran director Jonathan Miller recently sniffed that the choice of "that man from 'Doctor Who'" was an example of the theater's "obsession with celebrity."

That's not entirely fair. Tennant has an extensive theater background and has appeared in several RSC productions over the past decade. This season he's also playing the less high-profile role of Berowne in the comedy "Love's Labour's Lost."

But the gangly Scot has become one of Britain's biggest stars — and gained a cult following across the Atlantic — since joining "Doctor Who" in 2005 as the title character, a galaxy-hopping Time Lord with a knack for witty banter and for saving the Earth from alien attack. The show is a 45-year-old institution, and its recent season finale drew 10 million viewers in Britain, half the entire TV audience for its time slot.

Show biz comes to StratfordStewart, who plays Hamlet's treacherous uncle Claudius, is known to millions as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise and as Charles Xavier from the "X-Men" movies. But he is also an acclaimed Shakespearean actor, nominated for a Tony Award this year for his performance in "Macbeth" on Broadway.

The two actors have brought a show biz flair to Stratford, a town nestled on the River Avon 100 miles northwest of London. They've also upstaged its one long-running star: William Shakespeare. The playwright was born in the town, lies buried in the local church and draws hundreds of thousands of tourists to Stratford each year.

Faced with armies of fans thrusting model space ships at the actors as they emerged from the stage door, the RSC released a statement sternly telling fans that "only Royal Shakespeare Company or production-related memorabilia will be signed."

Tennant, who persuaded "Doctor Who" producers to take a yearlong hiatus so he could return to the stage, has said he finds the prospect of playing Hamlet "exciting and humbling and terrifying and thrilling."

"Your job is to try and see it as a play, just another play, to take each scene as it comes and play it as truthfully and as energetically as you can," he told the British Broadcasting Corp.

Whatever the critics say, the play's Stratford run is all but sold out, and tickets are scarce for a London transfer this winter.

"Hamlet" runs at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford until Nov. 15 and at the Novello Theatre in London Dec. 3-Jan 10, 2009.