David Tennant has been performing Shakespeare plays for much of his career. Working with the Royal Shakespeare Company throughout the 1990s and 2000s, he was Touchstone in As You Like It, Antipholus of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors, and Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. By the time he took on Hamlet in 2008, he was a big-ticket name known for his nimble, eccentric performances in Harry Potter and Doctor Who, but his athletic, frenzied take on the character impressed even the most serious of theatre critics, with the Guardian calling him “the greatest Hamlet of his generation”. So it’s perhaps surprising that the Scottish actor has not – until now – taken on “the Scottish play”. Tennant’s debut as Macbeth aired on Shakespeare’s (supposed) birthday, 23 April, in a radio play for BBC Radio 4 – commissioned ahead of the 400th anniversary of the First Folio in 2023.
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Tennant takes full advantage of his native accent, and the wildness that seems to lurk just under the surface in so many of his roles. He stops short of the all-out mania he embodied in his Hamlet, but brings a quietly building menace to Macbeth. He delivers his lines through gritted teeth, or between sharply sucked-in breaths; his soliloquies seem particularly intimate in audio-only form. Tennant has the essential skill of making Shakespeare’s most famous lines, at risk of being deadened by sheer familiarity, seem fresh and unaffected.
In the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, he elongates his words, radically slowing the pace to the last syllable, revealing a man full of bitterness, resignation and almost-buried fury. And though Tennant is the only box-office name, the entire cast, including Daniela Nardini as Lady Macbeth, is first-rate. I came away thinking that Macbeth – with all its whispered plots, chanting witches (in a move familiar in horror films, their voices are electronically distorted) and ominous hallucinations seen by only one character – is particularly well-suited to radio.
This article appears in the 27 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sturgeon's Nuclear Dilemma