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Are the stages of UK theatre Doctor Who’s greatest companion?

Peter Capaldi Dr WhoI don’t know if I’ve ever said it before, but I am a huge Doctor Who fan. Being an Eighties baby, I missed it the first time around (the original series ran from 1963 to 1989), so it was when Russell T. Davies re-launched the BBC sci-fi series in 2005 that I became hooked. The adventures of The Doctor, a humanoid alien from Gallifrey who travels through time and space in a blue box known as the TARDIS, have captured the imaginations of multiple generations and is widely regarded as a British institution. It has become such a big part of popular culture in fact, that a new actor stepping into the iconic role is a massive event. When it was announced that current Doctor, Matt Smith, will be leaving the show at Christmas, speculation immediately began as to who would be the Twelfth Doctor. His identity was revealed in a half-hour live programme on BBC One last Sunday (4th August). The bookie’s favourite, actor Peter Capaldi takes over the role in the 2013 Christmas Special.

The 55-year old Scottish actor is a renowned actor, writer and director, having won an Academy Award for his directing work on Frank Kafka’s short film It’s A Wonderful Life. His extensive list of screen credits include appearances in such popular television programmes as Peep Show, The Vicar of Dibley, Skins and The Hour, but he is best known for his role as the foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker in the BBC political satire series The Thick of It. He began his acting career on the stage however. His earliest performances were small roles in a number of productions at the Young Vic, but he then went on to more notable roles in such productions as The Judas Kiss (1998), Feelgood (2001) and Absurdia (2007). Most recently, he starred as Professor Marcus in the critically acclaimed stage adaption of The Ladykillers between 2011-2012; first at the Liverpool Playhouse and then in the West End transfer to the Gielgud Theatre.

Now he is set to take on what will be a life-changing role. Not everyone will know though, that Capaldi already has a connection to Doctor Who. He made a guest appearance in the show in 2008, playing Roman merchant Caecilius in the series four episode The Fires of Pompeii. He also had a cameo in the Doctor Who spin-off show Torchwood, as civil servant John Frobisher in the third season mini-series Children of Earth.

It’s interesting to note this link between Capaldi, an actor who started off in theatre, and Doctor Who. When you start to look closer, it becomes clear that this only scratches the surface and that, in fact, there is a much deeper connection between theatre and the sci-fi series – starting with the people.

Capaldi is not the first actor with theatre roots to play The Doctor. His predecessor, Matt Smith, started off with the National Youth Theatre and one of his first professional roles was in On the Shore of the Wide World, which transferred to the National Theatre. His other stage credits include The History Boys, Burn/Chatroom/Citizenship and Swimming With Sharks, the latter of which marked his West End debut. It was his critically acclaimed role as Henry in the Polly Stenham play That Face which really marked him as a ‘one-to-watch’ actor; the production transferred to the Duke of York’s Theatre for a West End run and Smith was subsequently named Best Newcomer in the Evening Standard Awards.

Tenth Doctor David Tennant, who has repeatedly topped polls as the most popular actor to play the role, also has a strong theatre foundation. His first ever acting role following drama school was in the play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and he has since gone on to perform in many productions with the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing his first RSC role in As You Like It (1996). His other theatre credits include The Comedy of Errors, Romeo and Juliet and What The Butler Saw. One of his on-screen appearances was in the 1996 film Jude starring Christopher Ecclestone, who of course preceded Tennant as the Ninth Doctor. Ecclestone’s professional stage debut was in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Bristol Old Vic. He has amassed an extensive list of theatre credits over the years, including the likes of Miss Julie, Hamlet, A Doll’s Houseand several National Theatre productions such as Bent and Abingdon Square. His most recent role saw him return to the National Theatre in the role of Creon for the 2012 production Antigone.

It’s not only the most recent incarnations of The Doctor who were known as stage actors before Doctor Who made them household names. William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, who each played The Doctor during the original series’ 26-year span, all performed theatre-based roles early on in their careers and took on further roles following their time with the show. Davison, who played The Doctor for three years between 1981-1984, has appeared in such shows as Spamalot and Chicago in recent years and was last seen playing Professor Callahan in West End musical Legally Blonde at the Savoy Theatre throughout 2010 and 2011.

Even the actresses who have recently played companions of The Doctor are well-known for their stage work. Fourth series companion Catherine Tate for example, first appeared on stage at the National Theatre in The Way of the World, with roles in A Servant to Two Masters, Some Girls and The Exonerated following. Following her time in Doctor Who, she added to her list of theatre credits with performances in such productions as Under The Blue Sky and Seasons Greetings. It was her award-winning role as Beatrice opposite former Doctor Who co-star David Tennant (Benedick) in Shakespeare’s comic play Much Ado About Nothing which fans may well remember most however. The production quickly became the hottest ticket in town and the pairing of Tate and Tennant on stage proved just as successful as it did in Doctor Who. There was also Billie Piper, who played Rose in the first two series, although admittedly, her stage career followed her Doctor Who role. However, she made an impressive stage debut in the touring production of Treats in 2007 and has gone on to receive similar acclaim for her roles in Reasons To Be Pretty and The Effect.

Many well-known stage actors have also made guest appearances in Doctor Who over the course of the last seven series. Since 2005, we have seen the likes of Penelope Wilton, Zoe Wanamaker, Simon Callow, Maureen Lipman, Anthony Head, Hadley Fraser, Derek Jacobi, John Simm, James Corden, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie and Ian McKellen crop up in the show in various-sized roles (go ahead, see if you can find them all). Frankenstein actor Benedict Cumberbatch was also hotly tipped to replace David Tennant as The Doctor, but reportedly turned down the role. He went on to star in the title role of BBC series Sherlock, which incidentally, was written by Doctor Who’s current head writer, Steven Moffat.

There are other connections between theatre and Doctor Who aside from the people involved in each. In series three of the show, The Doctor takes his new companion Martha (played by Freema Agyeman) to Elizabethan England where they meet playwright William Shakespeare. The second episode of the series, titled The Shakespeare Code, is based around Shakespeare’s ‘lost’ play Love’s Labour’s Won and prominently featured the Globe Theatre. Scenes for the episode were partially filmed in the recreated Globe Theatre in London. Also, in July 2011, the award-winning ‘immersive’ theatre company Punchdrunk collaborated with the Doctor Who team to create a Doctor Who-themed children’s show for the Manchester International Festival. Written by Tom McRae, The Crash of Elysium was a live show aimed at children between the ages of 6-12 years, which offered them an interactive experience by making them the stars of the story. The show was widely acclaimed and quickly proved to be the hit of the festival.

The more you look, the stronger the link between the two becomes. The relationship between the two is one which very clearly works and is beneficial to both. The Doctor is one of, if not the, most iconic role in British television and it takes a very talented actor to bring every aspect of the complicated character to life in an effective and entertaining manner. Our theatres have produced some of the finest actors in the profession, so it’s only natural that every Doctor has come from a stage background. In return, the prominence that Doctor Who has afforded them ultimately pays off when they return to the stage – the hysteria that surrounded Tennant and Tate’s Much Ado About Nothing production is perfect evidence of that.

Peter Capaldi is a well-rounded actor of the highest quality and I for one am looking forward to seeing his take on the role. I know some corners have already thrown criticism at the casting of an older actor as The Doctor, but those who are already judging his ability to play the role on the basis of his age may well like to know that the first ever Doctor, William Hartnell, was the same age when he took on the role. Doctor Who may well not still be here today if audiences hadn’t been introduced to the Time Lord with his fantastic performance. I fully expect Capaldi to more than do justice to the role and further strengthen the bond between our wonderful theatre industry and the equally wonderful British institution that is Doctor Who.

By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)

Tuesday 6th August 2013