Sam Mendes has cancelled his much-anticipated new productions of Hamlet and The Tempest - which would have marked his return to the London stage after a six-year absence - after lead actor Stephen Dillane (pictured) was forced to withdraw because of family illness (See News, 3 Apr 2007). The productions were meant to inaugurate the Bridge Project, an ambitious three-year transatlantic venture forged between Mendes, the Old Vic and New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), which has now been postponed by a year.

A statement released today explains: “With great regret and due to personal reasons arising from family illness, Dillane has had to withdraw from the initial cycle of this three-year initiative. The nine-month long project was to involve several months’ rehearsal and playing overseas, before concluding with a run in London (at the Old Vic in May and June 2008). The producers of the Bridge Project accept his decision with great sympathy and look forward to the future date when his partnership with Mendes in this venture will be resumed.”

During Mendes' tenure as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, Dillane starred in the 1999 revival of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing (directed by David Leveaux), which transferred to the West End and on to Broadway, where Dillane won a Best Actor Tony for his performance. In Hamlet and The Tempest, the actor was due to play Hamlet and Prospero, respectively.

A spokesperson from Mendes’ Neal Street Productions company told that Dillane is irreplaceable and the productions could not go ahead without him. “It’s very much a collaborative project that has been built around Sam and Stephen’s relationship. It’s not just about finding another actor,” she said.

The Bridge Project will now commence in 2009 with what was meant to be the second year’s offerings – The Winter’s Tale and The Cherry Orchard, directed by Mendes and starring Simon Russell Beale as Leontes in the Shakespeare and Lopakhin in the Chekhov. Russell Beale starred in Mendes’ farewell Donmar Warehouse double bill of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which first sowed the seeds for the Bridge Project. The plays transferred to BAM for nine weeks in spring 2003 after their sell-out autumn 2002 season in London. Amongst the productions’ many accolades were two Oliviers (including Best Director for Mendes) and two of New York’s Obie Awards.

As part of the Bridge Project, which will now run from 2009 to 2011, each year a single company of leading British and American actors will be assembled to perform a double bill of classic works at BAM and the Old Vic, as well as at least one other theatre internationally. Rehearsals for Hamlet and The Tempest were due to begin in New York in October, with the productions opening first at BAM in January 2008 before a month-long residency at the Piccolo Theatre in Milan and transfer to the Old Vic next May.

An Old Vic spokesperson told today: “We’re sympathetic towards Stephen’s circumstances and understand his need to postpone his participation in the Bridge Project. We look forward to welcoming Sam and Simon Russell Beale to the Old Vic in 2009.” Replacement programming for spring 2008 at the Old Vic will be announced in due course, as will details of further pairings in the Bridge Project.

- by Terri Paddock