The highly-anticipated London opening of Gregory Doran\'s RSC production of Hamlet went ahead last night without its star attraction. Laid low by a bad back, David Tennant was replaced with three hours notice at the Novello by understudy Edward Bennett, who was left to face the critics in only his second London performance as the Dane (See News, 9 Dec 2008).
Bennett\'s promotion led to a last minute re-shuffle of the ensemble cast. Bennett\'s usual role, Laertes, was taken by Tom Davey, with Ricky Champ stepping in as Guildernstern and Robert Curtis as Lucianus. The other principals were unchanged, with Patrick Stewart doubling as the Ghost/Claudius, Penny Downie as Gertrude, Mariah Gale as Ophelia and Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius.
The production has enjoyed unprecedented interest since Tennant\'s casting was announced last year. The Courtyard stage door was beseiged by Doctor Who fans during the Stratford-upon-Avon run, while tickets for the Novello transfer sold out in hours, with the recent emergence of a number of forgeries creating a further headache for the box office. It continues at the Novello until 10 January, with no confirmation at this stage of when Tennant will return.
Overnight critics were quick to acknowledge the “sheer nerve and self-confidence” of Bennett stepping up to deliver a “word-perfect” performance at such short notice. Most had also reviewed Tennant\'s performance in Stratford, and pointed to marked differences between the two actors, notably Bennett\'s “emotionally-withdrawn” interpretation of the role versus the “quicksilver wit” inherent in Tennant\'s. The supporting cast were roundly praised, with Patrick Stewart\'s “masterly” Claudius and Penny Downie\'s “stricken” Gertrude proving palpable hits, while Oliver Ford Davies moved Michael Billington to question “when was there a better Polonius?” Despite quibbles over director Doran\'s “strange cuts\", particularly his decision to reduce Fortinbras to a mute role, most were happy to grant Bennett \"a well-merited moment in the sun”.
Maxwell Cooter on Whatsonstage.com (five stars) – “Hamlet is a play that is dominated by the central character and although the RSC makes much of its ensemble acting, Bennett’s Hamlet will not be, nor cannot be, the same as Tennant’s. This is not to unduly criticise Bennett, who steps into the role superbly and won a standing ovation from a sympathetic audience. But he doesn’t have Tennant’s gifts for mimicry and he’s a prince of a little more sombreness … Gregory Doran has marshalled a brilliant supporting cast, probably the best that I’ve seen. Patrick Stewart is a magnificent Claudius, the epitome of a sharp-eyed, calculating schemer … He’s complemented by Penny Downie’s passionate Gertrude, full of vigour at the start of the play, self-loathing by the end, willingly drinking the poisoned wine … This is a superb production, brilliantly spoken, studded with both menace and tragedy. Tennant would have made for a different Hamlet but I’m not sure that it would have been improved by that much.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Bennett incorporates some of Tennant\'s business such as his manic shout of \'Whee\' as he propels himself off stage in an office chair. But this is a more robustly traditional reading of the part which marks Bennett down as an actor to watch. Much of the strength of Doran\'s production lies in the surrounding casting. Patrick Stewart is a masterly Claudius, who starts as a smoothly duplicitous figure, slowly disintegrating. By the end he is so aware he has been outwitted that he almost gratefully accepts the poisoned cup from Hamlet. And when was there a better Polonius than Oliver Ford Davies? He has exactly the right mix of courtly sycophancy, personal cunning and sad senility … I still regret the rearrangement of the order of the soliloquies and the conclusion on a note of romantic tribute to Hamlet. But this is a first rate production that gives Edward Bennett a well-merited moment in the sun.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “The Bennett Hamlet is an awkward, emotionally withdrawn, physically gauche young man, who does up all the buttons on his three-piece suit, broods in a red T-shirt and comes to resembles a cross between Peter Pan and the young Prince Charles ... Doran’s spectacular, modern-dress, mainly bare-stage production, with designer Robert Jones’s mirrored walls, giant, swinging doors and gaggle of chandeliers, offers a far more oppressive sense of Elsinore as a prison than at Stratford. Some performances illuminate the Hamlet picture well: Mariah Gale’s bereft Ophelia drifts into a painful madness, Oliver Ford Davies’s far too mature Polonius, who is being nudged by senility but does not notice, smugly revels in his own tediousness, while Patrick Stewart’s Claudius proves a mild-mannered, bespectacled chuckler, with a hidden, vicious streak and a suicidal impulse. The chief weakness of Doran’s production, which virtually does away with the character and politics of Fortinbras, lies in its wispy vagueness. It tries but does not really manage to evoke the dangerous, ghostly, religion and revenge-possessed world of Elsinore where spying is what comes naturally.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “For sheer nerve and self-confidence Bennett undoubtedly deserved the cheers. As Hamlet, he has to hold a glass of champagne during the opening scene. The understudy\'s hand betrayed not the faintest tremor of nerves. And throughout the longest role in Shakespeare he was impressively word perfect. It has to be said, however, that he is not a natural Hamlet. In the past he has specialised in silly asses. Here he seemed to be making a strenuous effort to be deadly serious however, and the result in the first half was a slow, stolid competence that lacked the quicksilver wit and intelligence of Tennant\'s performance. After the interval he greatly improved, bringing a thrilling mixture of anger and anguish to the closet scene with his mother, and suggesting a hint of spiritual understanding in the last act that eluded Tennant. It was, in short, a notably plucky shot at an impossible task and no one could complain that they had been forced to endure Hamlet without the Prince.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) - “David Tennant was recuperating in his Tardis, maybe the victim of a Dalek sympathiser who had zapped his back. But Patrick Stewart was still on stage, compensating for the absence of Tennant’s prince by playing two roles and, it seemed, twin brothers: a suave, slippery Claudius with both hardness and guilt within and as scarily corporeal and ferociously vengeful a ghost as I recall … (Bennett) got a standing ovation, and maybe deserved it for valour in the theatrical field. But I’d give him a sitting ovation, sorry for an actor who hasn’t had Tennant’s chance to explore drama’s trickiest, most demanding role … Most supporting performances are strong, especially Penny Downie’s stricken Gertrude and Oliver Ford Davies’ Polonius.”
Simon Edge in the Daily Express (four stars) - “I didn’t see Tennant at Stratford, but I didn’t recognise in Bennett’s performance the athleticism, mimetic vigour or wild humour that other critics noted. On the other hand, with his toothy features and geeky bearing, Bennett brings a bratty, ungainly petulance to the opening scenes which makes Claudius’ charge of \'unmanly grief\' ring true ... The absence of Tennant otherwise emphasises the fine performances in this confident modern-dress production: Patrick Stewart is a disarmingly genial Claudius-the-usurper (doubling up as his bitter, rough-around-the-edges murdered brother) while Penny Downie plays Hamlet’s mother as a glamorous but efficient county hostess. Oliver Ford Davies is a wonderfully funny Polonius, rambling into a soporific trance with his own unwanted musings … It’s a tribute to RSC resourcefulness – with Guildenstern stepping in to play Laertes, Lucianus playing Guildenstern and Fortinbras playing Lucianus – that nobody missing out on Tennant’s performance ought to feel short-changed.”
- by Theo Bosanquet