In an announcement that will disappoint scores of Doctor Who - not to mention theatre - fans, the Royal Shakespeare Company has confirmed this afternoon that David Tennant (pictured) will not be returning to its long sold-out production of Hamlet at the West End’s Novello Theatre until sometime after Christmas (See News, 9 Dec 2008).

Tennant missed Monday’s preview and last night’s press performance, which went ahead with his understudy Edward Bennett in the title role (See Also Today’s Review Round-up), following a recurring back injury which has now been identified as a prolapsed disc. He’ll undergo surgery tomorrow, but hopes to return to the production on recovery.

In a statement, Tennant said today: “It is hugely disappointing for me to have to miss these performances. My back problem has progressed to the point where it is currently impossible for me to carry on without surgery. I want to get back onstage as quickly as possible, and I am very grateful to Ed who has courageously got to grips with the role but in a much shorter time. It\'s a fantastic achievement.\"

RSC artistic director Michael Boyd added: “We all wish David a speedy recovery, and it is an indication of the RSC\'s investment in understudies that Ed Bennett can take over Shakespeare\'s largest role at such short notice. As an ensemble company, we feel it is important to go ahead with the run at the Novello Theatre, and I am proud of the way Ed, the understudies, Patrick Stewart, Penny Downie and the rest of the company have risen to this challenge, getting a great reaction from audiences and critics alike.\"

Those who booked to see Tennant are unlikely to get another chance to see him since all tickets for Hamlet’s limited season to 10 January 2009 at the Novello sold out within hours of it going on public sale in September. Refunds are not available either, but theatregoers can obtain exchanges for one of the later productions in the company’s winter residency at the Novello, which continues with Hamlet director Gregory Doran’s cross-cast production of A Midsummer Night\'s Dream (15 January to 7 February) and Conall Morrison’s production of The Taming of the Shrew, starring Stephen Boxer and Michelle Gomez (12 February to 7 March).

Edward Bennett, who normally performs Laertes, received a standing ovation when he stepped in for Tennant at last night’s press performance. In the cast reshuffle, Tom Davey, normally Guildenstern, has taken over as Laertes, Ricky Champ has taken on the role of Guildenstern, and Robert Curtis is now Lucianus.

Prior to this week’s injury, David Tennant had only missed one performance in his distinguished stage career to date. While now best known to TV fans for his onscreen adventures in Doctor Who, from which he took a year off to fulfil his RSC commitments, Tennant made his acting debut on stage in his native Scotland. Early in his career, he spent two seasons with the RSC, where his other roles included Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, Antipholus of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors and Jack in Peter Whelan’s The Herbal Bed. His many other stage credits include The Pillowman, Lobby Hero and Look Back in Anger.

The cast of Hamlet also features Patrick Stewart, who doubles as the Ghost and Claudius, Penny Downie as Gertrude, Oliver Ford-Davies as Polonius, John Woodvine and Mariah Gale as Ophelia.

Even before its West End opening, Hamlet has garnered two nominations in this year’s Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Awards shortlists, announced on Friday (See News, 5 Dec 2008): Best Regional Production for its Stratford-upon-Avon season and Theatre Event of the Year for Tennant’s stage comeback after his Doctor Who-enforced absence.

- by Terri Paddock