Past/Present/Future for … Edward Bennett

Edward Bennett became the country’s most famous understudy when, at just a few hours’ notice last December, he took over from an injured David Tennant in Hamlet in the West End, winning critical acclaim and a legion of his own fans in the process. Bennett had been playing Laertes in the RSC production. His other credits to date have included A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost (RSC), Othello (Donmar Warehouse), Pygmalion, Little Nell, Habeas Corpus and Measure for Measure (all Theatre Royal Bath. He’s now playing Sandy Tyrell, smitten with Diana Rigg’s Judith Bliss, in Hay Fever, which opens this week at Chichester Festival Theatre. It’s the second occasion he’s tackled the Noel Coward classic, having played Simon in his first production out of drama school five years ago.

I grew up in Stratford and saw my first play at the RSC, so since I was 14, it was my ambition to work with the company. Just to get there in the first place, and then to get such amazing parts in my first year there – Demetrius, the King of Navarre and Laertes – was incredible. To have the chance to understudy Hamlet was great too because the understudy instruction at the RSC is really strong, so you have a couple of weeks’ rehearsal in Stratford and full technical support and you get to have a good go at it.

Of course, nothing prepared me for what happened with Hamlet in London. When I got the call on the Monday afternoon informing me that I’d be going on for David Tennant for the last preview at the Novello, I was with my girlfriend (the actress Natalie Walter, who played Helena alongside Bennett in the RSC A Midsummer Night’s Dream and is now opposite him again in Hay Fever, as Jackie Coryton), eating Cocoa Pops. I remember just staring into the bowl of Cocoa Pops as we both sat there, stunned. It took me about ten minutes to tie my shoelaces and then I wandered into the theatre, feeling numb, at about two or three pm and we worked for a few hours, just going over lines really, then I went on. And then the next night was press night! Yes, it was a crazy 48 hours!

The first day that I went on, David phoned up and said good luck. He told me, don’t worry about the blocking, don’t worry about anything, the stage is well lit, you can pretty much do and go where you want, so don’t worry too much about the moves, remembering the lines is hard enough. He was very, very supportive and continued to be over time. He’s a brilliant man.

People think with understudies that, when you go on, it’s your chance to make your mark overnight. But you have to remember, I had a whole company of people who had been working for seven weeks in rehearsal and then three months or four months in Stratford, developing their parts in alignment to David’s performance. So when I went on, certainly the priority for the first week-and-a-half was not to screw anyone else’s performance up by changing things too much. You can’t start flouncing around ‘doing your Hamlet’ to the extent that other people are discombobulated by what you’ve chosen. So it’s a very slow process to make a part like that your own. It’s talking to other actors, bringing in ideas, making little changes and ensuring that’s okay. The last thing you want to do is lose the respect of colleagues you’ve grown to respect and who, hopefully, respect you.

In some ways, it was harder to play Laertes because Laertes has got one scene at the beginning and then he’s off for two-and-a-half hours. If you’re crap in that first scene and then you come back, the audience is going, oh god it’s that guy again, what is he doing back on stage? Whereas with Hamlet, if you’re a bit crap in the first scene, you’ve got the whole rest of the play to justify it. Regardless of the pressures that came with doing it the way I did in that production, the part itself is really crazy and emotional and I wanted to give it all the emotion I had. But you have to learn the bits where you can cruise, the bits where you don’t have to push and make yourself feel so much. It actually makes the performance better as a result, which David understood brilliantly, and it took me awhile to find that.

I didn’t expect all the press attention with Hamlet. I thought the coverage would just be about David, his back and his recovery. I certainly didn’t expect the kind of frenzy it became. The reviews were good, but I didn’t think I was very good the first week. I wasn’t well. I had the flu and my voice was going because I didn’t really know what I was doing with the part so I was shouting a lot and pushing too much. After that I felt better and I got better. In the first few shows, when people were giving standing ovations, I think there was an element of, my god, you got through it and nobody died of embarrassment – though I did cry my eyes out at the curtain call because I was absolutely overwhelmed, and that was very embarrassing. By the end of my month’s tenure, people were standing up again, I think because they enjoyed it, not because they were relieved. In a purely selfish way, I would have liked to have been reviewed in that last week instead of the first!

PRESENT: My first job out of drama school five years ago was actually Hay Fever, directed by Christopher Morahan at Theatr Clywd in Wales. That time, I played Simon, who’s the somewhat immature son of Judith and David Bliss. Thankfully, I’m not playing Simon again, because if I did, I’d have to be five years better than I was before!

This is the first time I’ve come back to a play I’ve done before. I thought it might be boring, knowing what was going on, but actually it’s so different this time than last time. And it’s been really interesting approaching the play from a different perspective.

Sandy, who I’m playing in this production, is an upper-class athlete, who does a bit of motor racing, a bit of boxing, a bit of athletics, like someone from Chariots of Fire. And he’s a little dim. He comes to the Bliss’ country house for the weekend as the guest of Judith, who is the mother of the family and an actress who he’s seen onstage and fallen in love with. She’s invited him down to stay because she likes the idea of a younger man. What Judith doesn’t realise is that her husband, son and daughter have also invited people without anyone else knowing. So everyone arrives at the same time and hilarity ensues.

Judith is played by Diana Rigg. She’s perfect for the part and, well, amazing. She’s so absolutely beautiful still and really sexy with this lovely chocolate-y voice – so it’s not that hard to play her toyboy. And she’s such a wonderful person to have around, really good fun. The rest of the cast is astonishing too. I’ve always wanted to work with Guy Henry, he’s always been a hero of mine, so that’s a bit of a dream come true because he’s brilliant to have around. And Simon Williams is superb.

Noel Coward was writing very much in his time, in the 1920s, and he brilliantly satirises the society and even the theatrical conventions of that time. The language is quite highfalutin’ and self-referential, and it can be seen as very stiff and formal. But actually it’s like syrup – when it’s done well, it’s kind of thick and creamy and sweet and delicious to taste. That’s how we’re trying to do it anyway.

Coward was an only child and didn’t have much family of his own. But Hay Fever is very much about families and he writes about them wonderfully – the Blisses and this group of aliens who become like a family themselves by the end of it. I love Noel Coward, and after doing so much Shakespeare, it’s nice to have a go at something a little lighter. This is perfect for spring jollity.

FUTURE: There might be a film made of Hamlet in June, but we’re not sure if that’s going to go ahead yet. Apart from that, the main thing is to keep working, especially in a time like this when work’s scarce. I feel I’ve come on as an actor, especially after the RSC and the whole Hamlet thing, and I don’t want to lose the momentum.

I was really worried when I finished Hamlet. I was only unemployed for four weeks, but it was the weirdest four weeks. You think, bloody hell, I’ve just played Hamlet, they should be throwing offers at me, I should have scripts strewn out on my dining room table, stroking my chin and wondering which one I should do next. You know, should I work with DeNiro or Pacino now or do that nice British independent film?!

The recession is a double-edged sword for an actor. In a way, it brings everyone else down to the actor’s level – worrying about being unemployed, not knowing where the next job is coming from – so maybe they can feel our distress and pain and relate a little better. I don’t really know how it’s affecting theatre yet; apparently ticket sales are up, which is great.

It’s certainly hitting commercial television quite badly. A lot of programmes are being cut and other regular shows are being diminished in their output, so instead of four episodes it’s two episodes a week or something, which means it’s more difficult to get in for jobbing actors who aren’t regulars on telly. Getting opportunities in telly and film is a little bit like the National is to theatre actors – it is as it looks, a stone fortress and you never really know where the entrance is.

My career up to date has been brilliant. I feel I’ve been incredibly lucky. I hope that Hamlet and what happened at the RSC is the foundation rather than my legacy. But you never know. You always hope for the best and plan for the worst.

Hay Fever opens on 16 April 2009 (previews from 9 April) at Chichester Festival Theatre, where it continues until 2 May. Directed by Nikolai Foster, the cast also features Caroline Langrishe, Sam Alexander and Laura Rogers.