Hamlet, Novello Theatre, London

Alas, poor Tennant, the new Prince pulls it off

It was to have been the Doctor Who Hamlet, the most eagerly awaited event of the year in London's West End, with tickets as prized as those for the Obama inauguration. Instead, it became Hamlet without the Prince – at least the prince in the shape of David Tennant, who had caused such a sensation in Greg Doran's production in Stratford, but was stricken with a bad back on opening night.

So Ed Bennett, at just three hours' notice, found himself propelled from the part of Laertes to playing the most complex and largest role in the whole of Shakespeare, measured against the legends, from Olivier (1948), Redgrave (1958), Jacobi (1979) and Branagh (1996) to Simon Russell Beale's ironic great Dane in 2000 (and Garrick before all of those).

Tennant's widely praised performance in Stratford had raised expectations that he would join the ranks of the greats, and he may still do so, but he will have to work hard to regain the lost ground in the remaining performances (assuming he can return at all). The critics have already been and gone, filed their reviews with many mentions of Tardises and Daleks, and may not even go back again (no seats available, such is the scale of the sell-out).

Apologising for the absence of Tennant before the curtain went up (metaphorically – there is no curtain in Robert Jones's superbly clever, mirrored set), Doran said he hoped that Bennett, going out like the youngster plucked from the chorus in the Broadway musical 42nd Street, would "come back a star".

Does he? Well, not quite – although he did get half a standing ovation at the end – and looked mighty relieved. Given the task, it would have been one of the great fairy stories of the modern stage if he had pulled it off. But he does do well enough, and more, to hold this brilliant production together, playing the prince with a mixture of biting wit and burning anger. The anguished, indecisive and intellectual Hamlet becomes a more sardonic, scornful and definitely sane character, a first-class mimic, in charge rather than a victim of events. It is only in the soliloquies that he disappoints, lacking the soul-searching intensity required for the most quoted passages in the English language.

He has the personality and presence to dominate the stage when he needs to. His dismissal of Polonius, played by Oliver Ford Davies, is delivered so cuttingly it makes one wince: as the old man offers to "take my leave of you", Hamlet replies: "You cannot, sir, take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal". And he reduces poor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to gibbering wrecks – "Do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?"

Doran has famously cast his production in a mixture of old and new costumes – the ghost, played by Patrick Stewart (yes, he of starship fame), who also doubles as Claudius, appears in full commendatore-style armour and helmet, looking as if he has strayed off the set of Don Giovanni. Seconds later he is back, in Savile Row suit, as his brother. Bennett shuffles on to the stage in everything from jeans and T-shirt to black tie sans shoes and socks. Ophelia (Mariah Gale), in her raging madness, strips down to sexy bra and pants, designer label on show.

More controversially, Doran has moved scenes about and made some drastic cuts – "To be, or not to be" is brought forward from Act Three to Act Two, while Fortinbras, parachuting in clad in full SAS gear, is given no lines at all (in the Stratford production he was excised altogether).

It all makes for a bold, fast-paced, and beautifully acted production. It is hard to judge whether Stewart is better as the ghost or the king, both of them are so good. Pennie Downie is a beautiful, elegant and thoroughly believable Gertrude, whose bedroom scene with Hamlet is probably the best – and certainly most moving – in the whole play. Ford Davies plays Polonius as a semi-senile, wandering, prating old fool, whose wise saws and modern instances are treated by both Laertes and Ophelia with barely disguised impatience.

With such a rich cast and a director at the top of his form, even the absence of Doctor Who – oops, I mean David Tennant – cannot detract from a production which should be rated among the best modern Hamlets. Maybe Tennant will raise it still higher.

To 10 January (0870 950 0935)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week