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.
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