Review: Hamlet

By John Nathan, December 11, 2008

Novello, London WC2

A bad back not only caused David Tennant to withdraw from the press night of this RSC Hamlet — first seen in Stratford — but a hasty reshuffling of the pack. Fortinbrass became Lucianus; Lucianus became Gildenstern; Gildenstern played Laertes and Laertes, aka Edward Bennett, replaced Tennant in Shakespeare’s biggest and probably greatest role. So no pressure then, as director Gregory Doran said when he announced the changes to the audience.

It says a lot for Tennant’s talents that both Shakespeare and Doctor Who fans would have been equally disappointed by his absence. For Bennett, the stage was set for triumph or disaster. But what we got in Doran’s modern-dress production is exactly what you would expect from a talented actor pushed into playing a role he’s probably thought about all his acting life, but for which he’s had little time to prepare.

Bennett’s Hamlet is not so much burdened by treachery, as exhilarated by his release from court etiquette and high as a kite on his new found role as avenger. The insight carries Bennett’s performance a long way — but not all the way. The result is a gradual powering-down so that even the bedroom scene with Penny Downie’s dignified Gertrude is underpowered and undersexed.

Yet the strengths of Doran’s production remain: the disturbing disintegration of Mariah Gale’s sensual Ophelia; Oliver Ford Davis’s forgetful Polonius is, well, memorable; Mark Hadfield’s gravedigger hilariously bounces against the walls of his grave while laughing at his own jokes; and particularly wonderful is Downie’s moment of chilly realisation as her Gertrude drinks from the cup knowing it contains poison meant for her son. If Tennant’s back fails to mend, Bennett will grow into the role.

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Last updated: 10:35am, December 11 2008