Edward Bennett, Patrick Stewart, Pennie Downie, Oliver Ford Davies
There is no denying that despite the absence of its star, the London reincarnation of the RSC’s Hamlet is impressive from start to finish.
Even without its Prince, director Gregory Doran has created a slick production, which still manages to dazzle with star quality.
However, though understudy Edward Bennett’s performance is powerful, especially given the undoubted pressures involved, I found the production somewhat haunted by the absent Hamlet.
Having lost nothing in its transfer from Stratford, Robert Jones’ design is a star in its own right. His present day set brings us a Danish King’s castle which owes more to a French Chteaux than 13th Century fortress, thanks to chandeliers, mirrored glass, Louis 14th style chairs and opulent silks.
Built with mirrored walls and floors, with Tim Mitchell’s brilliant lighting and sound by Jeremy Dunn, it beautifully creates both every mood and setting, from sunrise in echoing great halls to spooky torchlit midnight on the battlements.
The mirrors also give the small stage and theatre an increased sense of space by reflecting both props and players in a way that seems to multiply them into a large court and vacuous spaces. They also reflect the audience’s image back on itself, adding to the claustrophobia of the small Novello theatre and drawing us into the action, complicit in both Hamlet and Claudius’ plotting.
A confusion of light and reflection is dazzling at times and you are left wondering which of the ensemble cast is real and which is mere illusion. This compliments the increasingly erratic Hamlet, and of course the more obvious madness of Ophelia (Mariah Gale).
Despite the last minute shifting around of the roles caused by Tennant’s absence, the cast seems unfazed. Tom Davey is a promiscuous and vain Laertes (despite hardly any lines) with Ricky Champ and Robert Curtis also doing well. In a tribute to the professionalism of the RSC everyone still hits their spot. Patrick Stewart brings a great sinister humility to Claudius and Pennie Downie is a glamorous but unsuspecting Gertrude. In the absence of Tennant, Oliver Ford Davies steals the show as a bumbling Polonius.
As Bennett himself admits, despite what the RSC may say this is Tennant’s production and his absence is felt throughout. Whether that’s in the costumes clearly created with Doctor Who rather than the aesthetic of the rest of the play in mind (I’ve never seen Hamlet in an anorak before) or the teenage proportion of the audience who insisted on chatting through the quiet bits. However it remains an impressive version that never drags, thanks in part to the serious cutting down of the text.
Unfortunately for Bennett, he was excellently cast as Laertes and was for me too likeable and even-tempered to be a truly great Hamlet, at least not this time around.
This is his biggest role to date and so, unsurprisingly, in the early scenes he seems to lack confidence in being centre stage. He gains swagger in the second half but you feel we’ve not yet seen the best of him. One advantage he has over Tennant is that he has the moodiness of youth down well, being at 29 much closer to a tortured young Hamlet than Tennant at 37 is.
His most powerful moment for me comes at the very end with the obvious joy he feels at the whole experience. His tearful surprise at the audience’s and fellow cast’s applause also brought a tear to my eye and it is wonderful to see such an unaffected young actor with a passion for his art pulling off such a performance.