Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Hamlet

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
Novello Theatre
(2008)

Edward Bennett as Hamlet

It was not so much a case of Dr Who as just plain "who?" Unwittingly this week, the RSC has managed to achieve the kind of publicity that is normally only accorded when the biggest celebrity names are attached to productions. This is hardly their normal modus operandi but in the overall scheme of things might prove of benefit both the company and its newest star.

Ignoring "sub for Tennant" for a moment, there is a lot to commend in Greg Doran's latest, modern dress creation for the company.

The action is played out in a space designed by Richard Jones with mirrors on both floor and walls, which is fast becoming a standard design concept for West End productions.

In this play, it works well especially thanks to inventive use of lighting from Tim Mitchell, which in particular in the ghost scenes creates an eerie atmosphere. There is also a splendid visual image following the shooting (sic) of Polonius.

That bumbling gent is played by an actor born to the part, Oliver Ford Davies. He is infinitely well-meaning but can irritate almost without saying a word, thus causing great amusement to his children, Tom Davey handsome as Laertes and Mariah Gale playing Ophelia.

The initial problems of this family are as nothing when compared to their regal counterparts. Patrick Stewart plays Claudius as an archetypal modern politician, all smoothness and caring smiles with hardly a hint of the steel that has enabled him to murder a brother and take not only his crown but his wife. Camilla lookalike Penny Downie is a nervy Gertrude, greatly troubled and disappointed by the behaviour of her only son.

For the lengthy period up to the interval, something like two hours, it is the older generation that holds sway. Stewart not only takes the part of Claudius but also a robust, corporeal and rather chilling Ghost. The new King, together with his uncomfortable looking wife, clearly uncertain about her new role so soon after the death of her first husband, seem to be in control, while Polonius offers rich comedy as he encourages his children to aspire to greatness.

The reason why the break is so long delayed is to present a classic curtain moment, the play's protagonist poised with a dagger above the head of the man whom he hates.

The action really hots up after the interval, as the youngsters take over. Mariah Gale is deeply moving and at times genuinely disturbing once Ophelia begins to lose her mind. This follows the double blow of unkind treatment at the hands of the Prince, who in this version is undoubtedly her lover, and his accidental killing of her father.

After a little light comedy involving Mark Hadfield's stubborn Gravedigger, Doran builds to a suitably dramatic finale by which time the stage is littered with lavishly costumed corpses.

However, the question to which everybody wants an answer is whether Edward Bennett is a good substitute, a one-hit wonder or possibly the next big thing?

He seemed slightly nervous in the early scenes, very conscious of his blocking. However, once he moved into the opening soliloquy the actor whose previous London experience has primarily taken place at Sam Walters' Orange Tree in Richmond proves to be a real find.

For better or worse, as he moves around, he brings to mind the man whom he has replaced at no notice. Periodically, if one loses concentration, it is all too easy to imagine that David Tennant has made a remarkable recovery from the back injury that will not see him taking up his role again this year.

That, though, is to diminish the impression that one comes away with at the end of the play. Edward Bennett really is a good actor and given a little more rehearsal time in the part, will deserve all of the accolades and job offers that are sure to follow.

In some ways, the fuss that has been made about him is all rather silly, in that Hamlet has often been launchpad for the career of a young actor, most recently Ben Whishaw in Trevor Nunn's production at the Old Vic.

There is far more to this evening than merely a tyro actor coming good. Visually it is impressive, its fine director has many clever ideas both in modernising the setting and bringing out hidden meanings, while the acting in all of the major and many of the smaller parts has the kind of quality that one has come to expect from this company over many years.

As such, this determinedly modern version of a classic should prove a delight to anybody lucky enough to have a ticket. Mind you, those who chose to purchase through the Internet at prices that exceeded £300 a seat, might very reasonably wonder whether they are getting good value for money, whoever is taking the leading role.

Playing until 10 January 2009

Steve Orme reviewed this production, with David Tennant in the leading role, at Stratford.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher