Page last updated at 13:44 GMT, Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Press views: Tennant's understudy

Ryan Gage as Osric and Edward Bennettt as Laertes
Edward Bennett (r) normally plays the role of Laertes

David Tennant's absence at the London press night for Hamlet has given reviewers the chance to compare his performance with that of his stand-in, Edward Bennett.

Tennant, who will not now be returning to play Hamlet "before Christmas" because of a back injury, took to the stage in the role for the first time in Stratford-upon-Avon in August.

Bennett, who normally plays the role of Laertes, has so far stepped into the Doctor Who star's shoes twice on the West End stage - winning a standing ovation on both occasions.

But how did the critics rate the two interpretations of the Dane?



This is a Hamlet of quicksilver intelligence, mimetic vigour and wild humour: one of the funniest I've ever seen.

He parodies everyone he talks to, from the prattling Polonius to the verbally ornate Osric.

Tennant is an active, athletic, immensely engaging Hamlet. If there is any quality I miss, it is the character's philosophical nature, and here he is not helped by the production.


Bennett's Hamlet is very different in tone and style, as you might expect, from Tennant's, which was filled with demonic energy, airy lightness and caustic humour.

Bennett incorporates some of Tennant's business such as his manic shout of "Whee" as he propels himself off stage in an office chair.

But this is a more robustly traditional reading of the part which marks Bennett down as an actor to watch.



Tennant is restless, curt and mocking when he needs to be, affectionate when he can be, and, apart from an occasional tendency to gabble, pretty impressive.

But most noticeably he's so dreamily reflective that you feel that Claudius's fatal mistake was refusing him permission to resume his philosophy degree in the safety of faraway Wittenberg.

Like Gordon Brown, who came to a preview, this very temporary leader is error-prone.


Though his Hamlet's strengths include the gift for mimicking others that marked Tennant, he hasn't the same variety, intensity or excitement.

He got a standing ovation, and maybe deserved it for valour in the theatrical field.

But I'd give him a sitting ovation - sorry for an actor who hasn't had Tennant's chance to explore drama's trickiest, most demanding role.



Tennant isn't in the pantheon of the great Hamlets yet. What's lacking, at present, is weight and depth. He delivers the great soliloquies with clarity, but he doesn't always discover their freight of emotion.

Tennant is at his best though when he dares with his emotions and lets rip.


For sheer nerve and self-confidence Bennett undoubtedly deserved the cheers.

It has to be said, however, that he is not a natural Hamlet.

Here he seemed to be making a strenuous effort to be deadly serious, and the result in the first half was a slow, stolid competence that lacked the quicksilver wit and intelligence of Tennant's performance.

After the interval he greatly improved, bringing a thrilling mixture of anger and anguish to the closet scene with his mother, and suggesting a hint of spiritual understanding in the last act that eluded Tennant.


ON TENNANT (Michael Coveney)

David Tennant may be television's Doctor Who getting above himself, according to snobs and ignoramuses - but he's a really fine, athletic and technically accomplished classical actor to boot.

We know Hamlet as much from what he says as from how he treats people. Tennant is brilliant at this, honing his wit at Polonius's expense, delighting in the stage-loric grandness of John Woodvine's Player King, or tolerating Osric (freshly done by Ryan Gage) with an appreciative playfulness.

And he moves and speaks with the speed of light, a chameleon, a prankster, a misunderstood maverick.

ON BENNETT (Maxwell Cooter)

Hamlet is a play that is dominated by the central character and although the RSC makes much of its ensemble acting, Bennett's Hamlet will not be, nor cannot be, the same as Tennant's.

This is not to unduly criticise Bennett, who steps into the role superbly and won a standing ovation from a sympathetic audience.

But he doesn't have Tennant's gifts for mimicry and he's a prince of a little more sombreness.

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