Well, we all know the story of Edward Bennett - how he has pulled rabbits from a hat to dazzle audiences with his very own playing of Hamlet.
And it IS a fabulous performance. By 'losing' its mega-star, this RSC production of Hamlet has proven that their particular way of constructing a show can work to amazing effect. It was always possible to see and feel how well this works as an ensemble piece, even with the deliciously distracting Tennant in the role (1). But shorn of this particular bright light, it allowed the overall production air to breathe in a different way -- one that allowed the audience to experience the full array of stars in ALL the glory, as full constellations.
Stewart is brilliant, and seeing his performance from (literally) a different perspective (2), lends even greater appreciation to his re-visioning of Claudius/the Ghost. Downie is equally astonishing as Gertrude: a role I do understand is limited but yet so central to the play. Her freezing fear when Claudius approaches her after Polonius' death is palpable; her decision to drink the poison even more desperate and touching in the realisation that her 2nd husband is the murderous soul that her son took him for being. As the cast shuffles up, Ricky Champ gets to take on Guildenstern, bringing a different sort of humour to the R&G double act (it remains brilliantly and sharply funny as these 'friends' try to take in Hamlet, failing so dismally it hurts). Mariah Gale's Ophelia again broke my heart, at heart turns terrifying in her shrieks of madness and tear-inducing in her bereft, muddied flower-hugging confusion. And Oliver Ford Davies remains a heartbreaking Polonius, full of drifting repetition.
But of course the show now belongs to Bennett, and with a few tweaks to the production he makes this is own show. Every Hamlet is different: even every actor's performance is different each time. It is in the nature of theatre.
Ed Bennett brings a teenager's temperament to the role, though that makes it seem more immature than it is. There is certainly a youthful frustration to his manner, a desperation to his soliloquies, delivered mostly centre stage. I liked the fact that, when he spits on Ophelia - something that HAS been done by other actors in the role - it is not done with venom but with an almost casual distain: a 'what are you to me? nothing' kind of response. When he re-reads Ophelia's letters, the 'I did love you once' seems more astonished, as if reminiscing from another lifetime, and it is again just that tiny bit different to other readings of this role I have seen or heard [and I can also draw on the experience of my friend Helen who counts this as her 11th Hamlet on stage].
By the end of the production, the audience was thoroughly convinced this had been worth seeing. The cast as a whole were gloriously applauded and Bennett again got a loud and vigorous ovation. The touch on his arm from Downie was affectionate and offered reassurance: 'see, you can do it and it's going so well'. Not as I think he needs that, but it demonstrates how the RSC family works as a whole.
Now for the big question.
Did we miss Tennant? That's a harder one to answer: unlike Marie and JH, myself and Helen had been lucky enough to see the production before. "You don't know what you've got til its gone" seems a harsh line to have running through your head when you know you still feel thrilled to have seen such a great performance as Bennett gave. As Marie put it, she doubted that Tennant could have been better - he would simply have been different. And that's an important distinction, because identifying performances as better/worse is terribly difficult to do - especially when you are comparing something unseen with something seen. We 'know' that various actors in the past have offered up iconic Hamlets, but the ones we see will always be closer to us.
So I feel deeply privileged to have seen this production twice and to see/experience two quite different Hamlets. I doubt I will be able to shrug off that Tennant's was particularly special to me, because it was my first stage Hamlet and it was such an iconic performance. But I want to take nothing away from how much Bennett succeeded on his own terms in his own way in circumstances that would have truly tested the metal of any actor on the rise. Certainly he is one to watch and I hope that one day he gets a production of Hamlet built and not just adapted to his own way of performing, because he truly deserves it. (3)
And with that, I depart. I'll be with you again I hope a little before Xmas and then again in the New Year. Cheers for 2008. Here's to 2009.
(1) personally, I blame the underpants debacle. It really was difficult to think straight sometimes... Yes, I am THAT shallow. I'm sorry.
(2) Our seats, thanks Poly, were on row B of the dress circle facing centre stage. Frankly, I'm not sure if it wasn't a good thing that BOTH David Tennant and friend Christine were poorly (not as I wish either ill) since I suspect that we may well just have squeed ourselves into oblivion at having such a vantage point.
(3) Edited for typing errors with assistance from Pers... Ta!