You would think that playing Hamlet in the West End would lead to numerous job opportunities, but following his current appearance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Edward Bennett, presently the West End’s most famous understudy, could be unemployed, finds Matthew Amer.
It is shocking really, how a young actor, having taken on possibly the most difficult performing job in recent years – replacing David Tennant when the Dr Who star had to pull out of Hamlet due to a prolapsed disc – can go from a role that is so often career-defining to no role at all in the space of a just month. When Bennett closes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he has no new job on the horizon. This is no-one’s fault, but no less surprising for it.
Bennett does not seem too concerned when we meet the morning after the first preview of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the second Royal Shakespeare Company production he will have starred in this winter, at the Novello theatre. This is probably partly due to the fact he has been in the business long enough to have been through periods of unemployment before, and partly because he is nursing a hangover from last night’s first preview celebrations which saw the entire cast hit the town.
Coffee in hand and unshaven, he is a little on the dishevelled side, but awake enough to sing the praises of his new show.
“It’s the first play we rehearsed back in March in Clapham,” he says, perking himself up with a burst of caffeine. “It kind of feels like the original, the solid base of our company.”
The play is a revival of Gregory Doran’s 2005 production of Shakespeare’s comedy of fairies and confused lovers. But, says Bennett; “We’ve never felt like it was a revival. We’ve brought it on and we’ve made it better, hopefully. Instead of just doing a carbon copy, there’s lots of things that are different about it.”
“I don’t threaten to beat her up off-stage”
Not least in these differences is the cast, in which Bennett plays Demetrius opposite Natalie Walter as Helena. The pair, lovers in the production, met for the first time when rehearsals began earlier this year. Shakespeare’s fairies worked their magic on them, and, life imitating art, they are now in a relationship. Bennett is effusive in praise of his co-star/girlfriend, as one would expect, and is definite that there is no confusion of the two relationships. “I don’t threaten to beat her up off-stage,” he laughs, “as I do onstage.”
The production, Bennett says, has a very different feel to it than Hamlet. The whole cast went out following its first preview, whereas group outings after Hamlet performances were much rarer. He puts it down to the ensemble nature of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While Hamlet had a large company, there were many times when actors were off-stage for long periods. Bennett, when he was playing his original role of Laertes, spent two hours in the green room each performance. With Dream, however, “everyone’s either getting changed, getting dressed or undressed, changing props, doing all these kinds of things, getting ready for the next scene. Everyone’s busy all the time; it makes for a happy theatre.
“It’s quite a relief,” he continues. “[Hamlet] was quite mental in many respects, but brilliant, absolutely brilliant.”
Bennett was thrust into the limelight in a way nobody could have expected when, the day before press night, Tennant had to withdraw from the final preview due to back pain. Bennett went on as Hamlet, but even then did not know that Tennant would not return for the press night or for the majority of the show’s London run. This left him facing the critics at a moment’s notice and an unpredictable public whose passion for Tennant’s Hamlet had seen tickets sell out almost before they went on sale. It is rare that any understudy has ever had to perform under such pressurised circumstances. Bennett was met, not by vitriol from the press and boos from the audience, but by written words of promise and encouragement and a standing ovation.
While his spell in the spotlight marks a breakthrough for the young actor, having previously played supporting roles in major productions, he is palpably relieved that the run, and the media circus surrounding it, is over. He welcomed Tennant back for the final week with the eagerness – judging by his tone of voice – of a man who has just been offered pain relief after a heavy night out.
“That wasn’t my Hamlet on press night; it wasn’t what I would want to say is my Hamlet, but that’s what was seen and reviewed and criticised”
“I can’t remember anything about press night,” he admits. “I can’t remember any choices I made, I can’t remember any moments that I savoured, nothing.” Taking on the role at a day’s notice left him effectively trying only to get through the performance, without having time to make any decisions about how his Hamlet should be. He is, he says, similar in acting temperament to Tennant, though lacking the more famous performer’s experience, so their choices would not have been wildly different, especially as, at the beginning of rehearsals, the company explored the text together, uncovering a communal experience of the story.
“To an extent,” Bennett explains, “I did what he did and obviously moved where he moved, but I never ever felt like I was recreating stuff, apart from certain moments that I thought were really brilliant, bits I thought were just lovely and I thought if I ever rehearsed it for seven weeks, I’d want to get to a point where I’d made that choice.
“By the last week I began to understand what it was that made this my Hamlet a little bit and settle into it, feel a bit more secure. That wasn’t my Hamlet on press night; it wasn’t what I would want to say is my Hamlet, but that’s what was seen and reviewed and criticised. The only thing that’s really frustrated me was that when David was reviewed again, they compared us. I felt a bit frustrated that I was being compared on the second night I’ve ever done it.”
It clearly niggles with Bennett that for his debut as Hamlet in the West End, he did not have time to fully explore his character. It is understandable; Hamlet is considered a defining role of an acting career, and to have that defining moment thrown at you haphazardly cannot have been ideal, especially when the chance to play it may not come again. The good reviews, he says, were a triumph for the company more than himself, for the work that had been put in during rehearsals, the playing of multiple roles, and the discovery of the text so that the whole company understood the feeling and tone of the production blow by blow.
But with Hamlet everything does revolve around the central character, and had Bennett not been up to the job, the show could have collapsed around him. He may not have been David Tennant, but in stepping out of the shadows, he took on more than he gives himself credit for.
He also fulfilled a childhood ambition. Bennett grew up near Stratford and has been associated with the RSC for a decade, though the company is labelling this season his debut. In both 1998 and 2000, he was a spear carrier in productions of Measure For Measure and Romeo And Juliet. He also helped out “making tea and flyering, going round schools and getting people to come and see” a Samuel West-directed production of Hamlet as part of the now defunct RSC fringe festival, earning the chance to play Cornelius. He also returned to Stratford as part of the Peter Hall Company in 2006 to stage Measure For Measure as part of the Complete Works Season. It seems only right that his first leading West End performance should come with the company he had dreamed of working with since deciding to pursue acting as a career.
“It’s bloody scary, thinking about being unemployed in the current climate”
Yet the final curtain of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will sever his current connection with the RSC. In the recent announcement of the newly established ensembles, which will work with the RSC for the next two and a half years, Bennett’s name was conspicuous by its absence. This was not the actor’s choice. He wrote to both “Boydie” [RSC Artistic Director Michael Boyd] and the casting department asking to be included, but was not offered a contract on this occasion. He puts it down, partially, to the influx of new directors wanting to bring their own choice of actors to the company with them.
“I’m a bit gutted not to get offered something,” he confides, “but I do understand why. I’ve had a year and I’ve had an amazing time. To go back for another two and a half years, even though I would at the drop of a hat, might not be the best thing. It’s bloody scary though, thinking about being unemployed in the current climate. There’s thousands of low-skilled workers who’ve been taking all the actors’ jobs,” he smiles, “waitering and bar work and stuff, so God knows what I’m going to do.”
A jewellers in Islington where he previously worked might be his first port of call, but it seems crazy that this West End Hamlet, who also delivered strong performances opposite Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ewan McGregor in Othello – Bennett played Roderigo – and in Peter Hall’s production of Pygmalion should be in this position. He should, on paper, be one of theatre’s most coveted performers, being nurtured for more leading roles. “Doesn’t work like that though, does it?” He dismisses the suggestion with a weary acceptance.
The life of an actor never was meant to run smoothly; one minute a West End leading man, the next selling bracelets to get by. It is no surprise, then, that with his 30th birthday looming later in the year, the secure position that many expect to be in by that age is missing from his life. The landmark birthday has its concerning aspects, but Bennett, in his unruffled, unfussed, laid-back, still slightly worse-for-wear way is not too bothered: “I prefer 30 to 20. In your early 20s, didn’t you find you had a great time and everything? Everything was there and everything was exciting, but also you just made so many cock ups; in relationships, taking some things far too seriously and not concentrating on other things. I quite like the idea of being a bit more sorted out, a little bit more balanced. If you want to be immature, it’s a choice. ‘I am being like this because I can be,’ rather than ‘This is who I am’.”
It is a philosophical approach to the loss of youth, which is followed, as I leave, by Bennett finishing his coffee and curling up on the sofa to sleep off the remains of his self-induced, alcohol-fuelled sickness, happy in the knowledge that he chose to be like that.