New Edition Excerpt
Six weeks after David had announced he was to leave Doctor Who, the press night for Hamlet at the Novello Theatre in London was in chaos. David was suffering with a severe back injury and could not go ahead with his performance. He was replaced by his understudy, Edward Bennett, who had been playing the role of Laertes during the run of the production in Stratford-upon-Avon. As Michael Boyd, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, told journalists, the RSC was an ensemble company, and as such, he felt it was important to still go ahead with the press night, despite David’s absence. ‘While understanding that some people will be disappointed at not seeing David on stage, this production, like all our productions, is more than the sum of its parts, an ensemble of actors, designers, composers etc, and we should respect that by going ahead as planned.’ And of course, he was right.
Not that those who had queued overnight, crashed booking websites and jammed ticket hotlines would agree. They simply wanted to see David in person and on the stage. But then again, no one could have asked for a better stand-in than Bennett. He already had the critics on his side from when he appeared in the production of Othello at the Donmar Warehouse, the previous February. For press night, all agreed that he did a good job, even though, some noted, he was not a natural Hamlet. After all, it must have been a daunting prospect for Bennett to take on the star role for what was the most talked about theatre production of the year. David, of course, was gutted at not being able to perform the role he had worked on and developed throughout sixty performances in Stratford-upon-Avon. Even worse was the thought of disappointing audiences. But as director Gregory Doran confirmed, ‘He has only ever been off for one performance in his entire career to date, and is hoping that he will be able to return to the show as quickly as possible. It is an indication of the RSC’s investment in understudies that Ed can take over from David in one of Shakespeare’s largest roles at such short notice.’
Despite the standing ovation Bennett would receive, and the generally warm reviews from the press, that didn’t stop him looking very weary about the whole thing. With just three hours to prepare, he emerged from the rehearsals wide-eyed and exhausted. Yes, he was thrilled to have the opportunity to play the Prince of Denmark, but no, he did not relish stepping into David’s shoes. He was, he admits, a scary act to follow. ‘Sure, it’s a dream part to do and it’s amazing to do, but you don’t want David to be away, and you don’t want him to be sick.’
According to journalists, David had been suffering from a niggling back injury for some time but had ignored it, thinking that there was no point in seeking medical advice for an occasional twinge. No one would have guessed there was a problem. Not surprisingly, on the set of Doctor Who, he was renowned for his athleticism and for performing his own stunts. The fact that he had played Hamlet sixty times at Stratford-upon-Avon in the summer before the West End transfer, without missing a single performance just added to the confusion. The problem, however, it seemed, had been around for a while, certainly before he was with the Hamlet production, and certainly, said a spokesman for the RSC, he didn’t think it was a problem. He couldn’t even put his finger on when it had first started being troublesome. Within a few days of dropping out of the opening night, and still in agony, that made even the slightest move a very painful chore, David finally consulted a specialist. ‘My back problem has progressed to the point where it is currently impossible for me to carry on without surgery. I want to get back on stage as quickly as possible, and I am very grateful to Ed who has courageously got to grips with the role but in a much shorter time. It’s a fantastic achievement.’
Not so fantastic was the news that David would not be returning to the show in the forseeable future, if at all. He was diagnosed with a prolapsed disc that required immediate surgery, and would, warned a spinal expert, normally take anything up to three months of recovery time. If that was true, then it also meant he would not be available for the start of filming the four Doctor Who specials that were scheduled to go into production in the same month that Hamlet ended it’s London run at the Novello. Making matters worse was the fact that he had even been deemed not well enough to attend a preview screening of that year’s Doctor Who Christmas Day special. Even when he was well enough to step out into public after his opertaion, it was only to take some gentle exercise to his local Post Office in East London. Wearing jeans, a multi-coloured scarf and black glasses, he looked a picture of misery.
Not surprising when you consider that by Christmas, he had missed fourteen of the scheduled performances of Hamlet, not counting previews. But despite the absence, he was still a runaway box-office sensation. All 6,000 available tickets for the London shows sold out in just three hours when they went on sale that September, less than twelve weeks before the show opened. Although the production’s appeal was largely down to David’s casting in the title role, the RSC and Delfont Mackintosh Theatres refused to offer refunds. The RSC said: ‘The company has a fully rehearsed understudy policy and performances will continue as scheduled. The company is able to offer exchanges, subject to availability, for other RSC London performances during this season at the Novello Theatre. Patrons are also able to offer tickets for resale, subject to the usual terms and conditions.’