Edward Bennet: David Tennant's Understudy in Hamlet

PUBLISHED: 00:22 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:02 20 February 2013



When Dr Who actor David Tennant announced that he was to play Hamlet at the RSC in Stratford and then London, fans queued for hours to buy the precious tickets. Imagine their dismay when Mr Tennant was indisposed and his understudy, Edward Benn...

Edward Bennett is taking a break from rehearsing alongside Diana Rigg in a production of Noel Coward's Hay Fever at the Festival Theatre, Chichester. As he spills some family secrets, it's rather like listening to the script for the popular BBC series Who Do You Think You Are?"

"Nobody in the family told me we'd got this theatrical heritage until I got to RADA, I think it was a good thing that I didn't know, it's very strange, but I like it as well because it means I chose acting because I wanted to not because of family," he confides. Edward comes from a long line of theatre impresarios and actors.

Growing up in Honeybourne, Worcestershire, he hadn't the faintest inkling of a family connection with theatre. His interest was sparked quite independently when, at the age of 14, he moved from RGS (the Royal Grammar School) in Worcester to Chipping Camden School where he discovered a thriving drama department, and an inspirational teacher David Penhale

"My dream from the time I was a Chipping Campden was always to work at the RSC. Mr Penhale took us to see a few plays at Stratford and I just completely loved the place, the actors there were like super heroes, to me they were celebrities!" he recalls.

The dream was put on hold whilst he completed a degree in History and Politics at Cardiff - something to fall back on. After university he was accepted by RADA and it was only then that he was told of his link to the past when he was given a box he'd never seen before.

"In it were old playbills, and plans for the Coventry Royal Opera House which my great-grandfather built, and all these other things, programmes photos and books and logs and sketches - just incredible stuff and I was absolutely absorbed by it."

Delving through the contents he discovered that his Warwickshire-based paternal ancestors were theatrical impresarios, with theatres around the country. His great-grandfather William took over the Coventry's Theatre Royal (later relaunched as the Empire Theatre of Varieties) in 1880, and built both the Coventry Royal Opera House and the old Theatre Royal in Warwick.

There were performers in the family too - his great-grandmother Florence Forster was an actress well-known for playing the principal boy in productions such as Peter Pan.

"I'd like to see how far it goes back, because as far as I know it goes back to around 1840 when my great-great-great-grandfather persuaded 'Patch' his co-owner of a travelling theatre to sell his share," he continues, adding that the family's theatrical association came to an abrupt, and slightly mysterious end around 100 years later.

"In the 1940s they sold the theatres and made a pack of money. I don't know exactly what happened, it's a bit of a family secret, but there was a rift of some kind, probably to do with money and personality. Half the family went to Australia and half the family stayed here."

In the decades that followed the family transferred their attentions to other occupations and the history was obscured under a veneer of 'respectability' until Edward's emergence as an actor.

"Since I've been acting a lot of my aunts and uncles, who have got their own little boxes from years gone by, have framed playbills and put them on their walls so it's kind of seeped back into the family a little bit."

After RADA Edward trod the familiar path of aspiring actors, working in regional theatres testing his craft and honing his skills, but it wasn't long before higher profile opportunities arrived.

Parts in Little Nell and Pygmalion, part of the Peter Hall Company Season at the Theatre Royal Bath in the summer of 2007, were followed by role of Roderigo in Michael Grandage's acclaimed production of Othello at the Donmar Warehouse in London.

Then came the longed for invitation to audition for the RSC.

"I went for Lysander, came out and thought it went alright. An audition is up to two weeks of constant work and pressure, thinking about it, hoping about it, praying about it, submitting your heart to fate hoping it won't deal you too cruel a blow, then 5 minutes in a room and it's all over. It's the weirdest anti-climax.

"My agent Jeremy left a message saying: 'You might want to call me,' remembers Edward

"I eventually managed to get hold of him and he said: 'The RSC have offered you a fairy in Midsummer Night's Dream, a spear carrier in Loves Labours Lost and understudying a part I don't really know and in Hamlet you're playing or understudying Barnado, but as you say it's the RSC and you start out as small fry and work your way up the ladder and that's what you have to do.' So I said: 'Yes that's fine.' and he replied: 'Only joking it's Navarre [in Love's Labour's Lost] and understudying Hamlet, how do you feel about that?" - it's the only time I've ever called him a rude word!

"The rest is history really, I had an amazing six months in Stratford and then what happened, happened."

What happened, of course, was the announcement that the star of Hamlet, David Tennant has been forced to pull out of the final preview performance of Hamlet's London run. Edward was 'on'.

Stepping into another actor's shoes brings with it the obvious temptations for the understudy to incorporate their own interpretation of the role, but there's also a responsibility to ensure that the rest of the cast are not wrong-footed.

"This is your opportunity to be a star, this is your opportunity to take Hamlet and make it your own, but there were 24 other people on the stage who'd rehearsed a part and played it for four months with him, with the moves that he'd done, the intonation he'd done, the character he'd created and the relationships that had been established over time and you can't blow that out of the water. Part of the job of an understudy is not to go on and say 'this is me now' - you have to go on and be in the same place and do the same kind of a thing and changes have to be gradual."

"We did as much work as we could on the Monday, and got through it, it was an incredible night," he says. "I went to the pub had a few whiskies with friends celebrated that I'd done Hamlet in the West End and thought that'll do thanks very much I've had a crack at it."

In the run up to the Monday night performance, the cast were unaware of the extent of Tennant's injury, but by the next day it was clear that a prolapsed disc meant he was out for press night and the foreseeable future.

Catapulted to centre stage Edward continued as Hamlet until Tennant's return for the last week of the London run.

Given the critics accolades for the Stratford staging of the production, the huge acclaim for David Tennant's interpretation of the Hamlet, and the 'Doctor Who plays Hamlet' factor which had proved so magnetic to a non-traditional audience, the pressure on Edward was magnified.

"I remember someone telling me that he'd understudied at the RSC, and he said when the announcement went out that he'd be playing the role he heard a sigh. He said there are two possible responses to that, either you take it badly or you go 'right watch this'," says Edward.

In the event the critics were positive, the audience, far from disappearing in disappointed droves, rewarded him with a standing ovation.

"It's been an amazing thing, I only hope it's the foundation of my career and not the legacy," he reflects. "That's my only fear. I'm scared that everyone will think: 'Oh he's the guy that played Hamlet he won't need to do anything else for a few years', so I don't know what's going to happen really."

There are no certainties, Hay Fever finished on the 3rd of May when we met Edward admitted he didn't know what he would be doing afterwards.

"There might be a film of Hamlet made, but we haven't been checked for it yet, and I'm not sure if they've got the money together for it, but if it happens that should be in June. Fingers crossed that will happen - if I had the money I'd invest in it!"

He's also recently filmed an episode of the BBC show Doctors due to be screened this month. In it he plays a conniving son of rich man who has married a younger woman

"It's my first proper part on telly. It's almost like playing a baddy in a Bond film," he adds with a certain degree of relish. "I'd like to do more TV and film, I've not done much of that, it's not about forging a big career but it's about getting the experience, it's far more technical than I thought it was."

There's a palpable sense of disappointment, as he confides that although he would have liked to have returned to the RSC for a follow up season that he hasn't been called up.

He counters the disappointment with a huge enthusiasm for the way in which the RSC is now evolving under Artistic Director Michael Boyd; and predicts a return to the 'golden age of the 70s and 80s' with an emphasis on ensemble work with people remaining with the RSC for long periods of time.

"Shakespeare is something that the more you immerse yourself in it the easier it becomes, the more natural it becomes, and the better it becomes . . . long contracts, ensemble work, company work, is the only way Stratford works."

Realistically he knows that an actor's life will always be a precarious one, and in the meantime, inspired by his eccentric great-uncle Jack Bennett, renowned in family folklore for travelling by train from Warwick to London in dressing gown and slippers with a hawk on his arm, he has another project in mind.

Eschewing a future in theatre, 18-year-old Jack planned instead to farm, and set out on a grand tour with the plan of learning more about agricultural practices around the world. Attempting to cross the Canadian Rockies in the winter of 1930 he perished and was eaten by wolves.

"I know where he died from all the media coverage, and I've got all his letters, maps, and diary that he wrote until just before he died," says Edward who plans to replicate the journey complete with backpack and pony - obviously missing out the encounter with the wolves!

"That's my Plan B," he announces. "In case I don't work for a while. I've always needed to have a dream that is totally separate from acting, something you can go and do that puts a sense of purpose inside you so that you don't mind working in a shoe shop for four months to achieve it. For me the worst fear is not being able to act, doing a job I don't enjoy, and not seeing any end to it - that is my ultimate professional fear and I don't never want to get to that!"

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