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Tom Hiddleston's first public performance as Hamlet earned a rapturous reaction from London theatre-goers on Friday night, with audience members praising the Night Manager star's "brilliant" performance, in a production directed by Kenneth Branagh.
The play runs for three weeks only at Rada's 160-seat Jerwood Vanbrugh theatre, offering audiences a rare chance to catch the film star – who plays Norse god Loki in Marvel's superhero films – in a small venue.
Mandy Howell drove down with her daughter Jessica from Mirfield, West Yorkshire to see the play. "It was so intimate," Mandy said. "In the fight scene at the end, you just felt as though you were right there in the play with them... It was mesmerising."
Juliana, 32, recently moved to the UK and had never seen a production of Hamlet before. "I’m pretty new to the theatre world, unfortunately – I’m not that into the whole cultural scene," she said. "But I loved it! I found that, even as a non-native English speaker, I could follow it all, which was great!" Although Hiddleston was impressive, she continued, the stand-out performance came from 2015 Rada graduate Kathryn Wilder as Ophelia. "I really enjoyed every single scene with Ophelia, especially after her spiral into madness," she added. "She made it very relatable."
Tickets for the production were allocated via a random ballot online, using a new system designed to beat ticket touts. "I think the ballot is a great idea," said civil servant Angharad Thomas, 21. "Not everyone can do the first-come, first-served thing. For example, if you’re in a full-time job, you can’t always just be sat in front of your computer all day."
Not everyone was thrilled by Hiddleston's performance. “Jane”, a 25-year-old Londoner, was only happy to speak about the show under a pseudonym, fearing an angry response from the actor's fans online. "Whenever you talk about Tom, if you say something bad, you get attacked," she said. "If you criticise him on Twitter – not in a rude way, just saying 'his acting was like this', they come for you – it’s like a witch hunt."
Jane was impressed by Branagh's direction, but felt Hiddleston's Hamlet failed to measure up to other Danes she had seen. "There have been a lot of Hamlets out in the past year or so, and I’ve seen most of them – I saw Benedict Cumberbatch's, and I saw Andrew Scott’s – so you start to compare them, and this just fell a bit flat for me," she said. "I mean, Tom’s a great actor, and he does Shakespeare really well, but I don’t think that Hamlet was his ideal role. I saw his Coriolanus a few years back, and that was really good – he was born to be Coriolanus! But for Hamlet he just came across as… well, I know Hamlet’s meant to be angsty, but over-angsty. I felt like he was overacting. Maybe it was first night nerves."
Luisa Hoffman, a secondary school teacher from Ontario, travelled from Canada just to catch the production. "I flew in this morning at 10am and I’m flying back on Sunday – I have to be back at school on Tuesday. I'll be tired, but that’s how much I wanted to see it!" she said. For Hoffman, the real draw is the show's director, not its star. "My recollection is that when Branagh created his  film version of Hamlet, he approached it with such absolute passion. There was something about this story that he wanted to tell, and I was curious to see what his staging might be like at this juncture in this career."
Hoffman wasn't disappointed, calling it "a fantastic show with compelling performances across the ensemble," and praising Hiddleston as "brilliant". But she and her friend Clare Loughlin-Chow both agreed that "the surprise star of the show was Kathryn Wilder as Ophelia".
Tom Hiddleston as Hamlet: in pictures