Productions 1948 - 2008

Hamlet 2008 - Hamlet (David Tennant) speaks to the audience as Claudius (Patrick Stewart) kneels in prayer. Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC

A selection of RSC productions, listed by year and director:

Gregory Doran (2008)
David Tennant's Hamlet was an agitated T-shirt- and parka-wearing wreck in a world where the players can never escape observation: the glossy black mirror-like floor reflected the action and the back of the stage was lined with huge full-height mirrors which shattered dramatically as Polonius is shot. Patrick Stewart played a hostile and insensitive Claudius and the Ghost. Doran's production was also filmed and broadcast by the BBC (available on DVD). In the film, the action is occasionally viewed as images on a CCTV monitor, and Hamlet films the play with a Super-8 camera. This Hamlet broke for interval with a thrilling cliff-hanger: Hamlet, knife aloft, ready to stab Claudius.
(Photograph by Ellie Kurttz shows Hamlet (David Tennant) speaking to the audience as Claudius (Patrick Stewart) kneels in prayer © RSC)
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Michael Boyd (2004)
A curved, black wooden wall, armed with convenient spy-holes and hidden doors, enclosed the playing space for this production's Jacobean setting. Toby Stephens' young and virile Hamlet was unusual among recent interpretations in that he possessed 'royal' qualities - a natural, unforced patrician manner and voice, an unmistakable sense of his rightful status as Prince, if not actually King, and a glamour and panache singling him out form those around him. Greg Hicks's unforgettable Ghost was trebled with the First Player/Player King and the Gravemaker - the actor being recognisable in each of these father-figure roles. The Ghost made a stunning first entrance though the auditorium, tortuously creeping towards the stage, his emaciated body and face contorted in pain and suffering.

Steven Pimlott (2001)
This production, in its turn, placed the play's political preoccupations at the centre, creating a world straight out of the cool cut and thrust of The West Wing, the popular American TV show depicting a fictionalised version of the US President in the White House. Characters were dressed in up-to-the-minute contemporary fashion on a alienatingly bare stage, lit with dazzling spotlights. Samuel West, as the mourning Hamlet, appeared as the archetypal moody youth, in a bulky black parka jacket, with a black woollen hat pulled low over his face. Horatio recorded the reactions of the King and Queen to the play-within-a-ply on a hand-held video camera, projecting the image onto a screen in front of which the players performed. Gertrude and Claudius's faces were cruelly exposed in all their human frailty. Hamlet shot a bullet through the screen to kill Polonius who had hidden behind it in order to eavesdrop on mother and her son.  

Mathew Warchus (1997)
Alex Jennings played Hamlet in this heavily-cut version of the play. The production's focus was tightly held on the family tragedies of Hamlet and of Ophelia. Set in a stylised modern dress, the production opened with Hamlet scattering his father's ashes at the front of the stage while an old black and white home movie showed him as a boy playing in the snow with his loving father.  The action then cut straight to the party celebrating his mother's wedding, followed by the new groom's masterful address to the court. The Ghost's appearance to Horatio and the sentries, with that first scene's discussion of military and political matters was, thus, cut and the play's terms of reference narrowed.

Adrian Noble (1992)
The first character to appear in this full text production was the Ghost. He erupted, like Dracula, through the unweeded garden of graves and funeral wreaths fringing the front edge of the stage. He stalked across to exit at the rear of the stage and only then did the sentries enter. He framed the play, standing at the rear of the stage and welcoming his dead son's body with open arms as it was carried towards him. In the second half of the play, huge decaying funeral wreaths surreally littered the stage and the colour drained away from reds and creams to dull, dead greys. Kenneth Branagh played Hamlet in this Edwardian Elsinore.
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Ron Daniels (1989)
Mark Rylance's Hamlet stood hunched in a long black overcoat, his suitcase ready packed at this side, for his first appearance in the play. He was gazing yearningly out at the tempestuous sea and freedom, visible through the huge picture window at the rear of the stage. The window was skewed from the perpendicular so that it and the palace around it seemed to be on the point of slipping into the crashing waves beyond. Bland bureaucrats in dark suits surrounded the tastelessly overdressed Queen and her new King. In his madness - assumed or otherwise - Hamlet shuffled around the stage in long bed socks and vomit-stained striped pyjamas, resembling a little boy, lost in a nightmare, or a patient in a lunatic asylum, or a political prisoner. This Hamlet was frighteningly swift to change mood, flashing from witty banter to violence in a moment. He kept the skull of Yorick with him as a talisman through to the end of the play. As he prepared for the fencing match, he carefully placed it where he could see it clearly and it, one assumed, could see him, too.

John Barton (1980)
This production adopted a style and set appropriate for Shakespeare's most obsessively theatrical text. The action took place on a small wooden forestage, surrounded by low benches. The major theatrical props necessary to the story stood in the background: a crown, a goblet, a rack of swords, a suit of armour (behind which eavesdroppers hid). The players chose their costumes for the play-within-the-play from a large, wicker prop basket. For her mad scene, Ophelia dug her garlands out of the same basket and dragged the Player King's throne into a central position for her songs. Michael Pennington played a fiercely intelligent and self-aware Hamlet.

Peter Hall (1965)
A massive cannon confronted the audience at the opening of this production, driving home the political and military nature of this Elsinore. Influenced by the Polish critic, Jan Kott, the director saw the play as holding a mirror up to contemporary society and politics. The production was in Elizabethan dress but there was no mistaking the contemporary relevance of its political analysis. Elsinore was a frighteningly efficient and corrupt court under the sway of a supremely self-controlled Claudius. As Hamlet, the decidedly unheroic, 24 year old David Warner boldly played against the tradition of the noble Prince. His lanky frame, restless intelligence and vulnerable uncertainty were all aspects of his youth and his long red scarf and short black gown completed the effect of an untidy, preoccupied undergraduate struggling to make sense of the world around him.
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Michael Benthall (1948)
The rising star, Paul Scofield, and the established actor and ballet dancer, Robert Helpmann, alternated the leading role in this production that followed the old tradition of neglecting the political dimension of the play. It was new, however, in choosing a Victorian setting rather than an Elizabethan one. An atmospheric Victorian Gothic castle provided the setting for the characters dressed in crinolines and frock coats. A 17 year old Claire Bloom played an Ophelia whose youth and innocence made her vehement outbursts of madness all the more disturbing.

A full list of RSC productions with details of cast and production team can be found in the RSC Performance Database on the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website.

For more on the performance history of Hamlet, on stage and screen, visit the BBC Hamlet microsite.

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