Instead of a scene on the battlements of Elsinore, Warchus' production began with a black and white homemade film showing young Hamlet playing with his father and a dog in the snow. This film acted as framing device and was repeated at the end of the play.
The prompt book for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre shows the innovative opening scene with the text on the right-hand side and the stage manager's cues on the opposing page.
The descriptive notes in brackets before and after Claudius’s speech resemble a film script. A young man (Hamlet) clutches an urn containing his father’s ashes, which he pours as the video shows his happy past. Next Claudius’s voice is heard welcoming his guests and we switch to the wedding party which is in full swing.
Warchus realised he was taking a risk cutting and re-arranging scenes but asserted that: “by cutting a couple of courses from a banquet, you can also make the flavours sharper and richer”, Lyn Gardner, Guardian, 8 May 1997.
He wanted to create an accessible and exciting production by concentrating “on the two families who I imagine in this production live together with their staff in an isolated house” ‘Hamlet and The Spanish Tragedy’, RSC Education Pack, 1997.
THE WEDDING PARTY
The director used the opening party scene to bring together the main protagonists as they celebrated the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude. A sober-suited Hamlet wandered round the wedding celebration snapping the happy couple using a Polaroid camera, which created a photographic print within a few minutes. He gave a letter to Ophelia and shared a drink with Laertes.
The ghost of Old Hamlet no longer wandered on the battlements of the castle but drifted into the party wearing a smoking jacket and led his son to a seat.
Scenes were conflated as Polonius advised his son Laertes and warned Ophelia about Hamlet’s amorous advances. A ‘followspot’ or spotlight was used to track the movement of specific actors on stage amidst the party-goers.
Mark Thompson’s design and Hugh Vanstone’s lighting combined to create a garish purple disco of dancing couples.
During rehearsals, director Matthew Warchus suggested firecrackers could be suspended above the performers’ heads but this idea was replaced later by the sound of fireworks. As the party receded the action seamlessly moved into Claudius’s private office.