Matthew Warchus' heavily cut production focused on the family drama in the play and featured Alex Jennings as a gun-toting Hamlet and Derbhle Crotty as a pill-popping Ophelia.

Man in fencing jacket pulls the trigger of his gun
Armed and dangerous: Alex Jennings as Hamlet in Matthew Warchus' 1997 production
Photo by Malcolm Davies © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Browse and license our images


Heeding Polonius's advice that 'brevity is the soul of wit' , director Matthew Warchus made the bold decision of cutting about a third of the play's text. He wanted to focus on the domestic story at the heart of the play, what Ben Brantley wittily described as “Life Styles of the Rich and Murderous”, The New York Times, 23 May 1998. 

The political context of the play with the imminent threat of war with Norway was removed, along with several characters including Marcellus, Barnardo, Francisco, Reynaldo, Voltemand, Cornelius, Sailor, Second Gravedigger and Fortinbras.


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.


Prompt Book showing cues on the left and text on the right for the opening scene in Hamlet 1997

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 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.

A party scene with strings of vertical lights and a mature couple in evening dress embracing

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.


Designer Mark Thompson created a multi-purpose set dominated by a huge round window with floral tracery, as we see in this photo of the chapel set model, complete with a statue of Old Hamlet in a Christ-like pose.

Model of a stage set showing a statue with open arms on a plinth in front of a round window with floral tracery
Mark Thompson's set model for the chapel in Matthew Warchus' 1997 production of Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre
Photo by Malcolm Davies © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Browse and license our images

The basic set could be easily reconfigured into a party venue, private office, attic, bedroom, chapel or cellar using screens and partitions.

In the following gallery you can see more set models designed by Mark Thompson, which were used as reference by our creative and technical teams to build the actual versions used in production.


Dominating the personal tragedy of the production was Alex Jennings’s Hamlet, who conveyed energetic intelligence and “a genuine mind o’erthrown”, Michael Billington, the Guardian, 10 May 1997.

When he wanted to be alone, he took refuge in his attic room, which contained a pile of books including gun manuals and a brown paper bag, which Hamlet used to carry his gun. This was also the room where Hamlet entertained his fellow students Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as they dipped blackcurrant lollipops into their champagne.

Man puts gun against his temple as if he is about to commit suicide

In this production photo, Alex Jennings places his gun against his temple as he delivers the ‘To be, or not to be” soliloquy, which the director moved to before the arrival of the players.

In rehearsals, a Bruni Magnum calibre .380 revolver was supplied by the RSC Armoury. The weapon needed to be capable of firing a full barrel (six [blank] shots) and be reloaded on stage if necessary. 

Two men duel with rapiers, lit by a beam of light

The Armoury also provided the rapiers used in Hamlet’s duel with Laertes at the end of the play. Unlike dress swords which are purely decorative, fighting swords need to be flexible and durable.

For the duel, our Scenic Workshop, who built the sets, needed to ensure that the on stage pillar was solid enough to withstand two actors being thrown against it during each performance.

Wigs and Make-up provided the ‘blood’ for wounds sustained in the fencing scene and its aftermath. Wounds and gore were created for Hamlet’s lower back, where he was pierced by a rapier; the small of Laertes' back; Gertrude’s poisoning and Claudius's stomach (after he was shot).

Discover more about blood and gore in How We Make Theatre and see the RSC in 60 seconds creating wounds and armour.


We explore the key scene where Hamlet confronts his mother in her bedroom, often referred to as the closet scene.

The gallery includes both production photos and prompt book pages, which show the text with directorial cuts and stage directions



Jennifer Armitage - Ophelia's Lady, Player

Richard Cant - Rosencrantz

Derbhle Crotty - Ophelia

Paul Freeman - Claudius

William Houston - Laertes

Colin Hurley - Horatio

Alex Jennings - Hamlet

Paul Jesson - Gravedigger

John Killoran – Player, Priest

Syreeta Kumar – Player Queen

Toby Longworth – Osric, Player

Rex Obano - Player

Edward Petherbridge – Ghost, Player King

Diana Quick - Gertrude

David Ryall - Polonius

Rhashan Stone - Guildenstern




Director – Matthew Warchus

Designer - Mark Thompson

Lighting designer – Hugh Vanstone

Music - Gary Yershon

Choreography - Quinny Sacks

Fight arranger - Terry King


The RSC's archive is held at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. You can visit the Library and Archives there to look at production related information, including photos, videos of shows and stage management documents:

Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive homepage

You can search the RSC catalogue here: 

RSC performance database 


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