Ron Daniels’ 1989 modern-dress production featured Mark Rylance’s psychologically disturbed Hamlet, who spent much of the play dressed in pyjamas.

Man in striped pyjamas touches the face of young woman
Hamlet (Mark Rylance) meets Ophelia (Rebecca Saire) in Ron Daniels' 1989 production of Hamlet
Photo by Reg Wilson © RSC Browse and license our images


The first performance of Ron Daniels’ production of Hamlet was in September 1988 on tour. The production opened at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in April 1989 and transferred to the Barbican Theatre in London the following November. It toured the UK and USA for two years, including a special performance in August 1989 at Broadmoor Hospital, a high-security psychiatric facility in Crowthorne, Berkshire.

Director Ron Daniels made his debut with the company in 1982 and was at one time Artistic Director of The Other Place. His production of Hamlet focused on the characters' personal relationships and motivations that propelled the action.

"Wild and whirling words" Horatio, Act 1 Scene 5

Mark Rylance’s Hamlet was a very troubled prince, disabled by despair and veering between gloomy introspection and violent outbursts. When he confronted Rebecca Saire in the ‘Get Thee to a Nunnery’ scene, Rylance was explosively brutal, spitting in her face and using the moisture to rub off her makeup. Later, he ended his tempestuous encounter in Gertrude’s bedroom by kissing his mother on the mouth, more like a lover than a dutiful son.


Instead of a Danish castle, director Ron Daniels set his Hamlet in a mansion high up on a cliff overlooking a tempestuous sea, which echoed the inner turmoil of the play’s key characters. This concept was realised vividly in Antony McDonald's set designs: “an expressionistic clash between sloping floors and tilted walls, as if the court were in danger of imminent collapse” John Peters, Sunday Times, 30 April 1989.

Men in overcoats standing against a dramatic backdrop of stormy sky and sea
Stormy sky and sea in Antony McDonald's set for Hamlet 1989
Photo by Joe Cocks Studio Collection © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Browse and license our images


In McDonald's set design,  the battlements of Elsinore were represented by a sloping platform surmounting a scissor-like hydraulic lift. At times Elsinore literally seemed to be sliding into the sea. 

Here we see another of McDonald’s set designs featuring a huge window at the rear of the stage through which a stormy sea is visible. The swirling seascape forms the backdrop to Fortinbras and his army marching across the Danish kingdom.

McDonald used large blocks of subdued colour in the sets to dwarf the characters and emphasize their insignificance.

In the following galleries you can see McDonald's model boxes for the sets as well costumes from the show, which he also designed.




Antony McDonald’s costumes for Mark Rylance reflected Hamlet’s changing mental state. At the beginning of the production, Hamlet wore a ceremonial outfit as befits a prince at court. His costume consisted of a short dark jacket, waistcoat, white shirt and formal trousers. For some scenes he also wore a tightly buttoned long heavy overcoat.

Ophelia (Rebecca Saire) was also dressed formally in the court scenes, wearing a grey-green satin dress gown with cape, while the court officials wore modern anonymous dark suits. The smart appearance of Hamlet at the beginning contrasted sharply with the soiled striped pyjamas and singlet that he wore after his encounter with the Ghost on the battlements.

In the rehearsal notes for 29 March 1989, a meeting was requested between Mark Rylance and designer Antony McDonald to discuss pyjamas and dressing gowns, so clearly this was an important design concept.

Scantily dressed woman on bed is grasped by man wearing vest and striped pyjama bottoms
Hamlet (Mark Rylance) confronts Gertrude (Clare Higgins) in her bedroom in Ron Daniels' 1989 production
Photo by Reg Wilson © RSC Browse and license our images


Here we take a look in more detail at two key scenes in Ron Daniels' 1989 production: the staging of 'The Mousetrap' (the play-within-the-play in Act 3 Scene 2) and the Closet Scene (Act 3 Scene 4), where Hamlet confronts his mother Gertrude.


“Mother, you have my father much offended.” Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 4

One of the most harrowing scenes in the production was when Hamlet (Mark Rylance) confronted his mother (Claire Higgins) in her bedroom, having just killed Polonius accidentally. The enraged Hamlet forced Gertrude to compare photos of his late father and Claudius, her new husband, before spitting at the image of the latter.


The killing of the concealed Polonius presented some technical challenges including where would he be killed, how would the blood be produced and which weapon Hamlet would use. In rehearsals, the idea was explored that Polonius could hide in the bulky bed clothes of Gertrude’s bed but this was obviously changed later as cue one on page 146 of prompt book for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre refers to Polonius hiding under the bed USL (Upper Stage Left).

Director Ron Daniels suggested in rehearsals that blood could be produced from pre-bloodied sheets with a small blood pouch, possibly on Polonius, which Hamlet could use to wipe his hands. The use of a kitchen knife as the murder weapon was also suggested during this rehearsal period.


Russell Enoch played both the First Player and the Ghost which meant he had about 20 minutes between his exit in 'The Mousetrap' scene (Act 3 Scene 2) and his spectral appearance in Gertrude’s bedroom in Act 3 Scene 4.


The dumb show which precedes the players’ performance of ‘The Mousetrap’ in Act 3 Scene 2 was staged as a shadow play emphasizing the theatrical device of the play-within-the-play.

This gallery includes technical photos, a set-by-step plot for the Dumb Show and Claire Van Kampen's music score for the scene.



 Patrick Brennan - Guildenstern

Andrew Bridgmont - Rosencrantz

Mark Brignal - Voltemand

Peter Carr - Cornelius

Jack Ellis - Horatio

Russell Enoch – Ghost, Player 1

Jimmy Gardner – Gravedigger 1

Patrick Godfrey - Polonius

Jared Harris - Fortinbras

Andrew Havill - Reynaldo

Clare Higgins - Gertrude

Michael Howell - Sailor

Paul Lacoux - Osric

Ben Miles - Barnado

William Oxborrow – Francisco, Gravedigger 2, Violinist

John Ramm - Laertes

Neil Richardson – Marcellus, Priest

Mark Rylance - Hamlet

Rebecca Saire - Ophelia

Katherine Stark – Player 2

Roger Tebb – Player 3

Hilary Tones - Lady

Peter Wight - Claudius




Director – Ron Daniels

Designer - Antony McDonald

Lighting designer –Thomas Webster

Music - Claire van Kampen

Movement - Siobhan Davies

Fight arranger- Alexis Denisof


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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