Past Productions: On the RSC stage - 1948
Dr Nick Walton from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust talks about the history of Hamlet in performance on the RSC stage.
This is a production from 1948, directed by Michael Benthall. Benthall took the radical step of casting two Hamlets (Paul Scofield and Robert Helpmann) for his production. Audiences could compare the actors' performances on different nights, seeing how an actor's individual personality and presence can change the atmosphere of a production. Robert Helpmann was a famed ballet dancer, and when he was not performing Hamlet in Stratford he would return to London to perform as a dancer. Reviewers commented on Helpmann's elegance of movement ; when he talked about catching the conscience of the king Helpmann pinched out the candles one by one.
Pictured here is the performance of The Murder of Gonzago taking place centre stage. Gertrude and Claudius are sat to the left, while Hamlet sits watching them closely on the right. Michael Benthall set his production in the Victorian period, giving Elsinore a gothic feel. Lighting was of great significance creating pathways and alleyways on stage.
Here is Paul Scofield as Hamlet. He was seen to be poetic rather than political. In contrast to Helpmann, the young Scofield was said to possess an air of doomed gentleness. Ophelia, played by Claire Bloom, shocked some audiences with the stark portrayal of her character’s madness; her portrayal was considered too real, too natural, leaving audiences uncomfortable. Some spectators spoke of being too moved to applaud.
Here is the set for the graveyard scenes. The design is quite elaborate, with hanging leaves and branches suggesting the open-air location. Hamlet and Horatio are to the left of the photograph, watching as Ophelia's body is lowered into her grave.
© RSC 2009 Commentary by Nick Walton from Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, 1948 photography by Angus McBean
Sophistication over time
1901-1940 Beyond Shakespeare's words
1948 Gothic Hamlet
1958 60-year old Hamlet
1965 Sixties' Hamlet
1970 Singing Ophelia
1975 Claustrophobic Hamlet
1980 Visible ghost
1984 Boisterous Claudius
1989 Rebel without a cause
1992 Edwardian Hamlet
1997 Ophelia on pills
2001 CCTV Hamlet
2004 Bent double ghost
2008 Modern iconic Hamlet
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