Past Productions: On the RSC stage - 1989
Dr Nick Walton from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust talks about the history of Hamlet in performance on the RSC stage.
This 1989 production of Hamlet was directed by Ron Daniels. The set immediately gives us a sense of what Elsinore and Hamlet's state of mind is like. The window is at a slant, it looks to be falling away - something is
out of joint. You can also see through the window that there's a tempest brewing.
Dressed all in black, Mark Rylance’s Hamlet reminded some people of James Dean, a rebel without a cause. The first time that audiences saw him, he was standing with Ophelia facing this window. Ophelia looked to be touching his arm - a gesture of comfort for a man who recently lost his father. As the court entered Ophelia and Hamlet parted company; this was the last moment of close friendship between them. Rylance’s Hamlet felt grief very strongly. He delivered his first soliloquy with his back to the audience. Eventually he turned with the mention of his father, showing audiences a photograph he had clasped in his hand.
For much of the production Hamlet wore his pyjamas - a striking emblem for audiences of his
antic disposition. Hamlet looked like a little boy lost, at times lying on the floor in a foetal position. Some people likened this Hamlet to a patient in a sanatorium. Rylance moved through his soliloquies like a form of therapy, trying to make sense of his world and what was happening to him. He simply wasn't fit for the role of revenger
Here is a picture of Hamlet with Ophelia. There was a sense of real violence, a sense of aggression as Hamlet spat in Ophelia's face, and shouted at her. Audiences could sympathise with Claudius wanting to get Hamlet out of his court. Rylance’s Hamlet looked like he could do harm not only to himself, but also to others.
This is a picture of Hamlet with Gertrude in the Closet Scene. Shakespeare’s text doesn’t call for a bed to appear at this moment, yet many productions in the latter part of the 20th century have decided to keep a bed prominently on stage to support Oedipal readings. Freudian readings have been popular since 1922 when John Barrymore staged a production in which Hamlet seemed to have Oedipal desire for his mother. In 1989 Hamlet and Gertrude seemed hysterical after the murder of Polonius. As Hamlet left with Polonius' body he exited with a dagger between his teeth, a really strange macabre moment.
© RSC 2009 Commentary by Nick Walton from Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Images by permission of the SBT, colour photography by Joe Cocks, black & white © Richard Mildenhall
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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