Drama GCSE: Making Shakespeare Contemporary

Director Nicholas Hytner and the cast of the National Theatre's 2010 production of Hamlet talk through how they used the theme of surveillance to make they play relevant to a modern audience.

Nicholas Hytner explains that a ghost appearing today would be just as terrifying and unprecedented as a ghost appearing to Hamlet in 1601, so the play, which has been in performance for over 400 years, is just as relevant today.

All great actors have wanted to play Hamlet, and we see footage of Sir Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton and David Tennant in their very different interpretations of the role.

Hytner's production showed Elsinore as a highly contemporary dictatorship, where everybody spies on everybody else. This was the world that Shakespeare’s audience would have lived in, with Elizabeth I in complete control.

Actors Rory Kinnear (Hamlet) and Ruth Negga (Ophelia) explain that in this production, everyone lives in a ‘big brother’ world, constantly being watched.

The actors and director explain that the company researched contemporary examples of dictatorships, where murder and surveillance are used to control the state.

Is it possible anymore, Hytner asks, to live completely honest lives, when we’re always under the radar?

This clip is from BBC series Arena: The National Theatre.

Teacher Notes

This could be used to explore how a Shakespearean play can be adapted into a contemporary setting.

Students could look at other Shakespeare plays and think about alternative settings for them - what are their reasons for choosing that setting?

Students could delve into the characters of 'Hamlet' and how these characters would appear in the modern day.

Curriculum Notes

This clip could be relevant for teaching Drama or English Literature at KS4/GCSE level in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and Drama at National 4 and 5 in Scotland.

More from Arena: The National Theatre

Attracting New Audiences to the Theatre
An introduction to the National Theatre
Making Theatre Relevant
Othello – Themes and Contemporary Approach