A cut above the rest

THEATRE Kenneth Branagh needed four hours for his 'Hamlet'. Matthew Warchus reckons two and a half is plenty. The RSC's leading young director tells Jasper Rees why he's taken the knife to the Prince of Denmark
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MATTHEW WARCHUS and Hamlet: could they be in any way related? In another life, if he hadn't somehow fallen into directing and left behind his ambition to act, Warchus would have been a perfect fit for the role in which he is currently directing Alex Jennings for the RSC at Stratford. He's 30, wiry, of medium height, with soulfully black hair - all characteristics we conventionally ascribe to the Prince of Denmark.

"Serious", "intellectual", and "diffident" are adjectives that have clung to him through his unhindered ascent to the upper rungs of the directorial ladder. The world may know less of his antic disposition, but it's there, in the great comic performances be has extracted from two casts of the West End hit Art, and his love affair with pantomime.

Warchus's small, wide-apart eyes and bony cheeks give credence to his suspicion that the surname originates in Poland, the land that Fortinbras's Norwegian army is conquering while Elsinore implodes. Not that there's any mention of Norway or "sledded Polacks" in Warchus's new production of Hamlet. In the year that his full-text film surreally earned Kenneth Branagh an Oscar nomination for best adapted script, Warchus has taken the knife to the play as it cowered behind the protective arras of reputation. All references to the political have been excised, so that in its current state his Hamlet is "one-and-a-quarter hours each way". This summer in Stratford it may be good night for the sweet prince but still light outside.

"I have seen Hamlet nine times or something," says Warchus. "I've enjoyed different things about every one but got bored at some point in them all, which is why I want to get to Act Four quicker." His more normal expression of radicalism is to do less frequently performed classics at full length. "Obviously that's not radical with Hamlet," he says, "and not even important." Instead, he has got as close as you can on the main stage at Stratford to paying homage to Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet - "a visionary, inspired piece of work"

Warchus does not assume that ignoring the backdrop of European conflict on to which Elsinore's domestic warfare is painted will enrich his production. "I'm doing a less rich version than was written, but if you have a very powerful story between real people, one can infer that what is happening between these two people is also what happens between nations. Hopefully by this family being in a house in the middle of nowhere one can see a microcosm of what's happening in the world."

It sounds, therefore, more properly Scandinavian than most Hamlets aspire to be: Ibsen's fingerprints are all over it. It's perhaps not a coincidence that Warchus, who had no plans to direct what he describes "a great great read and not a great evening in the theatre", should have had a volte face partly inspired by Jennings's performance in Peer Gynt for the RSC in 1995. Jennings was already on the Hamlet project when Warchus was asked to take the place of Steven Pimlott as director. "And I remember thinking, yes that'll be interesting."

Warchus is also, like Hamlet, heir to a throne. It's widely supposed that his rise will, inevitably gain him a permanent place in the office (current occupant: A Noble) where this interview is conducted. Just as you can't train to be a director, you can't train to be an artistic director. But everything Warchus did from the age of 15 has ended up feeding what he does now - running drama groups as a teenager; crewing, set-building and ASM-ing at the Theatre Royal, York; a degree at Bristol in drama and music; learning the administrative ropes as an itinerant assistant director. And everything he does now is surely feeding what one day he will certainly be invited to do at one of the big theatrical institutions.

The skill he would bring to the job is an ability to fit in at all levels of theatrical society. He is as comfortable directing the crowd of Stratfordian amateurs that make up the numbers in Hamlet as he is with Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney, who starred in Art, and Sean Connery, who backed it. "I think it's a possibility," Warchus says. "There's a big problem, that I'm not a pragmatic person. I'm quite idealistic and I get frustrated with the limitations put on things. There are certain things that I want to do first. Also I value at the moment more and more things like having a month in the Lake District."

You'll also get short odds on Cameron Mackintosh offering him the sort of blank cheque he wrote out for Sam Mendes when he asked him to direct Oliver! Warchus will cautiously admit to "the odd conversation" with the impresario. "All I would say is that Art has made me more money than doing my other plays. It's my mini-Oliver! That came about purely because I loved the script, not because I wanted to make lots of money. If someone comes along and offers me something that's got money written all over it but it is clearly crap I don't really think I would do it."

That show would have to be done in London, where Warchus, who was brought up in a village near York, professes not to feel comfortable. He has just ended a fruitful association with the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and keeps up a loose arrangement with Welsh National Opera. "I'm interested in provinces. I find the way that theatre sits in the community, it isn't buzzed around by a theatre cognoscenti that you get in London. It's a slightly more real experience."

There are other more thinly sketched ambitions. He mentions film, documentaries, musicals - areas which, even if he doesn't enter them all (and Stratford film-makers should study Noble's disastrous version of A Mid- summer Night's Dream) give a vista on to his refreshingly open frame of reference. Twice a year he goes clubbing. He has seen Jurassic Park four times. Begrudgingly, he even runs to a favourtie Spice Girl ("Someone did ask me once, and I said, "That one there," and they said, 'Ah, Mel B.' I don't really know which one she is.").

The eclecticism is reflected in the music he's listening to, "mainly for Hamlet. Oasis, Frank Sinatra, the soundtrack album of Rent, which I think is a stunningly good musical, and then a load of Bach." Why Oasis for Hamlet? "That's a secret. Probably for no reason at all. But possibly. It's too contentious to talk about." Contentious or pretentious? "Both really." And the antic disposition surfaces in a cackle.

! 'Hamlet' previews from Fri, and opens on 8 May, at the RST Stratford (01789 295623).