'Hamlet' gets a makeover

Click to follow
Trevor Nunn returns at last to Elsinore with a youthful cast and a fresh approach

In Trevor Nunn's new production of Hamlet, Gertrude (played by his wife, Imogen Stubbs) carries a Gucci handbag and has make-up by Mac and Estée Lauder on her dressing-table. The majestic set is almost operatic in scale, and the invasion of Denmark by Norway not only features guns and swords, but helicopter sounds.

Trevor Nunn returns at last to Elsinore with a youthful cast and a fresh approach

In Trevor Nunn's new production of Hamlet, Gertrude (played by his wife, Imogen Stubbs) carries a Gucci handbag and has make-up by Mac and Estée Lauder on her dressing-table. The majestic set is almost operatic in scale, and the invasion of Denmark by Norway not only features guns and swords, but helicopter sounds.

This is Trevor Nunn's first Hamlet since his RSC production of 1970, which starred Alan Howard as Hamlet and Helen Mirren as Ophelia. His latest prince is played by a 23-year-old Ben Whishaw, who was Brother Jasper in Nicholas Hytner's His Dark Materials at the National Theatre. Ophelia is played by a 19-year-old Samantha Whittaker, who is reading English at UCL, but is taking a break to make her stage debut although she has appeared on television, in Casualty (as Kirsten) and The Bill (as Amber). "Something extraordinary happens when the characters who are students in Shakespeare's story are being played by people of student age," says Nunn.

Tom Mannion is playing Claudius and The Ghost of the King. "Playing a younger Claudius, young Hamlet's uncle, means that the sexual tension is heightened. He and Gertrude still have a voracious sexual appetite, and that will perturb the young Hamlet even more. "And when I appear as the Ghost of the King to tell young Hamlet to take revenge, it isn't a spooky scene with scary lights, rather a father and son farewell, warm and tender."

How are rehearsals going? "It has been fantastic so far," says Mannion. "But that is the idealist in me speaking. It is running far too long. This is a week of major surgery to try to cut it down. But I'm glad we have done all the work first so that we know what we are losing."

Rehearsals of Hamlet are taking place in the top rehearsal rooms at the Old Vic, which "look like a big, old church hall," explains Mannion, "and there are lots of friendly ghosts around there - the room has echoed to Hamlet's words many times, from Richard Burton to Laurence Olivier".

Indeed, when the National Theatre began in 1963, the company was based at the Old Vic and its opening production, directed by Olivier, was Hamlet, starring Peter O'Toole. The tragedy also featured a 23-year-old Michael Gambon as a spear-carrier. Other great Hamlets at the Old Vic include John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Alec Guiness and Derek Jacobi.

"I have never actually been in Hamlet before, and I acquired rather an aversion to the play at school," admits Mannion, "but I have always wanted to work with Trevor Nunn, and it has been a fantastic learning process.

"For the first few weeks, it was a bit like living in an Open University programme. There are so many famous phrases that I never even knew came from Hamlet - such as 'caviare to the general' and 'to the manner born' - so the whole experience has been very illuminating."

'Hamlet', Old Vic Theatre, The Cut, London SE1 (020-7928 7616), from 17 April

Comments