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Picture of the Month - March 2013

This month we're reflecting on past RSC productions of 'Hamlet' and looking at a photograph of Sam West as Hamlet in 2001 under Steven Pimlott's direction.

Helen Hargest

The Royal Shakespeare Company has launched its 2013 season with a new production of Hamlet, directed by David Farr, and this time it is the turn of Jonathan Slinger to make his mark as the student prince. Hamlet is the one Shakespeare play where new productions are awaited with keen interest by audiences and critics alike, and where it is hoped that every Hamlet will be a Hamlet “for our time”. (John Peter, Sunday Times 6/5/2001) Photographs of productions of Hamlet staged at the first Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford date back to 1879, and our photographic archive includes images of productions right up to the present day. In 1879, Barry Sullivan played the title role, and there have been many memorable Hamlets in the intervening years, including F.R. Benson, who played the role on numerous occasions, Paul Scofield and Robert Helpmann, who alternated the role in 1948, Michael Redgrave in 1958, David Warner in 1965, Michael Pennington in 1980 and Kenneth Branagh in 1992.

Sam West as Hamlet in 2001
Sam West as Hamlet in 2001

For me, one of the most exciting productions in recent years was that of 2001, when Sam West took on the role of the Prince of Denmark. Directed by the late Steven Pimlott, this production had similarities with the 1965 production directed by Peter Hall, in that it highlighted the political nature of the court, and both David Warner and Samuel West wore defining items of clothing which set them apart, from the rest of the court and emphasised their rebellious and disaffected youth. Sam West first appeared wearing black jeans, and a black “hoody”, “squatting with his back to the audience, snooping on the court.”(Susannah Clapp, Observer, 6/5/2001). Samuel West’s intelligent performance gave us a penetrating Hamlet, sceptical and precise, but also a “sweet-souled prince who does not simply illuminate passions but embraces the existential business of what it is to be... an honest man in a dishonest world.” (Georgina Brown, Mail on Sunday 6/5/2001) This was particularly evident in the scene with the gravediggers, which Malcolm Davies captured most sympathetically during the photo call for this production.