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Set play

Hamlet Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon

Steven Pimlott, preparing to direct Hamlet, plans to develop the work he began last year in his highly acclaimed production of Richard II. The most obvious link between the two productions is his leading actor. Samuel West delivered a memorable Richard and now undertakes the melancholy Dane.

Other continuities augur well for performances in Stratford's main house. There will be the same simplicity of design. "No clutter, no scenery, nothing the play doesn't call for," says Pimlott. So a skull and Ophelia's letters are pretty much the only props that will appear on the main Stratford stage.

And what a stage. To achieve the same involvement of actors and audience that happened in the small Other Place, spectacular alterations have been made. The stage has been lifted, pushed even further out into the audience, and extended across the width of the auditorium.

Such rearrangements will assist playing style. In Richard II, the audience was addressed throughout as England. Now spectators will actively play their part as Denmark.

For the play's second scene Pimlott uses the analogy of a political party rally. Claudius will speak directly to the audience as the people who elected him, and who now face a common foe, Norway.

Later in the scene the audience will become close intimates of Hamlet. He will share his thoughts with them as he wors out his emotional turmoil. Pimlott's justification is in Shakespeare's language. "The speeches are so frequently an argument, a debate. The need to engage the audience is built in."

Pimlott is against forcing a concept on the play. "You can't reduce Hamlet to a single concern," he says. "That diminishes the play. Religion is there. All kinds of difficult personal relationships are there, but it's not just a family psychodrama. There is so much else."

That means the political aspect of the play will be given its full weight. Fortinbras will be a very real threat. But Pimlott stresses the difference between politics in Hamlet and in Richard II. "In Richard II it's in-yer-face. In Hamlet it is an important substructure to be teased out."

Pimlott also emphasises the play's theatricality. He says Hamlet's words, "The play's the thing", express a leitmotif that runs through the play. "In every scene there is the sense of something or somebody being watched."

But Pimlott also sees an existential question at the heart of the play, embracing all its preoccupations. "It's there in 'To be or not to be' - to exist or not to exist. It is about the moral choices we make."

So the four-hour production will explore Hamlet's journey as he makes his choices, which Pimlott describes as "ranging from the very sympathetic to the utterly appalling".

In rep from March 31.Tickets: 01789 403403

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