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Production Notes for the November 14, 1934 staging of Hamlet
by William Shakespeare, 1564-1616

Produced at the New Theatre (London, England)
Directed by Sir John Gielgud, 1904-2000

Accompanying Documents on the Production


"Motley's setting is, in most scenes, beautiful if examined, and has the supreme virtue of submitting itself to the play." LONDON TIMES (15 November 1934).

Not only was Gielgud's performance recognized as definitive for its time, but the acclaim for the design and the staging was equally rapturous. "An ideal performance. . . free of physical impediment," reported the LONDON TIMES (15 November 1934), continuing: "Motley's setting is, in most scenes, beautiful if examined, and has the supreme virtue of submitting itself to the play." The production's success with the critics and at the box office confirmed the talents of the entire company, the designers no less than the actors.

Commentary by Michael Mullin

For inspiration, Motley turned to the paintings of Lucas Cranach. The costume colors associated with Claudius and his court were dark and muted. "It's a dark play," Margaret Harris insisted. "It's not young and passionate; it's a play of procrastination, nervous tension, neurosis, and evil." In sharp contrast to the Depression-weary styles of the mid 1930s, the period costumes suggested an almost foppish extravagance, with elaborate tailoring, slashed sleeves and legs, and hand sprayed fabrics.

For Hamlet himself the script clearly requires four costumes: black mourning dress for the beginning ("a suit of sables"), the same costume disheveled until he leaves for England ("his doublet all unbraced"), outdoor or traveling dress for the graveyard ("my seagown scarfed about me"), and clothes suitable for dueling in the last scene ("the readiness is all"). Motley followed these requirements, interpreting them in terms of the romantic traditions of the role--"a fitted black suit, a tousled wig of light- brown hair, a gold necklace, and other clothes in brown, roan colors," thereby enhancing Gielgud's romantic performance.

Motley's costume designs for "Hamlet" formed part of a larger interpretation of the play, at times suggesting individual points of character interpretation, at other times helping to set the atmosphere of the scene, and at each turn providing the actors with expressive and elegant dress. Where costumes provided the close-up of individual characterization and general atmosphere, the sets provided the physical structure- -a dynamic space that, with lighting, completed the stage pictures with which Motley interpreted the play.

In designing the set, Motley sought not only to convey the play's locale and atmosphere, "a feeling of darkness, decay, and evil," Margaret Harris said, but also to create a spatial structure that would permit scene changes without interrupting the action. They turned to Cranach's paintings for details--the colors and patterns for tapestries and the design of the thrones. They looked for clues in the text as to the space needed to stage each scene effectively.

The set thus satisfied both Shakespeare's original requirements for speed and for different acting areas. Even if the text does not absolutely require it, the performance benefits from an upper space for the battlements, a public and perhaps several private interiors, and the graveyard. The rich tapestries and costumes (themselves part of the setting, in a way) created a sense of the play's atmosphere and period, without burdening the production with the elaborate, three-dimensional settings that an earlier era would have thought necessary to evoke gothic Elsinore.

With the huge success of "Hamlet" just before Christmas, Motley could no longer be regarded as "up-and-coming." They had arrived. Financially insured against thin times in the theatre by the dress shop and the steady business of making costumes for others, central to new developments in the theatre through their well-attended teas in the St. Martin's Lane workshops, and increasingly well-known for their innovative work in theatre, ballet, and cabaret, they had become fixed stars. They were part of the "New Stagecraft" that was redefining theatre production in Great Britain, America and Europe.

Excerpts from other works

The year (1934) closed with John Gielgud's acclaimed "Hamlet" at the New Theatre. Broadcast by BBC radio, the production came to be seen as the "ideal" "Hamlet" of the 1930s. "All the costumes were made of scenery canvas, painted with dyes and metallic pigments in gold, silver, and copper--sometimes sprayed on around a masked-out design. The trimming used was velveteen, which contrasted well with the flat canvas. "[See DESIGNING AND MAKING STAGE COSTUMES. Studio Vista, London: 1964 (2d edn. revised and with an introduction by Michael Mullin, Herbert Press, London:1992)., p. 24.]

"Gielgud's 'Hamlet'," wrote Audrey Williamson, "began the series of classical productions which were to revolutionize West End taste before the War." [See THEATRE OF TWO DECADES (Macmillan, New York: 1951), pp.40-44.] The New Theatre "Hamlet" set a standard of quality that was to hold until the 1958 production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre starring Michael Redgrave, which Motley also designed. Comfortable period costumes evoked medieval Denmark while allowing the actors to move easily. The setting at once sustained the play's dark atmosphere and permitted the scenes to flow one into the next with a minimum of delay for set changes.

Critic J. C. Trewin wrote that it was "the key Shakespearean revival of its period. . . the work of a player-producer who had learnt from modern masters, Craig here, Barker there. . . . It ran for 155 performances, a record exceeded only by Henry Irving's original Lyceum production." [See Guinness, BLESSINGS IN DISGUISE (Hamish Hamilton, London: 1985), pp. 66-69].

The preceding text was taken from Michael Mullin, DESIGN BY MOTLEY (Newark, Delaware; University of Delaware Press, 1995).
Copyright 1995, Michael Mullin.
Reproduced by permission of the author.

Cast List

Richard Ainley (Rosencrantz), Laura Cowie (Gertrude), George Devine (First Player), John Gielgud (Hamlet), Alec Guinness (Osric),Anthony Quayle (Guildenstern) Glen Byam Shaw (Laertes), Jessica Tandy (Ophelia), Frank Vosper (Claudius).


THEATRICAL (SELECTIVE) REALISM - created through the selective use of primary research material and careful arrangement of specific elements of a period (line, shape, color, and historic detail) so as to create the essence and impression of a period unencumbered by the minutiae of extraneous details for dramatic purposes and theatrical effect.


German Renaissance - c. 1500-1545.