Tom Hiddleston’s Hamlet

RADA Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre, London 18 & 20 September 2017

The theatre

The auditorium of the Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre was reconfigured to create a thrust stage of bare wooden planks level with the first two rows of stalls seats, which were arranged in a horseshoe shape around the thrust. The total capacity of the stalls and gallery was 183 seats.

The main stage area was bare apart from the lattice uprights of the lighting rig at each side and a plain backdrop for projections. The only set was a wall with doors and windows flown in for scenes in palace interiors. This was augmented by a desk, sofa and chairs as required.

There were four entrances to the performance space: two at the sides of the main stage through black curtaining and two at the top of the thrust through seating aisles.

Initial interior scenes featured a large square carpet at the end of the thrust. This was decorated with the royal Danish crest and the border was edged with a phrase in Danish set in capitals GØDE MÆND MÅ DØ MEN DØDEN KAN IKKE DRÆBE DERES NAVNE – in English: Good men must die but death cannot kill their names. This is a Danish version of a supposed Danish proverb but which only seems to exist in English.

Who’s there?

When the audience entered the theatre, the stage was empty apart from a low upright piano and its accompanying wooden chair in the centre of the thrust.

The first utterances of the production were Hamlet’s intermittent sighs and groans which could be faintly heard (at least by those nearest the stage) deep offstage while the house lights were still on before the performance formally began.

The lights dimmed allowing Hamlet to approach and seat himself at the piano. When he was spotlit for the start of the performance, he was bent slightly over the closed keyboard, the palms of his hands resting on the upward slope of the keyboard cover. This contorted posture was held briefly, signalling his tension, before he relaxed, opened the keyboard and began to play and sing “And will he not come again?”

The slow mournful tapping out of the tune and Hamlet’s pained recitation of the song paused momentarily after the word “beard” as he was overcome with by emotion. Once finished, he immediately rose and slunk away up left thrust exit, as stage hands prepared the set for the next scene.

This opening, dispensing with all of 1.1, was reminiscent of the Cumberbatch Hamlet, which similarly foregrounded its star turn by having him engage in solitary musical melancholy. In Cumberbatch’s case he sat listening to a record on a portable gramophone whilst browsing a photo album. Star Hamlets seem to require immediate view of the actor, contrary to the play’s structure which first creates a ghost mystery then introduces the main character as bitter and sarcastic.


The piano and chair were removed, the square carpet was laid down, and a desk with the Danish crest on its front and accompanying chair placed in front of the flown-in palace interior wall.

As Claudius’s initial speech was staged as a television broadcast, the presence of stage crew arranging the space looked like part of the action.

Claudius sat at the desk and a crew member counted him down 3,2,1 silently with her fingers. No camera or other crew were visible so that he directly addressed the audience. The rest of the court, but significantly not Hamlet, waited among the audience in the two thrust entrances.

He was quite composed as began his reflections on the death of King Hamlet, but paused for several seconds after “… contracted in one brow of woe,/Yet…” looking down at the desk as if broaching the subject had opened a still festering emotional wound, before recomposing himself and continuing on to the topic of his recent marriage.

His mendaciously insincere regret for his brother’s death, orchestrated for consumption by a large television audience, contrasted neatly with the sincerity of Hamlet’s immediately preceding solitary and private grief.

The text was slightly edited to remove the reference to “auspicious” and “dropping” eyes. Elsewhere, however, the production did not habitually edit to remove ‘difficult’ language, containing a number of opaque phrases not commonly heard in contemporary performances.

Gertrude appeared at his side and took his hand when he mentioned her, compounding the impression that this was a stage-managed piece of political theatre for public consumption.

The text was reworked so that Claudius mentioned Fortinbras’s claims against Denmark and explained that he was sending a letter to the king of Norway to put a stop to them.

He spoke of “… those lands/Lost… To our most valiant brother. [edit] We have here writ/To Norway (signed and showed signed letter to camera)… to suppress/His further gait herein. So much for him.” The closing sentence was spoken with an air of confident finality.

Claudius signalled the end of the transmission, or possibly recording, by making a cut gesture across his throat with his hand.

The broadcast over, the rest of the court minus Hamlet came forward chanting “Claudius! Claudius! Claudius!”

The new king was very pleased with himself and jokingly asked Laertes what he desired. Laertes was dressed down unlike the other courtiers and was very soft-spoken.

Polonius was middle-aged, tall and lean. The distinguishing feature of his character was that he evidently considered himself to be funny, but was in fact dreadfully unfunny: very much the “foolish prating knave” of Hamlet’s caricature, rather than the “good old man” of Gertrude’s description.

As previously mentioned, Hamlet was absent for this entire sequence, unlike productions that follow the text and position him onstage as a silent, bitter observer, only attending out of duty.

Hamlet strode confidently through the back wall right side door, closed it behind him and stood in front of it as Claudius first addressed him. This meant that it was Hamlet who seized Claudius’s attention by his entry rather than Claudius choosing to pay attention to an already present Hamlet.

His “A little more than kin, and less than kind” was strong and forceful. It was more a confident statement than a bitter, sarcastic retort resulting from pent-up frustration at previous silence.

This initial presentation of his character, not only contrasted with our first view of him, but effectively suppressed it. Whatever grief he might have felt in private, Hamlet operated at this level of strength when dealing with others.

Although Claudius mentioned his wedding to Gertrude, the scene was not marked by a pronounced wedding atmosphere. This meant that Hamlet’s black coat did not distinguish him sartorially from the rest of the court.

Gertrude attempted to raise his mood, but he responded by moving resolutely forward, explaining with clarity and precision that “I know not ‘seems’ etc.”

Claudius drew nearer to Hamlet combining a long lecture with an attempt at tactile friendliness. But his nephew was more than unmoved by his attentions.

When Claudius expressed the desire that he should “think of us/As of a father” Hamlet stood his ground and spat out a dismissive “pah!”

Hamlet only agreed to stay after Gertrude’s second intervention. He took her by the hands and stressed “obey *you*, madam” to emphasise that he would not do anything at Claudius’s entreaty.

She embraced him and they held hands, but this moment of closeness was cut short as Gertrude was escorted away by Claudius who asserted “Madam, come”. Hamlet tried to maintain hand contact, which lingered for a while as she moved further away, but distance eventually obliged her to let go. This loss of finger contact was echoed in the play’s closing sequence in which such contact was touchingly regained.

Hamlet was left alone. Thrown into spotlight, with an accompanying sound effect to mark the transition, he began his “too too solid flesh” soliloquy.

He began leant against the desk, then moved around the thrust addressing the audience with a strong, firm and passionate statement of his situation.

Having told us “I must hold my tongue” he set off briskly through the left thrust exit but was recalled just in time by Horatia’s greeting “Hail to your lordship” her swift entry catching him just as he disappeared.

The recasting of Horatio as a female Horatia would prove to be the production’s most interesting and dramatically rewarding feature.

Hamlet held her close with his arms around her waist as he welcomed her. This immediately established them as something more than just good friends.

Horatia, Marcella and Bernarda had come to tell Hamlet about the (unstaged) sighting of his father’s ghost. But before they could do so, Hamlet looked away from them and out into the audience, claiming that he had already seen his father in his mind’s eye.

He took a keen interest in their report of the ghost’s appearance. The text was cut to remove anachronistic references to armour. They all agreed to meet that night to try to spot it again.


The encounter between France-bound Laertes and his sister Ophelia was marked by the soft-spoken poetical tones of her brother’s admonishments. His sweet demeanour towards her here would make his subsequent violent actions seem all the more out of character. This Laertes was not a gruff combative young man easily given to violence.

Like many modern Ophelias, she rolled her eyes at her brother’s warning to guard her “chaste treasure”.

She charged him in return with being a “reckless libertine” at which point Laertes took a small condom packet from his pocket, assuring her “Fear me not”. When his father entered this joke was extended as Polonius presented him with huge box of condoms.

Polonius read his precepts aloud from sheets of paper handed to him by an assistant, which emphasised their status as “old saws”. After reading from each one he dramatically threw the sheet over his shoulder onto the floor. But not the last one “to thine own self be true” which instead of discarding, he carefully folded and presented to Laertes, underlining its importance.

The father’s lecture to his “green girl” daughter saw him again come close to overstepping the border between buffoon and clown.


Hamlet, Horatia and Marcella met to watch for the ghost. This scene was set not on any outside platform but in the same interior space as the previous scenes. Consequently, the initial remarks about the cold were cut.

They entered at the back of the stage by the windowed wall, proceeded into the thrust and turned to face the wall and desk. The besuited and haggard figure of the ghost appeared in the centre doorway, beckoning Hamlet to follow him.

Hamlet had his dagger drawn and pointed it at the ghost, demanding whether it was “King? father? [then even more quizzically] royal Dane?” He knelt before the desk, driving the point of his dagger down onto its surface, holding it in position with both hands on the hilt, as he bowed his head and demanded an explanation for this strange apparition.

Horatia and Bernarda tried to restrain Hamlet from following the ghost. His threat “I’ll make a ghost of *her* that stops me” was notable – primarily because it brought home that his companions were both women and only secondarily for its replacement of “lets” by “stops”.

Hamlet rushed out the doorway. Marcella paused in the doorway to decry that there was something “rotten” in the state of Denmark before joining the others in pursuit.


The lights came up on the ghost sat at the desk. He placed a pile of two books on it. He was confronted by Hamlet who entered through the thrust entrance and stood to hear the ghost’s explanation of how he had been killed.

Talking while sat at this desk directly echoed Claudius’s broadcast, but with the important distinction that the ghost was being truthful rather than engaging in propaganda.

The ghost’s voice was a sonorous rasp whose tormented tones matched the horror of his descriptions.

Learning that his father had been murdered, Hamlet crouched on spread knees digging his long dagger point into the ground in front of him, vowing that he would “sweep to my revenge”.

Sensing Hamlet’s eagerness, the ghost rose from the desk congratulating him “I find thee apt” and approached his son. He walked with a pronounced limp as he described the effect of the poison on his body, before turning round and exiting out the back wall door.

Hamlet fell face forward onto the ground before turning to lie on his back, banging his fists on the ground as he fired himself with resolution to avenge his father’s murder.

He sat upright as he thought out loud of his mother as a “pernicious woman”, and exuded a sense of satisfaction as he gazed at the audience to announce “So, uncle, there you are”.

Horatio and Marcella caught up with him. After explaining that the ghost was honest, Hamlet chattered manically and shook hands with them, provoking Horatia’s comment on his “wild and whirling words”.

The prince was excited and jolly until Horatia suggested there was no offence. In an abrupt change of mood, Hamlet slammed his dagger down onto the desk with a loud bang as he exclaimed “Yes, by Saint Patrick, but there is, Horatia”.

A vow of silence was required of Horatia and Marcella. The ghost’s voice under the floor also enjoined them to swear. Hearing this deep vibrating utterance, Hamlet took up the carpet and examined its underside, then actually crawled underneath the carpet, emerging at the other side to wear it like a cape. It was in this guise that Hamlet responded to Horatia’s characterisation of the situation as “wondrous strange” by telling her “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome”.

In another violent gesture, Hamlet stabbed his dagger into the books that the ghost had left on the desk and encouraged them all to place their hands on its hilt to vow their silence, as the ghost’s deep voice once more sounded from underground.


The Reynaldo sequence was cut, so that the scene began with Ophelia rushing through the centre door holding a letter from Hamlet, telling Polonius how the prince had frightened her.

Ophelia’s reference to Hamlet’s doublet was kept, despite the anachronism.

Polonius was again comically upbeat in diagnosing Hamlet’s condition as the pangs of love.


A sofa was placed in the centre of the thrust, faced by two armchairs, to provide a cosy setting for Claudius and Gertrude to welcome Rosacrantz and Guildastern and brief them on their mission.

The text implies that Claudius confuses the identities of Hamlet’s two pals at the end of the sequence and is corrected by Gertrude. This production went one step further by having him get their names mixed up twice.

The king’s opening greeting to the pair as they each occupied an armchair “Welcome, dear Rosacrantz and Guildastern” was directed to each individual, but incorrectly. Hamlet’s friends immediately corrected Claudius, and his voice faded to a confused silence before he could finish pronouncing “Guildastern”. Then when they parted, he compounded his previous error by yet again getting their names the wrong way round. As his voice faltered in recognition of his error, Gertrude corrected him. The repetition of this gag reinforced the text’s hint that Claudius was in the habit of making this particular mistake.

The regendering of Rosacrantz and Guildastern worked together with the retention of an original wording in the text to create an interesting new meaning in performance.

The queen said to them: “And sure I am *two men* there is not living/To whom he more adheres”. This remark made the female versions of the original male characters even more privileged friends of Hamlet.

With Rosacrantz and Guildastern sent off to work, Polonius brought news of the return of the ambassadors from Norway. These characters did not appear, so the announcement was for information purposes only.

Polonius’s “brevity” speech included much pointing and was clownish more than buffoonish. This detracted from his likability and so diminished the shock of his subsequent killing.

He sat Ophelia down in an armchair while he read from the letter sent to her by the prince. This, like Hamlet’s other letters, bore an H symbol in the letterhead. Polonius turned the letter to show it to the king and queen, pointing at the word “bosom” as if it required particular attention.

Polonius suggested “loosing” Ophelia to Hamlet in order to observe his behaviour.

A more immediate opportunity to see the prince in action suddenly arose when Hamlet appeared through the back window door. The king and queen left Polonius to deal with the situation, and affecting an air of casual disregard, Polonius turned to face away from the doorway.

The audience could see Hamlet’s changed appearance straightaway as he entered: his face was painted with patches of black and white, and a Danish flag was draped loosely over his shoulders.

Polonius’s composure soon crumpled when he turned to face the prince. His greeting was reworked so that it was spoken: “How does my… good lord! Hamlet?” to underscore the bizarre nature of prince’s appearance.

In his fitful madman act, Hamlet looked Polonius up and down and called him a fishmonger. He described the sun as “a god kissing carrion”. The trigger word “conception” prompting him to lean forward onto the sofa and hump it.

A copy of Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, an account of the author’s experience of depression, contained the “words, words, words” that Hamlet perused as he seated himself on the sofa next to Polonius.

The books “slanders” were mentioned but the slightly archaic list of slanders was skipped, enabling a more potent effect to be obtained from Hamlet’s response to Polonius leave-taking. After shifting closer to Polonius on the sofa and mimicking his movements such as crossing his legs, Polonius said “I will take my leave of you”.

Hamlet’s riposte “You cannot take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal” was followed by a triple repetition of “Except my life”, each iteration spoken in a deliberately distinct tone of voice.

“Except my life” was first pronounced flatly, then jokingly accompanied by manic laughter, and lastly with Hamlet distraught and tearful, his head sinking into his hands. He continued to bury his head in his hands as the bewildered Polonius left him.

Rosacrantz and Guildastern, having been warned of the change in Hamlet’s mood, came equipped to lighten it. The prince’s sullenness evaporated on seeing them, and when their portable radio began to play Kendrick Lamar’s i he joined in their dancing, lifting Rosacrantz off the ground, holding her horizontally behind his back and spinning her round. This sequence replaced the somewhat laboured banter of the original text and made for a more forceful and lively encounter based on music rather than wordplay.

The physical expression of their jollity continued. They threw sofa cushions at each other as Hamlet told them that Denmark was a prison, and the banter moved on to the subject of his ambition.

The mood became somewhat subdued when he accused the pair of being sent for, which they admitted. But then he dialled down the mood completely when telling them how he had lost all his mirth.

This sequence had more impact and its tone was darker coming so soon after the previous musical jollity. With hindsight it was possible ask how he could have lost all his mirth, given how much fun he appeared to be having with his friends when he first met them.

His caveat “Nor woman neither” took on a different meaning when said in wholly female company.

The two women responded to his changed mood with compassion and attention. Hamlet sat on the desk while Rosacrantz and Guildastern took tissues and wiped the paint from his face as they told him about the impending arrival of the players.

Polonius also heralded the players’ arrival in his own inimitable style. At first he walked in backwards with one eye on the offstage troupe with a cheery “Well be with you, gentlemen” but fell backwards over an armchair. He departed, returning shortly afterwards with a more extensive introduction. Itemising the genres in which the players excelled, he stressed the last syllable in “pastorAL” lending an affected air to his already strained introduction.

The company consisted of only two actors, so that elaborate greetings of individuals were unnecessary, allowing Hamlet to get straight down to his version of the speech by Pyrrhus.

Hamlet responded aggressively to Polonius’s interruptions. When the latter complimented him on his speech being “Well spoken” Hamlet shushed him. He continued to praise his “good accent” at which point the prince gestured to him to be quiet with the effect that Polonius’s voice trailed away to nothing before he could finish his line.

Nevertheless, he continued to interrupt after the First Player picked up where Hamlet left off.

His complaint that the player’s speech was “too long” was met with Hamlet’s sarcastic remark about it going to the barbers.

But when Polonius’s echoed Hamlet’s repetition of the phrase “mobled queen” the prince’s patience snapped and he silenced Polonius with a threatening fist gesture.

The First Player writhed on the ground with the emotion of playing the distraught Hecuba.

Hamlet’s “Now I am alone” soliloquy saw him spotlit as he spoke to the audience of his self-loathing in the face of the actor’s passionate portrayal of Priam’s wife.

He kicked the back of the sofa as he railed against the “kindless villain”, but in so doing he hurt his foot and hobbled in pain, regretting his rash intemperate action. Duly chastened by this discomfort, he knew he had become “an ass” whose “most brave” outburst had backfired.

He plumped and rearranged the cushions on the sofa, which seemed to suggest to him the idea of people “sitting at a play”, leading him in turn to the ruse of using the forthcoming performance to “catch the conscience of the king”.


After Rosacrantz and Guildastern had informed Claudius about the upcoming play, the king moved on to the serious business of setting Ophelia as bait in a trap for Hamlet. She was made to sit on a chair facing away towards the left corner of the thrust and read a bible.

Hamlet entered in spotlight from the back while Ophelia was shrouded in darkness near the edge of the thrust, her chair turned away from him.

Like many of his soliloquys in this production, “To be” was very subdued in tone, taking advantage of the intimate space to allow a very quiet delivery of the lines, which accentuated their inward-looking reflective content. Hamlet’s outward calm was betrayed only by a faint tear that trilled down his cheek.

The undercurrent of self-destruction inherent in his words became apparent when he spoke of making “his quietus” “With a bare bodkin” and slowly gestured cutting his wrist with an invisible knife.

The lights came up on Ophelia, providing his cue to notice her. She turned round in her chair to ask him how he was, to which he replied with a sheepish “Well, well, well.”

She offered to return the remembrances (a letter) quite calmly. When he denied having given her “aught” she proffered the letter again, stating firmly, and with hint of condescending admonishment at the obvious absurdity of his claim, “you know right well you did”.

Instead of losing his temper in his replies, Hamlet was also very calm. He appeared to be trying to rekindle their relationship. This developed into an interesting reading of the sequence.

During their debate about the relative merits of beauty and chastity he took her by the hand and they strolled about quite amicably as if they had broken up by mutual consent and this was their moment of declaring themselves just good friends.

But this low-level intimacy soon flowered into something more intense.

They drew close and held each other round the waist as Hamlet told her “I did love you once.”

Ophelia’s response “you made me believe so” was heartfelt and longing rather than an angry contribution to a row. Hamlet’s next phrase “You should not have believed me” continued this mood.

Sensing a growing intimacy between them, Ophelia whispered “I was the more deceived” as she kissed him. Hamlet kissed her back in a passionate embrace.

But he suddenly seemed to change his mind and drew back from her slightly, telling Ophelia softly “Get thee to a nunnery”. He then broke away from her completely and tried to justify his rejection of her by outlining his supposed faults.

As he castigated himself, Hamlet again displayed no anger towards Ophelia. As a considerate friend, he was trying to help her get over him: whatever they had once had, he now realised that their relationship could never work.

She listened to him, but as he once again softly advised her “Go thy ways to a nunnery” she took off her top and went to kiss him again, her near nudity emphasising the depth of her desire to rekindle their love.

Fate intervened.

At that very instant an offstage knock was heard that immediately informed Hamlet that he was being overheard.

He pointed and wagged his finger at Ophelia as he asked angrily “Where’s your father?” Her top, which had been clasped between their bodies in the nearness of their embrace, fell to the floor.

Her obviously deceitful answer caused him to fly into a rage. He bellowed that Polonius should “play the fool nowhere but in’s own house” at the unseen eavesdropper.

He tore Ophelia’s letter into shreds as he shouted a series of misogynistic taunts at her.

Declaring that “we will have no more marriages” he threw the shreds into the air so that they fell to the ground like confetti. For good measure, he also kicked her top along the ground back at her.

He stormed over to the secret door to scream at the unseen eavesdroppers that “all but one” of those already married should live.

With a final cry of “To a nunnery, go!” Hamlet rushed away. Ophelia leant against the back wall to decry the overthrow of his “noble mind”.

The obvious initial attachment between Hamlet and Ophelia in this sequence meant that Claudius’s statement “Love! His affections do not that way tend” had a ring of untruth about it. Despite Hamlet’s final rejection of her, sparked by his realisation that he was being spied on, he had clearly been loving towards her.

As Claudius and Polonius determined that Hamlet would be sent to England and also instructed to see his mother, Ophelia crouched on the ground trying to collect and reassemble the shredded pieces of the letter.


A player entered reciting his lines in preparation for the performance. Hamlet intercepted him and offered his ‘advice to the players’. The staging of this sequence thus provided interpolated lines for Hamlet to comment on.

The thrust stage was rearranged with the desk moved to its end and the sofa and chairs moved upstage to provide seating for the onstage audience.

Hamlet’s encounter with the female Horatia provided another instance of otherwise innocuous dialogue taking on a whole new meaning because of that character’s regendering.

The prince’s praise for the virtues of his now female ‘best friend’ was spoken as the pair held each other round the waist in the aftermath of Hamlet’s break-up with Ophelia.

Two phrases said by Hamlet to Horatia stood out in this respect:

“Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice[edit]/Sh’ath sealed thee for herself”


“Give me that *soul* man/That is not passion’s slave and I will wear *her* him/In my heart’s core”.

The overall effect was to suggest that Hamlet’s split from Ophelia was due, at least in part, to him having met someone new at university.

But despite the affection and warm words expressed here, nothing in their subsequent interactions, at least while Hamlet was still alive, looked like the flowering of the kind of fully declared amorous romance he had enjoyed with his ex.

The court entered to view the play, providing the prince with an opportunity to taunt his uncle. Hamlet sat himself behind the desk (the one bearing the royal Danish seal) to answer Claudius’s questions sarcastically almost as if doing an impression of him, but in a Scottish accent.

He came out from behind the desk to joke with Polonius about his student acting. Gertrude asked Hamlet to sit next to her, but instead he approached Ophelia. In view of their bad-tempered argument, she was unsurprisingly nervous around him and did not appreciate his “country matters” jokes.

Finally settling down to watch the entertainment, Hamlet sat on the ground at the foot of the sofa between it and Ophelia’s neighbouring chair.

The dumb show was cut and Rosacrantz and Guildastern helped out the two-man acting company by providing a haltingly amateurish joint delivery of the play’s prologue.

The Player King and Queen sat on the edge of the table to act out the latter’s reluctance to remarry once the former were dead.

Delighted at the Player Queen’s rejection of second marriage, Hamlet rose from ground exclaiming “Wormwood!” and went behind the sofa for a while to observe the Player King’s counterargument and the Queen’s renewed refusal.

There was a pause in the performance as the Player King lay down to sleep, during which Hamlet rushed out in front of the onstage audience to ask Gertrude how she liked the play.

He returned behind the sofa where, speaking at close range to his targets, he taunted Claudius with the idea that they were both guiltless “free souls”, announced the next character as Lucianus, and teased Ophelia with another lewd allusion.

Lucianus poured poison into the Player King’s ear at which point Hamlet rushed forward and jumped on the table, from which lofty vantage point he outlined the plot with the killer reference to how “the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife”.

Claudius rose from the sofa and approached Hamlet. Stood at the foot of the table, he looked up at the triumphant prince briefly, but then turned away to his right, looked at the ground and then revolved right round before skulking off the left thrust exit, muttering softly “Give me some light, away”.

This reluctance to confront Hamlet directly together with Claudius’s submissive body language and sullen exit, prompted Hamlet’s “let the stricken deer go weep”.

Hamlet did a victory dance and sent Horatia to fetch some recorders. His jubilation was interrupted by Guildastern and Rosacrantz who implored him to visit Gertrude.

Horatia returned with a recorder which Hamlet used to shame Guildastern about her attempted manipulation of him. Polonius also encouraged Hamlet to visit his mother, a request that he met with his sarcastic game of cloudspotting.

Left alone to consider his next step, Hamlet described the late hour as the “witching time of night”. Crucially, his line “I will speak daggers to her but use none” was deliberately cut for reasons that were to become very apparent.


The brief appearances by Rosacrantz, Guildastern and Polonius were cut from the beginning of the scene to concentrate on the solitary figure of Claudius as he wrestled with his conscience.

The king was still wearing the dinner jacket he had put on for the play, but now his bow tie was undone and hanging loosely round his neck. A lighting effect was used to beam a cross shape onto the desk at the far end of the thrust to suggest that the location was some kind of chapel.

He declared “my offence is rank” before attempting to pray by placing his left hand on his heart and raising his right hand upwards.

This did not work, and Claudius expressed extreme torment when he collapsed and bewailed his “wretched state”. He knelt to pray again.

Hamlet entered through the centre door behind Claudius. Dagger in hand, he directed its point down towards the top of the kneeling Claudius’s head as he considered killing him. Deeming the moment inapt, he changed his mind and skulked away. Claudius rose to his feet, and dissatisfied with his attempt, removed the cross from round his neck and slammed it down on the desk before exiting.


The desk was moved to the centre of the thrust stage and decked with bedding to create an approximation of a bed within Gertrude’s closet.

Polonius hid in the secret doorway concealed behind the portrait of Claudius in the back wall.

Gertrude remained upstage while Hamlet entered, dagger drawn, from the thrust entrance. This aggressive armed stance made necessary the text edit in the “witching hour” sequence as outlined above.

The mutual rebuffs were strongly delivered and showed that Gertrude was a match for Hamlet’s force of character, at least at first.

Frustrated by Hamlet’s intransigence, Gertrude made to leave saying she would “set those to you who can speak”. Hamlet took hold of her, prompting her cry, Polonius’s echoing of it and Hamlet’s decisive action.

Approaching the source of the sound behind the Claudius portrait, Hamlet struck his dagger through it repeatedly. He turned away and lingered on the thrust part of the stage away from the back wall, looking in the opposite direction as Polonius staggered out and collapsed dead.

Hamlet did not know whom he had killed and when he let slip a reference to the killing of his father, Gertrude repeated Hamlet’s shock accusation back at him “As kill a king?”

This questioning provoked Hamlet to shout back very loudly “Ay, lady, it was my word”. But as he did so, he caught sight of the dead Polonius and realised that he hadn’t killed the new king.

He approached the back wall and looked at the slashed picture of Claudius that covered Polonius’s hiding place as if stabbing through it should, by some form of symbolic magic, have killed its subject. He stared in bewilderment at Gertrude, and finally switched his gaze onto the dead body in absolute consternation.

With a mixture of incomprehension and panic. Hamlet leant over Polonius’s body and shouted at it “Thou find’st to be too busy is some danger” in a desperate attempt at shifting the blame onto his victim.

Hamlet showed Gertrude the two pictures, the one of his father on the wall stage right and the now torn one of Claudius stage left.

Expressing his disgust as Gertrude’s intimacy with Claudius, the prince pulled up the bedding from the bed when referring to its “rank sweat” and continued to rail at her as the pair wandered to the end of the thrust. The ghost entered again through the centre door to remind Hamlet of his task.

The ghost slowly approached Hamlet, limping down the length of the thrust, and touched him on the side of the head before disappearing down the left thrust exit.

Gertrude assumed Hamlet’s vision of his dead father was a sign of madness. The pair sat on the ground and Hamlet took her hand and placed it on his neck so that she could feel that his pulse “doth temperately keep time”.

After this Gertrude and Hamlet were reconciled. They sat on the edge of the bed and Gertrude stroked his arm affectionately. The mention of Hamlet being sent to England was cut. The sequence ended with a now subdued Hamlet dragging Polonius’s body away.


Claudius found Gertrude and asked her what had happened. She began her explanation with a degree of composure, but leant against and slid down the back wall and sat slumped on the ground when describing the killing of the “unseen good old man”.

The king dispatched Rosacrantz and Guildastern to find Hamlet.

The recovery in Gertrude’s composure did not last long. She sank and knelt at the side of the bed sobbing.

Claudius tried to comfort by implying that he was also upset, saying “O come away,/My soul is full of discord and dismay” in a truly patronising tone of voice as if he were comforting a child. His pretence to fellow feeling was a patently cynical and insincere untruth.


After ensuring that Polonius’s body was “safely stowed” Hamlet was confronted by Rosacrantz who demanded to know the whereabouts of the deceased. The prince disdainfully compared her to a “sponge” that would eventually be squeezed dry of the king’s favours once she had outlived her usefulness.

Rosacrantz drew a handgun from the back of her trousers and forced Hamlet to accompany her. But such a threat appeared unnecessary as the prince gleefully ran ahead of her, requesting to be brought to Claudius.


Claudius’s interrogation of Hamlet was characterised by the audacity and effectiveness of the prince’s taunts. The fact that his wit and rhetorical dexterity could provoke his uncle to violence, paradoxically demonstrated Claudius’s weakness.

The king’s first attempt at questioning him was met by a soft, sarcastic riff on the body being eaten by worms.

His second try elicited another jocular response, but with a sting in the tail. Hamlet suggested that if Claudius’s messenger could not find Polonius in heaven “seek him i’th’ other place yourself”. This bitter barb so provoked Claudius that he suddenly lunged forward at Hamlet before equally quickly checking himself.

Hamlet greeted the news that he was to be sent to England by addressing Claudius as his “dear mother”. Claudius didn’t understand why, and when Hamlet explained his reasoning and embraced him as his mother, Claudius angrily and forcefully pushed him away with both hands.

Not often do productions portray that kind of anger and violence from Claudius once he has Hamlet firmly in his grasp.

The scene ended with a truncated version of Claudius’s invocation “And England, if my love thou hold’st at aught,[edit] effect/The present death of Hamlet…”


The staging of Hamlet’s departure from Denmark to England was reworked so that Fortinbras and the Norwegian Captain did not appear. Instead the Captain’s lines were transferred to Horatia.

Horatia, Hamlet, Rosacrantz and Guildastern appeared in moody dark outdoor coats against an equally moody projected backdrop of sombre clouds. A brief sound effect of overflying jets indicated the impending conflict between Norway and Poland.

Hamlet questioned Horatia about the troop movements, and her well-informed replies included her statement “We go to gain a little patch of ground…” – a line that only made sense if Horatia were herself Norwegian. As the text makes plain, this battle has nothing to do with Denmark.

Left by himself, Hamlet pondered the implications of “How all occasions do inform against me”. Once again, the intimacy of the space enabled another dialled down reflection on his situation.

On this calming note, the interval came.


The start of the second half saw Horatia, taking the Gentleman’s lines, telling Gertrude that Ophelia was “distract”. They were both wearing coats, indicating that this sequence took place outdoors.

After Horatia had gone to fetch Ophelia, Gertrude bent forward and nearly threw up. She proceeded to contextualise this by explaining that her soul was sick and that “Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss”.

This physical symptom of her inner distress followed on neatly from previous manifestations of her unhappiness.

Ophelia rushed straight towards Gertrude crying “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” before hugging her enthusiastically round the waist, and maintaining that grip as she swung the two of them round.

She began singing fragments of songs, which attracted the attention of the newly-arrived Claudius who asked her how she was.

Replying “Well, good dild you” Ophelia bowed so close in front of him that she touched him. She went behind his back and slid up and down in mimicry of a pole-dancing movement as she commented “They say the owl was a baker’s daughter”.

Her rebuffs to Claudius were spoken firmly and directly in his face, demonstrating that she was not afraid of the repercussions of expressing these manic sublimated accusations.

Ophelia’s actions became increasingly lewd.

She began singing “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day”. She illustrated the phrase “Then UP he rose” by punching her arm up phallicly between Claudius’s legs as she stressed the word. A similar gesture and stress accompanied “By COCK they are to blame”.

Ophelia lay on her back and simulated sex with her legs flat on the ground but bent apart at the knee, thrusting upwards rhythmically to the beat of “So would I ha’ done etc.” which she sang in a mocking imitation of the voice of the man who was breaking his promise to marry her precisely because of her willingness to accommodate him.

She clasped comically at her stomach as if this supposed intercourse had instantly produced a pregnancy. This gesture informed the line “We must be patient” with the implication that she was referring to herself and her unborn child.

Ophelia bade the “Sweet ladies, goodnight” and departed.

Laertes’ arrival was not announced by a messenger but by gunfire sound effects as he burst in brandishing a handgun.

His previous sweet disposition made this act of violence look out of character and thus all the more desperate. This was perhaps why Claudius did not appear overly scared when he tried to talk Laertes down.

Ophelia swept in, slowly flapping her arms likes wings, then froze in position among them. Laertes expounded at length on her pitiful condition stood right next to her.

She had brought with her numerous aromatherapy bottles containing flower essences. She made Laertes sit on the ground next to her and handed the first two bottles to him, which she named as rosemary and pansies.

As he took the bottles from her, Ophelia snatched the gun from his hand, got up from the ground and pointed the weapon at the others. She did not have her hand properly gripped on the trigger, so that her threat was more symbolic than real.

Ophelia distributed the rest of the bottles and made the four of them kneel at an imagined graveside. They were encouraged to pour the essences onto the grave while she stood at its head leading them in singing “And will he not come again?” as if it were a well-known tune. The popular familiarity of this tune had been suggested at the start of the performance by Hamlet playing it on the piano.

The ‘mourners’ put their hands together as if in prayer and poured the bottles on the ground in this mock funeral ceremony.

The pitiful sorrow of this spectacle took a shocking turn.

As Ophelia wished the others farewell with “God buy you” she pointed the gun at her own head as if about to shoot herself. But just at that instant she clutched at her stomach, feeling another imagined baby kick, and rushed away still clasping her hands over her stomach.

Given the playful mocking origins of Ophelia’s ‘pregnancy’ during simulated sex while singing a song about male promise-breaking, and the lack of an obvious baby bump, it is unlikely that Ophelia was actually pregnant. The most plausible explanation was that this supposed baby was part of her madness.

Claudius told Laertes he had to “commune with your grief” and handed the young man’s gun back to him in an act that symbolised how Claudius was effectively ‘rearming’ him.


If the reimagining of Horatio as a female Horatia whom Hamlet praised and held close round the waist had generated questions about the precise nature of their relationship, then this next brief scene of perfunctory exposition became unexpectedly enlivened by its provision of a further telling piece of the puzzle.

Horatia read out a letter from Hamlet that explained how he had survived the pirate attack on the ship taking him to England.

At the point where Hamlet explained “in the grapple I boarded them” she paused, lowered the letter and looked knowingly at the audience as if to say ‘tsk, typical Hamlet!’, before continuing to the end.

She acted like an established girlfriend rolling her eyes at yet another piece of bizarre but nonetheless endearing behaviour by her beloved.

Horatia read out the letter’s sign-off “Farewell. He that thou knowest thine. Hamlet.”

Written to a female Horatia, this phrase took on the sound of a declaration of erotic love. Not surprisingly therefore she clutched the letter to her chest as if it were a lover’s token.

These small but powerful hints provided a strong indication of her attachment to Hamlet.


Claudius explained to Laertes why he had not taken action against Hamlet.

Their discussion was interrupted by Horatia, not a Messenger, who brought Hamlet’s letters to Claudius.

She was dismissed with a very rude “Leave us” by Claudius, indicating perhaps that he disliked her for being too closely associated with the prince.

Claudius and Laertes devised the plot to kill Hamlet using a toxic-tipped foil and poisoned chalice.

Their deliberations were cut short by the appearance of Gertrude. She walked slowly across the back of the stage, trailing her white coat behind her and softly mumbling the production’s theme song “And will he not come again?” all of which added to the dejection of her expression as she told Laertes that his sister had drowned.


Ophelia’s grave was prepared by only one gravedigger, so the scene’s initial comic banter was cut. The gravedigger simply stood in the trap door at the centre of the thrust and threw out skulls while singing the song provided for him in the original text “In youth when I did love, did love”.

Hamlet and Horatia appeared from the thrust entrance and made fun of the gravedigger, joking that one of the disinterred skulls might be that of a lawyer.

As the gravedigger sung of how “age with his stealing steps/Hath clawed me in his clutch” he took an implausibly intact skeletal forearm and connected fingers, and played with them to make them appear to walk around the edge of the grave.

He arranged some skulls in front of him and used some short bones to drum on them enthusiastically as he continued to sing.

After trading witticisms with the gravedigger, Hamlet picked up Yorick’s skull and actually wretched before saying “My gorge rises at it”.

He adopted a Northern Irish accent to ventroliquise the skull saying “Now get you to my lady’s chamber… to this favour she must come. Make her laugh at that.”

Unlike many contemporary productions, RADA’s Hamlet did not cut the lines referencing how Alexander the Great’s dust could have turned into a plug stopping a bung-hole.

The pair lurked in the left thrust entrance when the funeral procession entered. Ophelia was wrapped in a white shroud and carried by Laertes in his arms. He placed her just by the graveside and asked “What ceremony else?”

Gertrude quietly poured some of Ophelia’s aromatherapy essence onto her, which she touchingly characterised as “Sweets to the sweet”.

Instead of leaping into the grave to be reunited with an already interred Ophelia, Laertes’ emotional reunion involved picking her up and carrying her down into the grave where he held her in his loving fraternal grasp.

Hamlet emerged from the shadows to confront Laertes, who jumped out of the grave and grabbed Hamlet with both hands by the throat. They were soon separated and restrained. The gravedigger held back Laertes while Horatia held back Hamlet to stop them fighting.

Hamlet swore at Laertes for outfacing him, and then fixed Claudius menacingly in his gaze, promising him that “dog will have his day”. This night-time scene was lit partly by the mourners’ handheld electric torches and Claudius’s torch ominously illuminated Hamlet’s face as he threatened him.


In the more relaxed atmosphere of the palace interior, Hamlet told Horatia about the plot to kill him. He had what appeared to be the original letter from Claudius to the king of England containing his death sentence. He defused her objections to the letter switch that had doomed Rosacrantz and Guildastern by asserting that they “did make love to this employment”.

Osric was played by the same actor as the clownish Polonius, which enabled him to negotiate both these roles with little effort. The courtier intruded on the pair marching in exaggerated military drill steps.

Hamlet made fun of him and insisted that he both remove and replace his pork pie hat in quick succession.

Osric’s verbose and meandering message about the return of Laertes and the bet on the fencing bout was sufficiently irritating for even Horatia to join in the mockery, so that “What imports the nomination of this gentleman?” was said by both of them to heighten its effect.

The sequence’s references to anachronistic “carriages” and “hangers” were cut.

Osric exited using exaggerated drill turns and steps. Hamlet followed close behind copying the courtier’s movements in mockery of his rigid military gait. This was an extension of the parodying of his affected overblown speech.

Hamlet’s calm resignation before the bout was indicated by his assurance that “the readiness is all”.

The court assembled amid the preparations for the fencing. A series of interlocking metal grilles was assembled in a line to form a long fencing piste down the length of the performance space. Two benches were arranged diagonally either side of the upstage end of the piste and a table was placed at its upstage end, the entire configuration forming an arrow shape.

Gertrude watched from stage right, while court outcast Horatia spied on events from the left thrust entrance.

Claudius made Hamlet and Laertes hold hands and make up, which Hamlet did calmly and at length.

The two fencers tried out foils at the downstage end of the thrust, but actually fought with both foil and dagger.

They readied themselves at the centre of the piste where Osric kept them separate until the swift withdrawal of his hand signified the start of the bout.

Hamlet immediately lunged forward in a confident move, striking the tip of Laertes’ sword with such determination that Laertes retreated in surprise. Laertes then tried a similar forward lunge at Hamlet, but he did not budge.

This initial token exchange established Hamlet as the more aggressive and confident swordsman. This seemed a reasonable outcome given Laertes’ characteristic mildness.

Once the bout began in earnest they both fought equally skilfully until Hamlet touched Laertes on his arm, which was declared a palpable hit.

Claudius took a pearl and placed it in the glass and offered it to Hamlet. He refused it and the glass was put on a tray carried by a servant.

Hamlet’s second hit, on the side of Laertes’ stomach, was conceded by his opponent. During the resulting pause, Gertrude used her handkerchief to mop Hamlet’s brow. She took the glass from the tray held by the nearby servant. Claudius, who was at the other end of the piste with Laertes, pleaded slowly and softly “Gertrude, do not drink”, but she firmly insisted that she would.

A third combat ended when the fencers’ foils and daggers ended up locked into a square formation, which was declared “Nothing neither way”.

The time had come for the bout to turn nasty.

Laertes stuck the “unbated” end of his foil into Hamlet’s back. The prince writhed in pain for some time after it hit home.

Hamlet turned and glowered at Laertes. As he was wearing thick gloves, Hamlet was able to grasp the still extended blade in his hands and wrench it from Laertes’ grip before using it to strike his opponent in the back in the same way.

Amid general consternation at the sudden violence, Laertes picked up Hamlet’s sword and they fought with each other again, but without daggers.

The fierce skirmish ended with Hamlet dealing another blow to Laertes’ stomach. The intensity of this hit could explain why of the two of them Laertes died first.

Laertes collapsed on the ground, followed almost instantly by Gertrude, who explained that her drink had been drugged.

Laertes told Hamlet about the poisoned blade. Claudius tried to grab the blade of the foil from Hamlet. But his attempt failed, giving Hamlet the opportunity to turn it on Claudius, who staggered away and collapsed at far end of the thrust.

Hamlet retrieved the poisoned glass from where Gertrude had dropped it and forced the remainder of its deadly contents into Claudius’s mouth as he lay helpless on his back.

With his dying breath Laertes asked to “Exchange forgiveness” with Hamlet and the two were reconciled.

The prince turned to Horatia, who stood just near him in left thrust entrance, and declared “I am dead, Horatia” before staggering back down the piste towards Gertrude. He fell to the ground right next to her, exclaiming “Wretched Queen, adieu”.

Hamlet sat upright looking back at the others, clutching his chest as he declared that “This fell sergeant Death/Is strict in his arrest”, his speech increasingly affected by the sharp contortions wracking his body.

All this time Horatia remained at a distance cowering just offstage, possibly because Claudius’s earlier rude dismissal still made her feel reticent about showing her face at a court event. But given that of the non-servants only she and Hamlet were now left alive this should not have been an obstacle.

Hamlet spoke to Horatia again saying that he was “dead” and that she should “report me and my cause aright/To the unsatisfied”.

This time she hurried to Hamlet’s side, exclaiming that she was “more an antique Roman than a Dane”. She took the poisoned glass in an attempt to drink its dregs, but he snatched it back from her.

She remained crouched on all fours at his right side.

After losing the tussle over the cup, Horatia took hold of Hamlet’s hand and kept holding it continuously until he was taken from her at the end of the sequence. This intense physical contact said more about their relationship than any of their previous embraces.

The sound of cannon was heard, prompting Hamlet to ask about the “warlike noise”. Osric informed him that it was the approach of Fortinbras.

Hamlet was now in his last few minutes.

He began sat upright but gradually leant further back, Horatia’s firm hold on his right hand enabling his descent to be both slow and smooth. As he reclined, he also gradually reached out with his left hand towards the dead Gertrude so that when almost fully prone, his fingers clasped hers.

The spectacle of devoted Horatia firmly gripping his hand while he reconciled himself with the mother whom he had moments before dismissed as “wretched” was very moving.

Those with memories stretching back to the start of the performance might have been reminded of the moment when Claudius escorted Gertrude away from Hamlet, breaking a hand contact they had established and which this sequence re-established.

Hamlet gave his approval of Fortinbras with his dying voice. He looked up briefly to declare “The rest is silence”.

And then there was a significant pause of silence as Horatia continued to gaze at his now dead body, still grasping his hand.

Horatia was given the final words of the performance, which were taken from her character’s responses and interactions with non-appearing characters and a few lines borrowed from Fortinbras himself.

Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight, sweet Prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
(sound of drums) Why does the drum come hither?

Give order that these bodies
(She faltered in grief at the phrase “these bodies” as she leant over Hamlet: she raised his hand, still firmly in her grasp, to her mouth and kissed it, then clasped it to her heart)
High on the stage be placed to the view,
[intervening lines] All this can I
Truly deliver.

Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage,
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royal.

Hamlet was slowly carried away on the shoulders of four people to a choral version of “And will he not come again?” while Horatia stood stiffly by and watched.

Once Hamlet had been carried offstage, the lights went down.


The reimagining of Horatio as a female Horatia was a simple switch that added an extra dimension to the story and new meaning to otherwise unremarkable lines, transforming this character from best mate to lover.

Despite the involvement of a director and principal actor who could easily have sold out a much larger venue over a considerably longer run, this production was perfectly tailored to its small studio theatre space.

It could have survived a transfer to somewhere like the Almeida or Donmar. But had it transferred to a bigger theatre, it would have lost its essential features which were a simplicity of staging and ultra-close audience proximity.

However, it seems unlikely that Tom Hiddleston will leave his Hamlet ambitions behind in Malet Street. At another time and in another place, he will retread the path from “A little more than kin, and more than kind” through to “The rest is silence”.

But improving on this performance and making as close a connection with the audience will be a really difficult task.


The production was directed by Kenneth Branagh.

Ayesha Antoine – Rosacrantz / Bernarda

Lolita Chakrabarti – Queen Gertrude

Eleanor de Rohan – Guildastern / Marcella / Priest

Nicholas Farrell – King Claudius

Sean Foley – Polonius / Osric

Tom Hiddleston – Hamlet

Ansu Kabia – King Hamlet / Player King / Gravedigger

Caroline Martin – Horatia

Irfan Shamji – Laertes / Player Queen

Kathryn Wilder – Ophelia


Thomas Hiddlestonus Donmaranus

Coriolanus, Donmar Warehouse, 27 December 2013

A bare brick wall bore traces of previously erased graffiti. Plastic chairs stood in a line at its base and a ladder rose from just right of centre stage up into the flies. The stage itself was bare apart from a gully into which debris was occasionally swept.

At the start of the performance most of the cast went to sit on their chairs while Young Martius (Rudi Goodman) painted a large red square onto the stage floor guided by beams of light that showed him where to colour (1.1). This square represented a generic room that was employed in several sequences and whose outline was lit again when in use. A gap was left on the stage left side of the room through which characters entered and exited.

The text was severely cut so that the running time was 2h30m with a 15m interval. The first half lasted 90 minutes and the second well under an hour.

Two citizens (Mark Stanley and Dwane Walcott) painted the huge words ANNONA (grain) and PLEBIS (the people) on to the wall. Other slogans were projected onto it. The 1st Citizen’s (Rochenda Sandall) opening words “Before we proceed any further” became a reference to the graffitiing. She was the most aggressive and confrontational of the three and carried a small hand axe which she intermittently gestured with as if ready to use, which contrasted with the other’s more passive, artistic resistance.

Menenius (Mark Gatiss) rose and came forward when he was mentioned. His reference to “bats and clubs” was a mild euphemism for the hand axe carried by the 1st Citizen.

His costume, like that of the rest of the cast, was halfway between Roman and modern. He wore a long, slightly shabby coat which made him look more like a poet than a patrician. This suited his florid style of speech. He spoke quietly but confidently about the munificence of the patricians in his “pretty tale”, the belly metaphor.

The patrician flipped up his waistcoat to show his shirt to “make the belly smile”. He made fun of the 2nd Citizen with his great toe joke, pointing at his own outstretched toe on the punch line “thou goest foremost”.

Menenius’ extended explanation was cut short by Martius (Tom Hiddleston) bursting in. After a brief “Thanks” he began his verbal assault on the citizens. This was the action of a messenger and not a man in command. Despite seizing a length of pipe from one of them, it appeared that he had rushed to appear at their bidding rather than confronting them from the security of his own position. He became a supplicant to them.

The first impression of Hiddleston’s Coriolanus was that he was simply an angry young man. This was possibly age-appropriate for the historical character, but held little more appeal.

The tribunes, sat on the stage left end chairs, stood when their “grant” was mentioned. The extent to which Coriolanus disapproved of them would become apparent later.

News came of the Volscian invasion and Aufidius (Hadley Fraser) rose from his chair allowing us to identify the man whom Coriolanus described as the “lion” he was “proud to hunt”. Coriolanus jokingly accused Titus Lartius (Alfred Enoch) of being stiff, upon which they slapped each other playfully.

Sicinia (Helen Schlesinger) and Brutus (Elliot Levy) stood up from their chairs in spotlight and complained about Martius’ pride. Their conspiratorial talk in a corner highlighted their relative weakness and outsider status within Roman politics.

The Volscians had Yorkshire accents, which served to distinguish them from the southern English Romans, but this demarcation was not strictly necessary (1.2). The Volscian senate was indicated by the presence of a simple lectern, from which they spoke to the audience as if addressing the assembly, with a hint that it held the microphone through which it was necessary to speak.

The letter informing them that the Roman army was on its way proved that they were being spied on. Aufidius was as unconvincing a warrior as Martius. The Volscians decided to proceed with their attack, instructing Aufidius to return to Corioli if the Romans laid siege to it.

Young Martius played with his sword as Volumnia (Deborah Findlay) and Virgilia (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) brought forward two chairs on which they sat to sew a large flag (1.3). This was war work, not dainty domestic sewing, and hinted at Volumnia’s martial enthusiasm for her son’s career.

Virgilia suppressed tears that showed she was upset at husband’s absence. Her sniffling became the reason that Volumnia asked her to be “in a more comfortable sort”. The Gentlewoman (Rochenda Sandall again) announced the arrival of Valeria (Jacqueline Boatswain). Virglia wanted to leave but Volumnia insisted that she stay and rose to act out Martius stamping on his enemies: an excellent portrayal of her fervour and pride. Virgilia’s horror at Volumnia’s description of bloodshed was developed further to show by her unspoken reactions how uncomfortable she was within this militaristic family.

They sat and sewed again. Valeria was shown in. She, like the Gentlewoman, observed the doorway in the painted, lit wall of the room. As she approached Virgilia to comment on the sewing, Virgilia turned her face away to hide that she had recently been crying, with the implication that the intensity and duration of her crying had made it impossible to conceal.

She concentrated on her sewing, but looked up in horror as Valeria described how she had seen Young Martius play with and then tear up a butterfly. She was dumbstruck at this cruelty, but such was her submission to this martial environment that her objection came only in her curt remark “A crack, madam”.

Virgilia shot up and paid attention when she heard that Valeria had news of her husband. Virgilia would not go with Valeria but shouted after her as she left the room by its ‘door’.

The stage was cleared and chairs were dragged forward to make a trench in which the Roman army crouched low on the ground, facing the back wall representing Corioli (1.4).

The text was cut so that the scene began with Martius getting the army ready, exhorting “Now put your shields before your hearts and fight”. They charged forward and up rungs on the wall which had ladders projected on to it. Martius ascended the real ladder. Earth came tumbling down as well as fireworks.

The Romans fell back, climbing down the short distance they had ascended the wall. Martius also descended to castigate them before returning to his ladder. Continuing upwards, he disappeared into the flies, marking his entry into Corioli.

Martius then re-entered covered in blood.

The sequence at the start of 1.5 with the looters was cut so that the action became continuous. Martius rallied his men, dismissing his injuries by proclaiming that the “drop of blood is rather physical”.

Cominius (Peter De Jersey) greeted Martius, who wished to be sent against Aufidius (1.6). This agreed, Martius encouraged the troops drawing attention to “this painting”: the blood covering him. He rapped his sword hilt on the ground, a gesture the others copied as they became enthused by his rhetoric. He raised his sword above his head at “O, me alone! Make you a sword of me?” which he spoke quietly as a kind of invocation or prayer

The brief scene 1.7 was cut, leading straight into confrontation between Aufidius and Martius in 1.8. The pair ran at each other and touched swords together first before Martius declared “I’ll fight with none but thee.” They took up positions and then fought, both eventually losing their swords, punching and grappling until Martius got the advantage. He squatted over the prone Aufidius with his hand round his throat choking him and seemed to be relishing the process.

When it looked as if Aufidius was about to die, one his men rushed to Martius’s side and put a sword at his neck. Three others came forward alternately from either side so that eventually a Roman threatened a Volscian, who threatened the Roman who threatened Aufidius’ backer. In this standoff, Aufidius escaped but not without castigating his men for their “condemned seconds”. Martius offered Aufidius his sword back, but then withdrew it and kept the weapon as a prize from the encounter.

Martius appeared after the battle with his arm in a sling as the soldiers chanted “Martius” (1.9). He stood on a chair at one end of a straggle of chairs, while Cominius climbed onto another chair some distance away to praise his deeds and offer him a garland. As he was being proclaimed “Coriolanus”, he moved to a line of four chairs, three of which were then removed to leave him standing alone as the army chanted his new name.

Later, as he crouched near the ground to rest, he forgot the name of man he wanted to have saved.

At the end of the sequence, he took his shirt off, a painful process because of the wounds underneath, and showered in stream of water, which exacerbated the pain. He was injured on his shoulder and left arm as described later by Volumnia. Once over the initial shock he washed his hair and shook it sending out sprays of blood. As he did so, the sound of swords being sharpened played subtly over the top.

The blood was washed away into a gully by a sweeper.

Aufidius complained bitterly about the Volscian defeat, the imposed treaty, and his desire to beat Martius. One puddle of Coriolanus’ bloody water remained in which Aufidius bathed his hands when saying he wanted to “wash my fierce hand in’s heart”. When he was finished with it, he gestured at the sweeper to continue cleaning.

Menenius sat some distance away from the two tribunes who were centre stage seated next to each other (2.1). They fell into conversation about Martius and Menenius was quietly disparaging of them. They accused Martius of pride but he wished they could “turn your eyes towards the nape of your necks” to see their own pride. He became increasingly angry at them, criticising their ambition.

The three women entered, brandishing their letters telling of Martius’ return and shared the glad news with Menenius who embraced them.

But further tension was seen between Volumnia and Virgilia. Menenius pointed out that Martius was “wont to come home wounded”, at which Virgilia repeatedly cried “no”, while Volumnia insisted that her son was indeed wounded and thanked the gods for it. Virgilia cast Volumnia a look of shocked disgust that she should wish Martius to be injured. This once again showed the contrast in their values and how Virgilia did not fit in.

Volumnia and Menenius’ discussion of the history of Martius’ injuries, during which he joyously completed her sentences, was interrupted by the sound of Martius’ triumphant approach. Volumnia stood centre stage to pronounce the ominous “doth lie… men die” as rose petals fell from the flies.

Coriolanus entered in his garland to great acclaim. He was formally welcomed and faced the audience until Cominius pointed out “Look, sir, your mother” at which he turned embarrassed to find Volumnia behind him.

She congratulated him and with her final words “But O, thy wife” disparagingly introduced Virgilia who hugged her husband as he remarked on her crying. This textual reference to her crying linked back to her first tearful appearance.

They set off for the Capitol, leaving Brutus and Sicinia sitting in spotlight at the side. They were worried about losing power if Coriolanus became consul, but took comfort that his arrogance towards the people might prove his undoing. They left for Capitol as well.


The initial sequence with the officers at the start of 2.2 was cut, so the action continued with the senators. The chairs were rearranged and brought forward. They sat in a line behind the central lectern with Coriolanus standing between them. The tribunes were on chairs at the end of the line again.

The 1st Senator’s slightly condescending acknowledgement of the “Masters o’th’ people” produced two responses: Coriolanus, who disapproved of their influence, snapped his fingers and gestured at them to sit down as they rose to speak from the lectern; the tribunes in turn were curt and sarcastic, expressing their muted animosity towards Martius’ promotion.

The fact that the tribunes advanced to the lectern, speaking from which became a marker of authority, provided an initial point of physical conflict between them and Martius that would later become more pronounced.

Coriolanus went to the back and walked up and down behind the line of chairs while he was lauded. During Cominius’ long paean, the others, especially Titus Lartius, slapped their papers in approval, whereas the tribunes were notable by their withdrawn silence. Sicinia looked down at her pad and made furious notes as she was in the habit of doing during these proceedings.

Coriolanus was called back in. The Officer’s line “He doth appear” was given to Brutus as a sarcastic aside. He was offered the consulship if he would speak to the people in the market. The gown of humility was shown to him from the stage right walkway. But he did not want to go through with the ceremony.

Tribunes were again left behind to complain.

The citizens gathered in the market place and were handed red ballots by the tribunes which the people would offer as their “voices” (2.3).

Coriolanus entered in his gown. He begged their voices but in a way that involved gesturing at them, snapping his fingers and snatching the red papers from their hands, all of which was consistent with someone who considered himself there because of “mine own desert”.

He became sarcastic and mocked his own servility, the comedy of which prompted some tittering in the audience.

To mark his general acceptance by the populace he walked along the long line of the cast seated at the back, taking red ballots from their hands. He handed the pile of papers to the tribunes at the end of the line, who then rose.

Menenius was satisfied that he had completed the task and Coriolanus left for the Senate.

Brutus and Sicinia got to work convincing the people to change their minds. Once they believed they had been duped, they retrieved their ballots from the box and began tearing them up.

Coriolanus, Titus Lartius and Cominius were discussing the uneasy standoff between Rome and Antium (3.1).

Into the middle of this burst the tribunes and emptied a box of torn, rejected ballots over him. Coriolanus was insulted and held a handful of shredded papers to ask “Have I had children’s voices?”

The argument with the tribunes continued once they had returned to their seats. Sicinia looked up into the galleries to predict portentously that “It is a mind that shall remain a poison where it is, not poison any further”. Coriolanus became quietly furious at “her absolute shall”.

He continued to berate Sicinia, walking behind her as she cast her eyes downward and scribbled yet more furious notes.

Coriolanus justified his position and the absolute authority of the patricians, mocking the common people’s opinion by imitating their accent. He derided the “double worship” of allowing the tribunes authority so that “nothing is done to purpose”.

Brutus came to the lectern and accused him of treason. This produced a physical confrontation between him and Coriolanus in which they scuffled after which Coriolanus stood aside gesturing at Brutus to come and have a go if he was hard enough.

In the commotion Sicinia told the people that they risked losing their liberties, insisting “What is the city but the people?” She became more determined, calling for Coriolanus to be pushed from the Tarpeian rock.

Coriolanus now totally lost his temper, kicked over the lectern and drew his sword at them. They took shelter, with Brutus scaling the first few rungs of the ladder, shielding behind it to point accusingly at Coriolanus before describing him (using Sicinius’ lines) as “this viper that would depopulate the city, and be every man himself”.

Menenius tried to assuage the tribunes and citizens, describing Coriolanus as a diseased limb to be cured not cut off, and said he would bring him to the market place again.

Set within the confines of the red box room, Coriolanus’ first words “I muse my mother…” were spoken to Virgilia as she kissed him. She then departed to stand outside as Volumnia tried to convince her son to play politics (3.2).

Virgilia paced up and down outside listening and fretting. She looked astounded when Volumnia claimed “I am in this your wife…”. Virgilia returned later to kiss him again.

Her exclusion from this conversation underscored her irrelevance and outsider status. It also added to the claustrophobic atmosphere as Volumnia, Menenius and Cominius crowded within the small space of the room with Coriolanus. But it made her more present as a character and allowed us to see her reaction to words that normally she would not overhear.

At the end, when he had agreed to return to the market, Coriolanus spoke sarcastically about doing things “mildly”, repeating the word in mockery. To be on the safe side, Cominius took Coriolanus’ sword from him to prevent a repeat of his previous aggression.

Brutus painted a small black square on the stage to mark out the spot in the market place on which Coriolanus was to be confined during his contrite reappearance (3.3). Brutus and Sicinia were so happy that their plan had worked so far that they embraced and kissed as they finalised their scheme to secure Coriolanus’ downfall by stoking his anger.

Coriolanus returned, stepped inside the black box and was challenged by the tribunes. He became enraged by their accusation of treachery.

Menenius and Cominius observed the unfolding situation with keen interest, leaning in to whisper comments to each other and then occasionally calling on Coriolanus to show moderation. The staging emphasised that their individual contributions were the product of their collusion.

Citizens stood on both walkways calling for him to be sent to the rock. Coriolanus seized on Brutus’ mention of word “service”, infuriated at its use by an upstart civilian.

Whipped up by Sicinia, the people demanded Coriolanus’ execution, crying “It shall be so”. The cacophony was accompanied by multiple projections of the word “traitor” and the phrase “it shall be so” being sequentially added to the back wall.

Coriolanus lashed out at the “common cry of curs” telling them “I banish you”, throwing his garland back at them. He was spotlit centre stage to pronounce “There is a world elsewhere” shadowed by Volumnia, who sat behind him, cried and then came forward for 4.1.

Coriolanus bade farewell to his family by first commiserating with a very distraught Volumnia who had come forward at the end of 3.3 (4.1). Cominius returned the sword he had previously confiscated from Coriolanus, in a gesture of comradely solidarity with his fellow soldier.

The first half ended as Coriolanus returned centre stage to be pelted with rotten tomatoes by citizens shouting “It shall be so!”

At the start of the second half, a shadowy figure in ragged clothes huddled by the back wall as the tribunes met with Volumnia and Virgilia. The women were furious with them. Volumnia was haughty and disdainful, but was met with confident sarcasm from Sicinia, while Virgilia ran at them in fury (4.2).

Volumnia shoved away Menenius’ comforting hand as he invited her to dinner, insisting bitterly “anger’s my meat: I sup upon myself”. She composed herself and addressed Virgilia, telling her to “leave this faint puling”. She adjusted Virgilia’s hair and smartened her up, but only as an aid to stiffening her resolve.

By encouraging her daughter-in-law to be “Juno-like”, Volumnia was drawing comfort from the prospect of making Virgilia more like her. This change from her earlier disdain for Virgilia marked the beginning of a deeper reconciliation that would culminate in their mutual support in their final scene.

Scene 4.3 was cut. Coriolanus disguised in his rags, slumped at the back of the stage, rose up and asked the way to Aufidius’ house (4.4). He tried to gain entry but was turned back by one of the female servants (Rochenda Sandall again) who stood toe-to-toe and comically nose-to-nose with Coriolanus in an attempt to intimidate him into leaving (4.5). He brushed her aside contemptuously, telling her to “batten on cold bits”.

Aufidius caught up with him and Coriolanus initially turned away, unsure as to whether to reveal himself. But he turned to face Aufidius and took off his hood. Aufidius still did not recognise him and asked his name several times.

Coriolanus spoke his name, causing the other Volscians to start with fear at being in the presence of their arch enemy. During Coriolanus’ long explanation of how he had arrived there, one of Aufidius’ men slowly drew his dagger and crept up very slowly behind Coriolanus. A further note of tension was introduced as Coriolanus took a step backwards, forcing the stealthy killer to retreat as well, with the ever-present possibility that he might be detected. Coriolanus sank to his knees and the killer positioned his blade just above Coriolanus’ back. He fixed Aufidius with his gaze, indicating that he had only to give the word and the blade would be thrust between his foe’s shoulder blades.

Coriolanus offered up his throat for him to cut. Aufidius moved behind the kneeling Coriolanus and took the blade from his comrade and held it near to Coriolanus’ throat.

Aufidius paused for a while before exclaiming “O Martius, Martius” and declared his friendship. But Coriolanus was still nervously anticipating the fatal blow so that when Aufidius briskly made a sudden cutting movement without making actual contact, Coriolanus momentarily mistook this for the coup de grace and collapsed forward in panic. He recovered once he felt that his throat was still intact.

Aufidius knelt down in front of Coriolanus, held him in his arms and then kissed him on the lips. But he immediately stood up and with slight abashment explained “Know thou first, I loved the maid I married” to audience titters. This mirth was reignited when Aufidius grasped him once more, this time standing up, and spoke of how he had “nightly since dreamt of encounters” between them.

Aufidius offered him joint leadership and some Volscian armour was given to him. The comedy serving men sequence was cut, but humour was introduced at the end of the scene. Once the main players had exited, the other Volscians looked at each other in open-mouthed amazement at Aufidius’ unexpected embracement of his former enemy.


Back in Rome, Sicinia and Brutus were very happy. The couple sat close together, Brutus with his arm round Sicinia’s shoulder, as they exuded smug self-congratulation at getting Coriolanus banished (4.6).

Confident that they now had the upper hand, they took no heed of Menenius’ upset at Coriolanus’ departure. Some citizens passed by and thanked the tribunes, presenting them with a bowl of grapes.

However, their calm was short-lived. A messenger (not identified as an Aedile) brought news of a report of a Volscian invasion. The tribunes wanted the “rumourer” whipped, but Menenius realised that the rumour was probably true.

Another messenger reported that Coriolanus had joined with Aufidius. The tribunes dismissed this as yet more idle talk and Menenius agreed that this was “unlikely”. But a second messenger called him to the Senate, confirming the truth of it.

Cominius stormed in and joined with Menenius in castigating the static seated tribunes, whose fixed position highlighted their fear and indecision. They were surrounded, with a military man on one side and an intellectual on the other. Criticism from these divergent types brought out the totality of the opposition to them.

The citizens were now abashed and denied that they had ever meant to banish Coriolanus. Others were fearful of how to placate him. The Tribunes could only tell them not to be afraid, but once they were left alone, Brutus’ remark “I do not like this news” as he sat still holding the grapes, drew laughter from audience for its comical redundancy.

Aufidius and his Lieutenant sat and mithered about Coriolanus’ increasing popularity (4.7). Speaking of how fire drives out fire and one nail another, he vowed menacingly that “When, Caius, Rome is thine, Thou art poor’st of all; then shortly art thou mine”.

Cominius returned from his failed meeting with Coriolanus and kicked over a chair before crouching disconsolate at the back of the stage (5.1). The position and posture he adopted were eerily similar to that Coriolanus had been in when lurking on stage at the start of the second half.

Menenius initially refused to petition Coriolanus because the general had met with failure. But Sicinia’s pleading, together with his own conviction that Coriolanus would be more malleable after dinner, persuaded him to try.

Cominius described how Coriolanus “does sit in gold, his eye red as ‘twould burn Rome” while Coriolanus went to his chair.

Menenius arrived at the Volscian camp and was intercepted by two guards (5.2). His high-handed “do you know who I am?” approach resulted in rebuff.

Coriolanus and Aufidius, overhearing the commotion, came to see what was happening. Menenius proudly and disdainfully promised the “jack guardant” that he was in trouble for keeping him out.

Menenius appeared to let slip a great secret. His phrasing of “my son Coriolanus” cut short the word “son” before continuing with “Coriolanus” as if inadvertently hinting at his paternity.

He approached Coriolanus and knelt to weep tears onto his gloved hand. He asked pardon for Rome, requesting that after making peace any remnant of Coriolanus’ anger be directed at the “varlet” who had “denied my access to thee”.

Without saying anything, Coriolanus wagged his finger disapprovingly at the guard, giving Menenius the impression that he was about to fulfil his wish. The wagging continued and became more mocking until Coriolanus laughed, making plain that his gesture was entirely playful. He turned brusquely to Menenius and very softly ordered him “Away”.

Coriolanus vowed that he was a stranger even to his family and that he had only compassion for the Volscians. He gave Menenius a letter which the despondent man briefly read and then dropped to the ground on exiting. The guards made fun of Menenius for having predicted they would get into trouble.

His ominous “He that hath a will to die by himself fears it not from another” became a real premonition of his suicide, because after his exit from this scene the cuts to the remainder of text meant he was never seen again. This was reminiscent of the character’s absence from the final Roman scenes in the Ralph Fiennes film.

Coriolanus picked up the discarded letter and passed it to Aufidius, demonstrating that there were no secrets between them. With continuous action, Coriolanus and Aufidius discussed laying siege to Rome the next day (5.3). Coriolanus ironically vowed that he would not listen to any more suits from “state nor private friends”.

The women processed onstage: first Virgilia, then Volumnia holding Young Martius’ hand and finally Valeria. They walked along stage front and then round behind to stand upstage right. Coriolanus watched and commented.

Virgilia slowly curtsied before his empty chair with a fixed beatific smile on her face, which indicated that somehow Coriolanus was speaking to us from outside the reality of their arrival and we were seeing the event through his shocked eyes. Volumnia and Young Martius bowed their heads.

Coriolanus returned to sit in his chair centre stage at which point he entered into the field of Virgilia’s gaze. She came alive, the staged version of the sequence now reflecting reality as Virgilia addressed him as “My lord and husband”. She sat on his lap, brushing away his protestation that “These eyes are not the same I wore in Rome”, and kissed him.

As she continued to sit in his lap, her right hand ventured down to his crotch at which point Coriolanus seemed to sense that he might give in to her. He rose briskly, brushing Virgilia aside and spoke to his mother, going down on one knee.

Volumnia bid him stand and then abased herself fully with her head to the ground and her arms outstretched. The disparity between the two gestures exemplified Volumnia’s greater desperation.

She asked if Coriolanus knew Valeria. He visibly scrambled around in his memory to draw up her potted biography, which he then quoted to signify his recognition. His son was also presented to him and he bowed a knee to his father.

Volumnia pressed on with their request, despite admitting that he would not grant them anything. She explained their predicament, concluding that her son would tread on her womb. Virgilia agreed, coming to stand in front of him, saying “Ay, and mine” showing him Young Martius, with the lad saying he would fight when he was bigger.

Coriolanus made to go but Volumnia stopped him, maintaining that he could win fame and honour by reconciling the Romans and Volscians. She approached him and tried to touch his face saying “Speak to me, son” but he recoiled from her.

He turned his back on her barbed comments, which prompted Volumnia to instruct her party to kneel. They abased themselves face down with their hands outstretched. Volumnia rose hoping to draw Coriolanus’ attention to his entreating son. Still turned away from his family, Coriolanus’ eyes began to water as he listened to her.

Her final barbed comment that “this fellow had a Volscian to his mother, his wife is in Corioles and his child like him by chance” seemed to do the trick.

Without any great pause, Coriolanus simply turned, approached his mother and said “O, mother, mother! What have you done?” But his words were disappointingly flat and expressionless.

This was the dramatic climax of the play, the point at which the oncoming express train of Coriolanus’ force is derailed by his mother’s disapproval. But rather than seeing a great man brought low, Hiddleston seemed too dispassionate, a few leaky tears the only sign of his emotions.

This powerful moment of hushed tension is supposed to herald the cataclysmic breakdown of Coriolanus the colossus war machine. But this version was calm to the point of being featureless, his monotone delivery at odds with the enormity of his change of heart.

However, it was possible that the direction was following the description of Coriolanus at this moment in Peter Holland’s programme note, which pictured him as “no longer angry but strangely calm as he anticipates so clear-sightedly his own death”.

Aufidius remarked laconically that he “was moved withal”. But we knew trouble was coming despite the fact that Aufidius’ menacing aside was cut.

Volumnia looked shocked and astounded at this turn around. Coriolanus congratulated the women on having obtained peace and bade them farewell with kisses and hugs for his family which neatly contrasted with his previous coldness and distance.

The scenes in Rome (5.4/5.5) were cut. The action moved straight to Aufidius’ direct confrontation with Coriolanus with much of the start of 5.6 also cut.

Aufidius began by telling his fellow Volscians to inform “the lords o’the’ city” about events, but suddenly turned on Coriolanus screaming that he was a traitor. He shouted the accusations from around l.20 relating to how he had taken Coriolanus into his trust, and then elaborated how his friend had betrayed that trust by concluding the present peace.

The rapidly-paced sequence picked up from around l.87 with Aufidius’ accusation of treachery, Coriolanus’ retort and Aufidius deliberately addressing him as “Martius”, not using “that robbery, thy stolen name”, all compounded with the insulting epithet “Boy”.

Martius, in line with the highlighting of his death premonition, threw away his sword and invited them to “Cut me to pieces”.

He was beaten to the ground, a chain was attached to his feet and he was hoisted up. Aufidius took a blade and lunged it into Coriolanus’ stomach. He writhed briefly as his blood drained from him.

Aufidius crouched beneath and bathed his head in the flow, saying “hold, hold”. His rage had gone and he promised that Coriolanus would have a noble memory.

Petals fell from the flies as Volumnia came and stood upstage right. Aufidius’ face lit up as he beamed under the shower of Coriolanus’ blood. A child’s voice sang the celebratory words of cut scene 5.5. The lights went out on Aufidius finally fulfilling his wish to wash his “fierce hand in’s heart”.


The fans wanted to give Hiddleston “the whole name of the war” but he was not the most interesting part of the production.

The stiff upper lip understatement in the final scene was either disappointing for anyone expecting passionate emotional fireworks or alternatively could be seen as an intelligent reading emphasising Coriolanus’ fatalism.

Deborah Findlay captured perfectly Volumnia’s combination of ferocity and vulnerability.

Elsewhere, Virgilia was given a greater role through her continuous reactions to events and by her presence at points where does not normally appear. She was made to appear a very unwilling conscript into Coriolanus’ military family.

The casting of Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Virgilia was a clever move. Her Danish accent was a constant reminder of her otherness, a characteristic that mirrored and underscored the production’s emphasis on Virgilia’s outsider status amid the militaristic family into which she had married.

Making one of the tribunes female allowed their collusion to turn into a nascent love affair. These are characters who for all their flaws offer a vague hope of a better democratic future.

This detailing of the minor characters contrasted with the neglect of the minor characters in that other recent star vehicle, the Grandage Henry V.

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