Interview with Andrew Hilton

hamlet                                                                    Image credit: Mark Douet

An Interview with Andrew Hilton, Artistic Director Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, on the 2016 Season of Shakespeare co produced with Tobacco Factory Theatres, as part of Shakespeare 400


What is the main challenge in directing one of the most famous Shakespeare Plays?

The real difficulty is over-familiarity, trying to shake off the old tunes, look at the play afresh. I have acted in four productions of the play – the last time in our own production in 2008, directed by Jonathan Miller – and seen more productions than I care to remember. It is also rather daunting in that you know that a sector of the audience is looking for some dazzling revelation, while a huge proportion of the young audience we will play to will be seeing it for the first time, and will want to see the play, not just some variation on it. We shall try to please all!

The ‘Shakespeare 400’ celebration adds spice – and pressure!

5                                                                  Image credit: Mark Douet

What characteristics do you recognise in Alan Mahon, the actor you’ve chosen to play Hamlet – and how old is Hamlet?

It’s unusual for Shakespeare to be specific about his characters’ ages, but in HAMLET he does prompt us to make a calculation. Two different ones, actually.  In the most familiar text the Gravedigger claims that Yorick, the King’s Jester who Hamlet remembers vividly, “has lain in the earth three and twenty years”. So Hamlet must be at least 28, and may well be older. However, in the commonly maligned first printing, the ‘bad’ 1st Quarto, the Sexton says that Yorick’s skull  “hath been here this dozen year”, which means that Hamlet need be only 17 – 20. I find this a much more plausible age, and in casting Alan Mahon (who is in his very early 20s) that is a choice I have made.

Youth, vulnerability and a vivid personality, combined with the capacity (Alan is actually a very modest young man) to express that natural sense of entitlement appropriate to a Prince of the time.

1                                                                  Image credit: Mark Douet

Why have you set the play in 1600?

I have set Hamlet in 1600 – possibly the year in which it was written or first performed. I have often set Shakespeare’s plays later, but I think there are matters of religious sensibilities (though possibly set in a Protestant state – which the real Denmark certainly was – there are strong Catholic traditions still at work) and sexual mores that are best explored in a Renaissance setting. With ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL we can be freer and we shall update it to the time of the Italian Risorgimento – roughly the mid-nineteenth century.

Can you quote a favourite passage and explain what’s happening at that point in the play?

He took me by the wrist and held me hard.

Then goes he to the length of all his arm

And with his other hand thus o’er his brow,

He falls to such perusal of my face

As he would draw it. Long stay’d he so.

At last, a little shaking of mine arm

And thrice his head thus waving up and down,

He rais’d a sigh so piteous and profound

As it did seem to shatter all his bulk

And end his being.

This is Ophelia recounting to her father a completely silent scene, in which the distracted Hamlet appears before her, shortly (perhaps) after he has encountered the Ghost and learned that his father was murdered and his mother an adultress. It is something of a crux, in that some interpreters take this to be Hamlet following through his intention to put on an ‘antic disposition’ – i.e, fooling the Court into believing that he is mad. I have to disagree. Those last three lines seem to me an account of a man in an existential crisis, thinking of his mother whom he adored but misread, trying to read the perfidy of all of womanhood in Ophelia’s innocent face. The play is full of mysteries, and this matter of real or assumed madness (or neither) is one of its greatest.

2                                                                 Image credit: Mark Douet


Why you have chosen All’s Well That Ends Well as the second production to play in repertoire with Hamlet?

It is an intriguing piece, with many parallels with HAMLET, and they cross-cast beautifully with a company of 15. It is also a fine contrast, in that it is a comedy, though far from a laugh-out-loud one, and a romance, though that too has its darker edge.

Who are your favourite characters?

The play belongs to its women, and particularly to the Countess Rossillion and to the play’s central character, Helena. They both break the rules of the time and are powerful forces in the action, both great parts. There is also much fun to be had with the braggart Parolles in the Italian wars.

In which period is the play set?

Though the play is based on a 14th Century story from Boccaccio, Shakespeare almost certainly sees it as contemporary with his own time. We are updating it to the mid-nineteenth century, to the time of the Italian Risorgimento. The play’s central male character, who is French, goes off to fight on the side of Florence in the ‘Tuscan Wars’ which we felt could be very readily re-imagined in that later time of internal Italian conflict.

4                                                                   Image credit: Mark Douet

What can audiences expect who are new to the play?

A romance, a feisty heroine and a disturbingly ambiguous hero (Bertram); sexual shenanigans and some very fine, although cruel, comedy at Parolles’ expense. Those who are not new to it will also be surprised; we shall be doing a version of the play in which Dominic Power radically reconceives the character of Lavatch, the play’s clown figure, rescuing him – along the way – from some fairly impenetrable 


Hamlet –runs until 26 March and then plays in repertoire with All’s Well That Ends Well : Monday 25-Wednesday 27 April; Saturday 30 April 2016

All’s Well That Ends Well – Opens 31 March – 23 April and plays in repertoire with Hamlet Thursday 28 – Saturday 30 April 2016

Both productions tour the UK in repertoire between May and June. Hamlet visits the International Shakespeare festival in Craiova on 21st April and All’s Well That Ends Well visits the International Shakespeare Festival in Neuss on 24 & 25 June.

Visit the website for more information 

Click here to book tickets for Hamlet

Click here to book tickets for All’s Well That Ends Well

Box Office: 0117 902 0344