255 years of Hamlet at Bristol Old Vic

27 Oct 2022
Courtesy of Bristol Archives

From William Powell (our first Dane) to Billy Howle (our current Dane), get to know some of the faces who have taken on Shakespeare’s most famous role in our historic theatre...

1767 – William Powell 

Bristol Old Vic has been staging Hamlet for 255 years. Our first Hamlet was also our first manager: William Powell.

Powell was also the first actor to ever speak on our stage. He performed a prologue written by David Garrick, whose inaugural words are inscribed on shutters in our foyer for all to see.

1781 – Sarah Siddons

Sarah Siddons is one of the first women known to have played Hamlet. She played the role nine times over thirty years, including at Bristol Old Vic in 1781. 

Siddons’ boundary pushing Hamlet expanded the possibilities for actresses on stage and paved the way for others to follow in her footsteps.

Courtesy of Bristol Archives

1799 – William Dimond

William Dimond tried his hand at the role in 1799.

Unfortunately, his performance wasn’t very well received. The Bristol Journal wrote of his acting: “nothing is irregular, nothing is left to chance... you have little to excite astonishment”.

1821 – Henry Johnson

Luckily, Dimond’s performance didn’t put Bristolian audiences off Shakespeare’s masterpiece for good.

Hamlet was performed several more times between 1799 and 1830, including in 1821 when Henry Johnson took on the role.  

Courtesy of Bristol Archives
Courtesy of Bristol Archives

1830 – William Charles Macready

William Charles Macready was a bona fide star of the 19th century stage. His fans included Charles Dickens and Alfred Tennyson.

Macready added extra authenticity to his performance by casting his stepmother Sarah as Queen Gertrude. Echoing the play’s plot, the two had a famously difficult relationship.

1958 – Peter O’Toole

Hamlet appears to have fallen out of favour in Bristol between the late 19th century and early 20th century. However, it came back with a bang in 1958. A reviewer described Peter O’Toole’s 1958 performance as: “The best thing to happen to Bristol’s Thespian scene. He’s a lean, lank individualist Teddy Boy!”

Credit: Desmond Tripp
Credit: Derek Balmer

1964 and 1967 – Richard Pasco

Richard Pasco was a Hamlet for the swinging sixties. Val May’s production was such a success it even toured to America. The New York Times described his Hamlet as full of “balance, sensitivity, intelligence and vigour”.

Offstage, sparks flew between Pasco and his Ophelia, Barbara Leigh Hunt. The couple married in 1967 and remained together until his death in 2014.

1977 – Robert O’Mahoney

The same year he played Hamlet at Bristol Old Vic, O’Mahoney also appeared in a little-known film called Star Wars: A New Hope.

His co-star was no other than Alan Rickman, who played Laertes.

Credit: Derek Balmer

1991 – Iain Glen

Iain Glen wasn’t the only household name in Paul Unwin’s 1991 production. James Purefoy and Richard Lintern also starred.

Multiple Olivier and Tony Award-winner Bunny Christie designed the sets.

2022 Billy Howle 

Bringing us to current day, our 2022 production of Hamlet stars the “mesmerising” (Stage Talk Magazine) Billy Howle.

Billy Howle is joined in this year’s production by Mirren Mack, Niamh Cusack, Finbar Lynch, Taheen Modak, Isabel Adomakoh Young, Firdous Bamji, Jason Barnett and Catrin Stewart.

Here’s to another 255 years!

Credit: Marc Brenner