These photographs show the actors John Gielgud (1904–2000), his close friend Peggy Ashcroft (1907–1991), Leslie Banks and Marian Spencer performing in the acclaimed 1944 production of Hamlet, directed by George Rylands and staged at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in London.
The renowned classical actor Sir John Gielgud was most famous for his melodious voice, likened by Alec Guinness to a ‘silver trumpet muffled in silk’ (Blessings in Disguise (Glasgow: Fontana, 1986), p. 103). Gielgud played Hamlet more than 500 times and, alongside Lawrence Olivier, he became one of the touchstones for 20th-century actors taking on that coveted role. His first Hamlet at the Old Vic Theatre (1930) was the youngest in memory – full of emotion, loathing and Oedipal tension between mother and son. Gielgud went on to play another youthful Prince of Denmark, under his own direction, at the New Theatre in 1934; then on Broadway in 1936; at Elsinore in 1939; at the Haymarket in 1944; and on tour in East Asia soon afterwards, playing his last Hamlet in Cairo in 1946.
Many agreed with the critic James Agate that Gielgud’s performance in the 1944 Haymarket production was ‘the best Hamlet of our time’. A Guardian review praised his unmatched ‘grace and dignity’ in portraying the Prince as a ‘gentleman’. It said ‘No other actor … can make so just an enchantment of the lines’, but felt that the production lacked ‘the lightning flash … the tempest or the terror’ that are also vital to the play (L H in The Guardian, 1944). Gielgud himself later admitted that, when acting at the Haymarket, ‘he found little pleasure in [his] favourite part of Hamlet – feeling confused and uncertain after so many previous productions with different directors’ (John Gielgud: An Actor’s Biography in Pictures (1952), p. 79).