Mark Fisher talks to director Philip Prowse and actor Cal MacAninch about their dithering Dane

PRODUCTIONS of Hamlet may be ten a penny this autumn, but when the Citizens' Theatre chooses to do Shakespeare's tragedy of the dithering Dane we can only sit up and take note. For this is the play that put the Gorbals theatre's artistic directorship firmly on the map, laying the foundations for a regime that has not only lasted the best part of 30 years, but has spent that time as the most consistently inventive of British theatres.

Hamlet it was, back in the late summer of 1970, that so outraged the arts editor of the Scotsman that his damning review was elevated to front page news. Neither was his opinion in isolation. The Scottish Daily Express said it was a production of ``unbelievable ineptitude'', while Christopher Small, in the then Glasgow Herald, surmised that the direction of the whole theatre had been and continued to be ``disastrous''.

Not the most promising of starts, you might suppose, except the audience thought different. Directed by Giles Havergal and designed by Philip Prowse, who had both arrived at the theatre the previous year, this was a Hamlet that was as mercilessly edited as it was irreverent and exuberant.

Starring newcomer David Hayman, it was an all-male production that caught the sexually libertarian mood of the times and, whatever its theatrical merits, sent off signals of political danger to which the young audience immediately responded. It took only the cancellation of a couple of schools bookings and a few reactionary quotes in the papers for the run to be sold out.

Since then the theatre has returned to the play on two occasions: once in 1975, in a production directed and designed by Philip Prowse, starring David Hayman for a second time; and again in 1981 when it was directed by Robert David MacDonald with Prowse on design and Andrew Wilde in the lead.

No headline news in either case, though Prowse's relocation of the play to Imperial Germany in 1975 made a typically striking impact, while the MacDonald production caused a small stir for using the First Quarto edition, a version unseen on the professional stage since 1933.

This then is the official history; the story outsiders know. What's refreshing about talking to Philip Prowse, who's tackling the play anew in a production that opens next week, is that he doesn't see it quite like that.

It's a story he's lived with over the past 27 years, and it's not one on which he's overly inclined to dwell. He's doing Hamlet because it interests him now, because he saw Cal MacAninch in a TV play and it just struck him what a good Hamlet he'd make, not because he'd seen it kick up a storm in 1970, not because it secured the Citizens' reputation for being a bold, brash and thoroughly original cornerstone of European theatre.

And this is very telling. Because it begins to explain how Prowse and his colleagues have run this pioneering theatre so well for so long. Your average artistic director stays with a company for perhaps five years before departing with the old incantation that it was ``time to move on''. Far from growing stagnant, on the other hand, the Prowse/Havergal/ MacDonald triumvirate has managed repeatedly to reinvent itself, to stay ahead of the game, if not to shock then certainly to surprise.

The three of them have done so by forever thinking in the present tense, turning their backs on old formulae, and ignoring the achievements of the past with a disregard that strikes the outsider as almost destructively selfless.

Prowse admits to me that the throw-away aspect of theatre appeals to him. ``I love it when it's over,'' he says, drinking a glass of red wine between rehearsals.

``I'm very proud of the theatre, and I'm very proud of the work we've done, and I'm very proud of the fact that we don't have a deficit, and we've run it well and kept going. But I would hate for us to live in the past.''

The half-cavalier attitude to what's gone before is what you'd expect, but it's illuminating to hear Prowse talk so prosaically about the Citizens' fabled ability to balance the books.

The temptation is to caricature the three directors as opposing forces - Havergal, the diplomat and bringer of equilibrium, set against MacDonald, the bookish scholar, and Prowse, the wayward creative maverick.

In truth, the secret of their three-decade partnership is just the opposite: It's their commonality of purpose. The crop-headed Prowse is never short of a barbed comment or contentious opinion (Romeo and Juliet, he tells me, is a ``perfectly terrible play''; actors, he divulges, ``have to be pretty bad on stage before the audience notices''; Glasgow, he asserts, ``is a more literate city than London''), but he is by no means the wild-card we might like to imagine. He's as much the pragmatic operator as Havergal.

``When I suggested Hamlet to Giles, he said, `Oh marvellous, it'll do good business,''' Prowse recalls, explaining that his impulse is artistic, his practise commercial, and his philosophy adapt or die. One has to modulate all the time, if you just get your head down and think, `This is the way I do it,' you'll find yourself with no theatre to run. You have to react positively to each situation as you find it, and be creative about it, that is what we are paid to do.

``This is what I think makes us different - we don't waste time saying, `God, how frightful,' we say, `Thruppence, how interesting, what are we going to do with that?'''

The first thruppence of the season is of course being lavished on Hamlet, a play Prowse describes as an immense tour of the human condition. ``Certainly it's a great tour of growing up and responsibility; adolescence turning into young adulthood turning into being grown up,'' he says.

``It's very good about mothers and sons, and about how to deal with conventional expectations that are made of you. Finally it's a tragedy because somebody who's gone along that huge road to discovering who they are, at the very moment that they have discovered it, they are treacherously killed.''

As designer, Prowse has produced what he calls a ``negative set, entirely to do with space,'' and as director, he's been concerned with discovering the truth of each event as it happens.

This is not to say he has no contribution to make himself, nor that he lacks a personal vision of the play, rather that he is not as interested as he once was in foregrounding his own prodigious talents as a designer.

The difference between a good and a bad production comes down to the quality of the actors. ``The thing about Cal MacAninch, and indeed all the actors that I like to work with, is that they're fundamentally interesting,'' he says.

``You can feel the audience being interested in them. There are lots of extremely good actors that audiences simply find boring. And I do think someone who plays Hamlet has got to be fundamentally interesting.''

Insisting that he is not a conceptual director, Prowse says that although he's never felt an obligation to any author (which includes his colleague Robert David MacDonald), he does feel an obligation to the ideas that are in the script.

``I think it should be accessible and comprehensible,'' he says. ``I've cut anything I thought you couldn't understand without reading it (which is surprisingly little, it's quite a full text). I'm as much a product of the television age as the audience. I like the language clear, although I'm not particularly a scientist about it.

``I like energy, I like precision and I like clarity. I like them to be heard in the back row.''

In this, he's at an advantage in the beautifully-constructed classical auditorium of the Citizens', a stage capable of both scale and intimacy.

Prowse is quick to sing the praises of the architecture, even as he points out that it is people, not buildings, who make theatre. There has been poor work on this stage before, he says, and there's no reason there shouldn't be again. What will always pull Prowse back, for all the other work he might do elsewhere (he was most recently directing opera at Covent Garden), is that the Citizens' feels like home.

``If I have an idea, I know exactly how difficult or easy it is to achieve it, so I can have the idea with confidence. In somebody else's theatre I can have the idea and I'm by no means sure that I can get it.

``There's a gap between having the idea and putting it into operation which doesn't take place here, so the work I do here is more fluent.''

Hamlet is at the Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, September 27-October 19.