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Dame Ngaio Marsh’s Hamlet script returns to UC

05 August 2019

Dame Ngaio Marsh’s fast-paced, successful war-time production script of Hamlet is being published for the first time, along with the original musical score and a selection of archival photographs, in a new book from Canterbury University Press.


Polly Hoskins is an MA student in English at the University of Canterbury and President of the University’s Drama Society. This is her first book.

Dame Ngaio Marsh (1895–1982), a distinguished University of Canterbury (UC) alumna, was one of the greatest crime writers of the twentieth century, but she was also a gifted Shakespearean director. Hamlet was her first play, marking the beginning of three decades of work with the University’s drama society.

The book’s author, UC Master of English student Polly Hoskins discovered the script in the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington while researching her Honours thesis on New Zealand women writers. She was struck by Marsh’s adept editing and detailed illustrations of onstage blocking techniques, as well as the relevance of the production to the times.

“It is this huge book with the script on one side and illustrations on the other - because she also studied fine arts, Ngaio Marsh was able to draw all the actions she wanted to see on the stage,” Hoskins says.

“Usually all that’s left of a play is a few reviews, so I think it’s really special to have the script preserved and to be able to now share it with a wider audience.”

Hoskins spent much of her summer cross-referencing a photocopy of Dame Ngaio’s script with a Penguin copy of Hamlet. She discovered that Dame Ngaio cut the Shakespearean script to about half the length – “she wanted it to be accessible to students”.

Hoskins uncovered more about the context of Dame Ngaio’s wartime Hamlet production through archived copies of UCSA student magazine Canta in the MacMillan Brown Library collections at UC.

“It was a student production, so I looked at what was happening in 1943 in Canta and that made so much sense as to why she made the changes. It was during the war, so she made it modern dress using soldiers’ World War 2 uniforms. Reading about students during the war, it must have been so incredible for the audience,” she says.

“There was a lot in Canta about the role of the University in wartime and the role of the arts. Students were asking ‘why study English when we could be going and fighting in the war?’ That’s the same for Hamlet – he’s a scholar. And that’s what students were doing then; questioning why study poetry or join this theatre production?

“Shakespeare was creating the pop culture of the time and I think that’s what Ngaio did – she made it relevant, which is pretty hard to do. It paid off, too. It was a huge success and it sold out every night. UC’s student drama group went on tour, to Australia and all around New Zealand.”

The production featured specially commissioned incidental music by Douglas Lilburn, another distinguished UC alumnus. In another coincidence, Hoskins’ father is retired music academic and Lilburn expert, Robert Hoskins. He was keen to see the original music published alongside Dame Ngaio’s script.

In an introductory essay in the book, Polly Hoskins examines the staging of the production and the wartime context, enriching our understanding of Dame Ngaio as a Shakespearean producer as well as New Zealand’s theatre history. A note from Robert Hoskins introduces Lilburn’s music.

The book’s publication coincides with a theatrical celebration of Dame Ngaio at the UCSA’s newly reopened Ngaio Marsh Theatre on Friday 9 August. Hoskins is also the President of DramaSoc and has a particular fascination with Hamlet.

An Evening of Ngaio Marsh on 9 August in the Ngaio Marsh Theatre at Haere-roa features:

  • DramaSoc presents recreated scenes of Ngaio Marsh’s Hamlet, with Douglas Lilburn’s original music played by members of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
  • DramaSoc presents contemporary scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Joanne Drayton, author of a biography of Dame Ngaio Marsh, presents a guest lecture.

The official opening of Haere-roa and the Ngaio Marsh Theatre was on Friday 2 August.

Publication details:

Ngaio Marsh’s HAMLET: The 1943 production script

Edited with an introduction by Polly Hoskins

August 2019, $29.99
134pp, including 12 illustrations, paperback
ISBN: 978-1-98-850313-4

Published by Canterbury University Press


Polly Hoskins is an MA student in English at the University of Canterbury and President of the University’s Drama Society. She was the recipient of the Howard McNaughton Prize in Cultural Studies (2016) and a UC Master’s Scholarship (2019). This is her first book.

Robert Hoskins is a retired academic and has published on colonial balladry, eighteenth-century English music, New Zealand music, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Pacific writings. He is series editor of the collected piano music of Douglas Lilburn.

Media contact:
Polly Hoskins Phone: 0278717488


Catherine Montgomery, Publisher - Canterbury University Press, Phone: 03 3693371

Media contact
  • Email
  • Phone: (03) 369 3631 or 027 503 0168
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