Author: William Shakespeare
Director: Ian Rickson
Theatre: The Young Vic, Waterloo
Major players: Michael Sheen, Vinette Robinson
Out of five? 4.5
Shakespeare’s Hamlet was first performed in the early 1600s and, since then, the Danish Prince has found himself in a staggering variety of settings and time zones on both stage and screen. The RSC’s 2008 production with David Tennant was set in a modern, dark castle while in 2000 a film version starring Ethan Hawke as the Prince took place within The Denmark Corporation of Manhattan.
Director Ian Rickson sets his interpretation at The Young Vic in the Denmark Mental Institution and, to heighten the experience, the audience is asked to arrive half an hour before the start of the performance for “the pre-show journey”. It’s a regimented “tour” of the establishment, putting on show, among other things, the recreational facilities and chapel. But it’s an unsettling visit: half way round, one of the members of staff is sat writing closely-guarded notes, presumably about the audience (you discover later that he’s Polonius, the company man). And throughout the journey, a recorded voice requests that all electronic equipment is turned off as it could interfere with treatments. What, you find yourself wondering, must those treatments be?
Once the tour is over, the audience has to walk across the stage before taking its seats for some more surprises. Along with its contemporary and challenging setting, the production has female actors in two roles that are usually considered male – Horatio and Rosencrantz – and neither feel out of place. Towards the end of the play, Hayley Carmichael’s loyal Horatio looks so worn down by events that you don’t blame her for wanting to slurp the poisoned wine.
And Rickson has more tricks up his sleeve that produce some superb theatre. Michael Sheen is not only cast as Hamlet, but also as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, which makes a wonderful revelatory moment. And, at the very end, in another revelatory stunner, Fortinbras is also played by Sheen, leaving you with the distinct feeling that, despite all the blood letting, the whole nightmare is about to start all over again.
With its setting and mental illness theme, comparisons with One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest are inevitable but, although one or two scenes, such as when Hamlet is force-fed medication, are reminiscent of the film, such an analogy doesn’t hold water. And while the interpretation works well in the main, there is one glaring inconsistency: if, as is implied, only Hamlet can see and hear the ghost of his father because it’s all part of his own madness – schizophrenia, even – how is it that the characters at the start of the play also see the ghost?
The stark institutional staging, complete with sirens and flashing lights, is remarkably flexible and creates some excellent moments, including Claudius’ supposed private words in his office being broadcast over the loudspeaker. The production also benefits from the intimacy of The Young Vic: the seating is almost in the round so that, having been absorbed into the institution through the tour, the audience feels – and is – close to the action.
This is such a good piece of ensemble acting that it’s almost unfair to single out individual performances, but it’s Michael Sheen’s play and he is truly brilliant. As his moods swing from wild energy to grief to contemplation, sometimes in the blink of an eye, he is never less than compelling and convincing. I may never see a better Hamlet. James Clyde gives Claudius a Pierce Brosnan/Bryan Ferry smoothness, manipulating and controlling everybody, especially the gullible Gertrude through the drugs she desperately craves. And Vinette Williams’ fragile Ophelia descends into a literally pathetic and moving madness after the death of her father.
Hamlet only has a few more weeks to run, with its final performance on 21 January, so you might be able to get your hands on a ticket. Be warned, however: they are in very short supply and The Young Vic website advises you call the box office to check availability. All I can suggest is that you make that call – and soon!