Abstract and Brief Chronicles; a review of Ian Rickson’s production of Hamlet, as performed at the Young Vic, January 2012
It would be, if I’m honest, far too easy to focus on Michael Sheen’s performance in this staging of Hamlet.
Why would it be too easy? Because, at the risk of invoking a pun, Mr Sheen’s performance cleaned up. He left the worthy efforts of almost everyone else on the stage trailing, forlornly, in his wake.
So let’s look at the production first.
This version of Hamlet is set, controversially, in a secure mental hospital. Some of the more unadventurous critics have looked unfavourably on this setting.
And yet the metaphorical (and indeed literal) parallels between Shakespeare’s Denmark and Ian Rickson’s staging of Hamlet-in-a-mental-institution are littered throughout the original text for all to read, for all to hear in this performance and – in my own case – for all to understand with a refreshed palate.
Here’s what I mean.
You already know that Hamlet is a play with the topic of madness at its focal point, right?
So what could be more logical than transplanting a play which, essentially, hinges on the condition of mental imbalance, from the state of Denmark, to a lunatic asylum?
For as Hamlet himself remarks, ‘Denmark is a prison, in which there are many confines and dungeons’.
Hamlet (Michael Sheen)
Shakespeare’s play is not just *about* madness, however. To say this play is ‘about madness’ conjures up a mental image of a grey, soulless landscape with no cause, no effect and little passion.
Hamlet is all about passion.
The heat and emotional light – and darkness – that the play generates, under Ian Rickson’s direction is, at times, breathtaking. Hamlet also deals with the cause – and effect – of this unfortunate condition.
Shakespeare chooses to focus the play on the madness of love. Or the madness that love is capable of bringing to those who had previously basked in love’s gentle warmth.
So for me, on a number of levels, the lunatic asylum setting worked. And it worked on a number of cunningly-staged levels.
The lead role of Hamlet was played, as mentioned, by Michael Sheen. Michael threw himself, body and soul, in to this role with such convincing effort, that any lesser actor would struggle to keep up with his pace.
And there were lesser actors, and they did struggle. To be fair, if the lead role had been played by anyone other than Michael Sheen, the gap might not have been so noticeable.
The comedy duo of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Eileen Walsh and Adeel Akhtar) fell horribly flat on their faces. Metaphorically speaking.
Whenever Michael Sheen powered his performance in their direction, they were exposed as bumbling half-wits. But not the funny bumbling half-wits, which they should have been. They were just full of cringe.
Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude (Sally Dexter), had a patchy night that ranged from mediocre to strong in parts, whereas the despicably devious Claudius (James Clyde) played his role with style and, dare I say it, with threatening charm. In a smarmy kind of way. And that was a brilliant production fit.
Claudius (James Clyde)
Ophelia (Vinette Robinson) teased out the subject of ‘madness of love’ (which, let’s face it, was one of Shakespeare’s central themes throughout a number of his works: for example, both Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet) with a scary realism.
It is worth nothing that Opheilia’s song was written, for this production, by PJ Harvey. Ophilia’s mental deterioration, caused by the news of the tragic death of her father, was so brilliantly portrayed, that it could have been filmed and introduced in to the final edit of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
And once again, there are more paralells to be found within the play; the comparative onset of madness that both Ophelia and Hamlet experience, upon learning of the death of their respective fathers, is clearly identified.
Polonius (Michael Gould)
A quick word on Polonius (Ophelia’s father). Michael Gould put in a workmanlike performance that quickly hit the ‘above average’ mark.
But a casting twist, in the latter part of the play, where the same actor played another role, enabled the cast to use some highly amusing eye-play amongst themselves, and with the audience.
Speaking of twists, this production finishes with a casting device that I didn’t see coming. The revelation made me – and those around me – gasp in amazement.
Unfortunately, the flattest part of the evening was the casting of Horatio (Hayley Carmichael). I enjoyed Hayley’s performance but, in the face of the almost continuously overpowering stage presence of Michael Sheen, Hayley didn’t have the charisma to make the subtleties of Horatio work as well as they should have.
Maintaining the original dialogue, but introducing a modern setting and hosting the play, effectively, in the round, made Hamlet a very accessible play. Ian Rickson’s production/direction was brilliant, and, although this run has now finished, I hope that it surfaces elsewhere and continues to entertain audiences wherever it goes.
This production is an easy play to score: 9.5/10