sun 23/10/2016

Hamlet, Young Vic Theatre | Theatre reviews, news & interviews

Hamlet, Young Vic Theatre

Michael Sheen is riveting as the crazed Danish Prince in Ian Rickson's terrifying psychiatric-hospital staging

A suitable case for treatment: Michael Sheen as HamletSimon Annand

First come the strip-lit corridors, the stained breeze blocks, the locked doors; later there are restraints, drugs, needles. The time is out of joint, and we are all imprisoned in a nightmare of confusion, paranoia, guilt and despair. Who are the mad? Who the sane? In Ian Rickson’s thrilling production of Shakespeare’s great tragedy, it’s often frighteningly unclear.

This is the director’s first Shakespearean staging and, electrifyingly, he approaches the text without careful reverence, but with the energy and inventive flair he has habitually brought to new plays. It is a distinctly personal, rather than a political, reading, its focus sharply upon the psychological. The result is a drama that, if it neglects other dimensions of the text, has an arresting immediacy: it is about families, and the way their members can damage and destroy one another; it is about the devastation of acute grief, and the terror of mental instability. It views the world through the wild eyes of the Danish Prince – and when that role is given such a sensational performance by Michael Sheen, the vision it presents is riveting.

There is humour, too, in his cunning, his hair-trigger impatience with those around him; and there is great, moving tenderness

Designed by Jeremy Herbert, the production plunges its audience into its disturbing world before we even take our seats. Walking by dead-eyed orderlies, we file through the bowels of the Young Vic building, past cupboards of pills and hospital signage. Finally, we step through a glass-walled office, between two enormous steel doors, and into what appears to be a grim gymnasium. A forlorn basketball hoop hangs on the wall; plastic chairs are arranged as if for a group therapy session. The air is filled with the sound of static and a faint antiseptic smell. Standing over the coffin of his father, atop which rest an earth-smeared greatcoat and a dagger, is Sheen’s stricken Hamlet. He gathers up the coat, inhales its fragrance – the scent, we imagine, of the dead man. Soon, out of thick darkness, King Hamlet will walk again; yet the lights will flicker back into life to reveal the apparition to be not the deceased monarch, but his crazed son himself.

Nothing here can be relied upon. James Clyde’s oily Claudius, and his worryingly perma-smiling new bride, Sally Dexter’s Gertrude, exert a wobbly control over the secure psychiatric hospital Hamlet inhabits. But what of Michael Gould’s Polonius? Tracking Sheen’s Hamlet armed with a dictaphone, on to which he records his observations of the Prince’s behaviour, he seems to be an insensitive medic. But when he loses his train of thought, Gould looks so heartbreakingly bewildered that the thought occurs: is he, perhaps, not a doctor at all, but a fantasist inmate? 

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