Venue: Young Vic Theatre, London
Runs: 28 October 2011 – 21 January 2012
Directed by Ian Rickson
As the Young Vic’s Hamlet comes to the end of its run, it is fast becoming clear that, despite a somewhat mixed reception, the production will quite possibly go down as one of the most memorable Shakespearean adaptations of recent years. This fame (or infamy, if you like) stems from two key reasons. The first is director Ian Rickson’s radical ‘concept’ for the piece, relocating the royal court of Denmark to a secure mental hospital. The second is the presence of Michael Sheen, that renowned chameleon who, in recent years, has earned acclaim in his skilful portrayals of Brian Clough, David Frost and Tony Blair to name but a few.
It is this central performance that, perhaps inevitably, makes the production feel so fresh. There is a raw, edgy quality to Sheen’s portrayal that permeates seamlessly into the audience. At no point do we feel completely secure with this Hamlet, from his sudden left-turns into black humour, to the moment he transforms into the possessed spirit of his dead father. The latter in particular showcases Sheen’s tremendous ability to create a profound character without appearing to overact. While a final twist (impressive, in arguably the most famous play ever written) perhaps goes a step too far, it does serve to highlight once again that this Hamlet is all about the unexpected.
Despite being slightly spoiled by my internet-assisted curiosity, the production’s “pre-show journey” (as the ticket mysteriously put it), this extensive introduction to the play’s mood and environment is an effective demonstration of claustrophobia and unease. The back rooms of the Young Vic are transformed into asylum corridors, immersing us into a world reminiscent of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest – security doors are buzzed open, stony faced attendants tick off a register as we pass, and a closet full of pills glow ominously in the distance, until we step out into the harsh light of the auditorium.
For all of the criticism aimed at Ian Rickson’s apparent focus on style over substance, the set design isn’t all that obtrusive. Yes, there are some technically impressive moments – the huge metal shutter that slowly cuts out all of the auditorium’s light, or the second half’s raising of the floor, revealing the grave within – but these are only there to complement the narrative, and for much of the play the design is relegated to the background, allowing focus to fall firmly on the cast.
Sheen aside, the performances here are something of a mixed bag. For every success (Michael Gould is a warm and fantastically funny Polonius), there is someone less impressive (Benedict Wong’s Laertes is as one-note as they come). Yet I can’t help but feel that such minor quibbles only add to the piece’s raw quality. The occasional rough edge only boosts the unpredictability that makes this production feel so startlingly fresh. Surely this is an impressive achievement for a play that was first performed over four-hundred years ago.