Theatre Review - 'Hamlet'

Posted on: 22 November 2011 by Alexander Hay

Insanity, death, grief and abandonment – the things we most fear - come strongly to the fore in Ian Rickson’s controversial new production of Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet (Young Vic)

Look, just stab him now and save us all a hour or two...Rickson, tackling the Bard’s work for the first time has come up with an interpretation of the play that is strange and disturbing and may not be to everyone’s taste. It is steeped in paranoia and the atmosphere is that of a claustrophobic nightmare.

We are troubled throughout by an awareness of the narrow distinction between reality and illusion. Is everything we witness nor more than Hamlet’s bad dream? Is Hamlet mad or not? What should he do? Whom can he trust? Can he trust himself?

The mood is set even before we venture into the auditorium. We enter through a back door, moving along a succession of bleakly lit passages and as the security gates close behind us, we realise that the setting is a psychiatric hospital.

Inevitably various narrative logistics are tantalisingly unresolved. If Polonius and Claudius are consultants, are Gertrude and Ophelia fellow inmates or figments of Hamlet’s imagination? Is the implication that the theatre itself is a form of hallucination? Indeed the uncertainty is disorientating.

However as the drama gets underway and we get immersed in the Danish Prince’s quest to avenge the murder of his father by his uncle who has usurped the throne and married his mother, this seems to matter less. It could even be a visual manifestation of the rotten state of Denmark.

While I found this version bold and imaginative I think it is only partially successful. The virtually indestructible text speaks for itself. We do not need to be told what to think or have our emotions, channelled in a certain direction. To take a quote from the piece, ‘the play’s the thing' and, however many times you see it, you always find something new and revealing in the text. 

However what distinguishes this production is an electrifying performance by Michael Sheen in the title role. Wild and edgy and dressed like a wandering drudge, initially carrying a battered suitcase, Sheen makes Hamlet a likeable, vulnerable, vivid and volatile figure. 

Persuasive in the soliloguises, he switches with apparent ease between elfin charin to terrifying plunges into anger and despair but remains always immensely moving. Fine support is offered by Sally Dexter, barefoot and dishevelled as Hamlet’s physically voracious mother, Gertrude, while Vinette Robinson, confined to a wheelchair in her madness, makes an affecting Ophelia. James Clyde as Claudius, dressed in a flashy 70s suit, has the appearance of some small time East End crook, while Michael Gould makes an anxious Polonius, and in a gender reversal, Hayley Carmichael is a wistful Horatio.

Runs until January 21.

Box office: 0207 922 2922

Press: 0207 922 2979

By Laurence Green

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Alexander Hay

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