“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”
The Young Vic continues to be allergic to the idea of people just using the main entrance into the auditorium to take their seats: people who have booked for Hamlet have been advised to turn up 30 minutes early in order to take in the ‘pre-show journey’. But whereas with Government Inspector and Beauty Queen of Leenane, it was just being guided a different way within the building, here we are guided out of the theatre and taken round the back entrance to wind our way through the corridors backstage past some rooms which have been dressed up with non-responsive cast members sitting around before reaching the seats, it adds very little to the experience (aside from getting us wet on the way there) and ultimately seems a pointless exercise. The most remarkable thing about this section was that the gym had a massive sign that talked about rules for ‘Excercise’: someone at the Young Vic needs to get their spell-checker switched on.
But to the play, labelled one of the theatrical events of the year as it features the return to the stage of Michael Sheen in what is Jerusalem director Ian Rickson’s Shakespearean debut. And as is often the case with such an oft-performed classic, an interpretation has been imposed upon the material to try and cast it in a different, and newly revelatory way. Once the seating area has been located, the uniformed orderlies, utilitarian grey carpet and circle of plastic chairs hint at what is to be revealed, as a ghostly prologue with Hamlet gazing on his father’s coffin before it is lowered into the ground, leads into the opening scene which takes place as if in a therapy session. For as it turns out, Elsinore is, I think, a mental asylum in the late 1970s and so the play takes on a new perspective on madness. I say new, I mean it borrows heavily from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Through a variety of ways, we come to see everything is happening in Hamlet’s head. Whether through the unambiguous notes of the arresting way in which the ghost is portrayed or the more subtle suggestions, the hints that maybe some of the characters exist only in Hamlet’s mind through some canny doubling and playing with sand, it is clear not everything is quite as it seems. It is an intriguing premise to be sure but one which didn’t really work for me. Too often it felt like square peg round hole syndrome with this conceit having been settled on and the text being wrestled to fit in with it, but more often than not it just didn’t make sense, some ridiculous contrivances necessary which I ultimately found most distracting – the production never felt natural in this respect.
This was further exacerbated by the general sense that Rickson is imposing on Shakespeare rather than remoulding it. Preview issues aside, there’s a deliberate slant on the verse-speaking which was bizarrely stilted and interjected with pauses, robbing the text of both clarity and emotion, lines which should pierce the soul are tossed away. The restrictions of the concept also manifest themselves in Jeremy Herbert’s deliberately bland design which is over-reliant on the (initially) dramatic effect of heavy iron doors sliding shut as the place is thrown into lockdown again, and again: it all feels rather uninspired. By the time the giant sandpit of the mind is revealed, it was too little too late and even then it just didn’t work for me.
I must admit to not being overly impressed by Michael Sheen’s performance. It may have been he suffered under the weight of expectation, but for me he also suffers under the weight of delivering this rather thankless interpretation. He is occasionally very strong, the sweaty desperation and mania comes across well best in a twisted take on The Mousetrap which is effective. But there’s a heavy-handedness at work here too, a desire to shock and confront – both the other characters and the audience – which robs much of the line-reading of any subtlety or poetry. And whether one considers Sheen to be too old or not, the main problem is that the show has not been cast relative to him especially with Sally Dexter – less than 10 years older – who is mis-cast as his mother, not only does she look a similar age, her physical deportment makes her seem even younger. And so their relationship never really convinced, the closet scene in particular felt very rushed, I never got the depth of emotion needed to touch the heart from this Gertrude.
And to be honest, a good deal of the supporting cast left me underwhelmed and in two cases, most disappointed. Michael Gould’s Polonius was a bright light in being one of the few managing to create a convincing characterisation but it was Vinette Robinson’s Ophelia who was the one stand-out, the one performance that brought chills with a truly shocking transformation as she starts her decline. In something of a random coup, PJ Harvey was brought in to compose Ophelia’s songs and they’re very much of the White Chalk era, Robinson clutching an autoharp and distributing pills in place of herbs in an arresting visual that shocked me more than anything Sheen did.
This is likely to be a divisive Hamlet: it split our group of four equally, two for and two against, and the audience also seemed torn, some people ovating, others applauding half-heartedly. I simply could not get past the muddled feeling of the over-riding conceit which for me, robbed the play of its humanity. If all we are watching are the delusions of a madman, then why should we care? The relationships lose their meaning, the epic tragedy scaled right down yet, at the same time the impersonality robs the material of any intimacy. There’s an awful lot of madness on display here, but precious little method.