Michael Sheen is one of the best actors around and “Hamlet” is one of the best plays around. Sheen playing the Dane should be a great theatrical moment. So, in this production at the Young Vic, what went wrong? Well, Sheen and director Ian Rickson (whose play “Jerusalem” is one of the best I’ve ever seen) aimed to make the play “difficult and jagged again”. They succeed, with emphasis on “difficult”. It’s just a shame they didn’t aim to make it “enjoyable”, “interesting” or “good”.
An old adage claims that if you throw enough mud at a wall some will stick. This seems to be the philosophy behind this over-egged, muddled production. For starters, here Elsinore is not a castle inDenmarkbut a psychiatric institution in which Hamlet is, seemingly, a patient and Claudius in charge. Whilst this might have been a clever psychological interpretation, it just raises issues; why would a troupe of actors do Hamlet’s whim? Why would Hamlet be able to wander around at night ghost hunting, or carry a knife when visiting his mother, or command Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s murders? For an institution, there’s little authority, undermining a play about kingship entirely – after all, if Hamlet is not heir to any throne but just son of an old pen-pusher, so what? Rather than fresh, this is gimmicky to the worst degree, and the dull set, more resembling a rehearsal room than a leading theatre, does little to help.
The company play fast and loose with many other areas. Horatio and Guildenstern are both played by women, and Hamlet’s father’s ghost is played by Hamlet himself; the latter successfully, the former unnecessarily. Minor roles later in the play are represented by dead characters – Polonius and Ophelia rise up needlessly, saving money for more actors. Throughout, it questions how much is real and how much is in the insane Hamlet’s head, but Sheen’s Hamlet is (rightly) too nuanced in his madness for this to work. And totting up the contrivances – Hamlet is constantly monitored yet commits multiple murders, Claudius is just chief psychiatrist yet able to order Hamlet’s assassination in England, Hamlet is the prince of an institution – it’s just confusing. On top of all this, it’s very, very long. And feels it.
The cast is a mixed bag. The audience feels Ophelia’s (Vinette Robinson) every emotion; indeed, her near-perfect performance is marred only by the baffling issue the (rather nice) PJ Harvey songs she sings raises – why would a psychiatric institution own wheelchair-bound zithers? As Gertrude, Sally Dexter is good, but bizarrely for a production so steeped in psychological mumbo-jumbo, the oedipal relationship is hardly there (the bedroom scene isn’t even in a bedroom – I’m no purist, but really!). James Clyde as Claudius and Michael Gould as Polonius, however, commit perhaps the worst theatrical sin – they are one-dimensional and simply boring to watch.
But of course “Hamlet” revolves around the central performance, and the real tragedy is, in the midst of this mess, just how truly superb Michael Sheen is; he deserves better. In the soliloquies, Sheen makes the play feel new. In dialogue, he is almost painfully superior to practically everything around him. Manic yet never too wild, hilarious and heartbreaking, his incendiary performance, out of context, is dynamite, and almost makes the whole over-the-top ballyhoo worthwhile. Fantastic, complex and captivating, he would be a Hamlet to remember, if not for the failings around him.
And finally, after Hamlet’s last swordfight, the tragic and redemptive ending is not enough – ruining any pathos for the sake of being “difficult and jagged”, they cock it up entirely by giving “Hamlet”, that most enduring of plays, a twist ending…
So go as a Michael Sheen fan and you’ll be stunned by his powerful piece of work. But go as a “Hamlet” fan and you’ll be bitterly disappointed at this cluttered, unfulfilling production. 10/10 for Sheen and 10/10 for effort, it’s just not the sum of its parts. With far too many gimmicks and not enough focus on character, somehow Shakespeare’s triumphant play is a messy failure. Next year the Globe is staging an innovative Lithuanian “Hamlet”, and that will still be more comprehensible than this.