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A CurtainUp London London Review

I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space — were it not that I have bad dreams. — Hamlet
Michael Sheen as Hamlet
(Photo: Simon Annand)
It has been eagerly anticipated. Shakespeare’s most demanding role played by the versatile Welsh actor Michael Sheen at the Young Vic. Ian Rickson is directing.

We are asked to arrive half an hour early and are led into the street round the back of the theatre into an installation piece, recreating the behind the scenes of a psychiatric institution. There is the dispensary with its array of everyone’s medication, the chapel and stencilled notices on faceless institutional walls, leading to the wards and departments. Actors in uniform mindlessly steer polishing machines along the corridor. We seem to be in the 1950s or 60s in the back set for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest rather than Elsinore.

We first see Hamlet, an isolated figure, crouched against a rusty iron door. There is a coffin with a military great coat which Hamlet takes and wraps himself up in. Horatio arrives, a diminutive girl (Hayley Carmichael) and the first ghost scene is held in complete darkness. The part of the ghost seems to be the voice of Sheen and we ask how they will stage the next scene when Hamlet has to speak with the ghost of his father, if they are one and the same person.

To the scene in the court. The person in charge here is the purple suited, consultant psychiatrist, Claudius (James Clyde). He and Laertes (Benedict Wong) and Polonius (Michael Gould) take seats while wild haired Gertrude (Saly Dexter) in bustiere and ribboned petticoats fawns on Claudius but fails to secure a chair.

Michael Sheen is a likeable wide eyed, affecting Hamlet. His speeches are beautifully rendered but we are asked to believe that the ghost is a figment of his troubled imagination. Where can Hamlet’s mad scene go if he is mad already? Claudius dangles Gertrude’s drugs in front of her. Is Gertrude an in patient too and if Claudius has them both already sectioned why does he worry about getting rid of Hamlet? The metaphor doesn’t work. It poses more questions than it answers and worse doesn’t shed light on Hamlet’s character and indecision. And who is Ophelia (Vinette Robinson)? Someone whose father works under the chief psychiatrist who catches madness from the inmates?

The set is a bare floor carpeted with cheap carpet squares and a few plastic chairs. Presumably the budget went on the elaborate 15 minute introductory maze. A floral screen as used in hospital wards is there and yes, you guessed it, this will double as the arras in the bedroom scene.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Eileen Walsh and Adeef Akhtar) arrive and much is made of their exchanging their lace up shoes for white ones fixed with Velcro lest inpatients get hold of the self harming laces. But isn’t Hamlet wearing lace up shoes? Now if we could banish from Denmark this director’s psychiatrickery, we might be able to enjoy the magnificent Michael Sheen’s intelligent and thoughtful performance.

I liked Michael Gould as Polonius. He is a lot younger and less doddery than the usual "good old man." He does however tend to rely on his voice recorder for making clinical notes. There are only three players and the play within the play, The Mousetrap almost fades into insignificance. Hamlet parades with a hand held spotlight which he shines towards Ophelia and Gertrude. At the end of the play a blindfolded Gertrude dances to the Roy Orbison hit "Crying".

Vinette Robinson too is an appealing Ophelia although we cannot get away from the theme when she hands out pills rather than posies in her mad scene. She is brought in, in a wheelchair, visibly and distressingly deranged.

There are other scenes which do not work. Just before the closet scene, Hamlet overhears Claudius in the corridor behind glass doors, on an intercom loudspeaker, a scene where he usually just sees Claudius trying to pray. After killing Polonius Hamlet is relatively unbloodied but on his return his face and hands are completely covered in blood. How? The whole stage impressively lifts high for the graveyard scene revealing the bare earth of Ophelia’s grave. Pip Donaghey as the gravedigger throws earth on Ophelia’s corpse so that we worry that she might be suffocated but she emerges from her grave as the flighty courtier Osric. This leads to the excellent duel scenes peopled by both Ophelia’s Osric and the "ghost" of Polonius, looking a little like Van Gogh after he cut off his ear. We have watched Fortinbras’ expedition on television news footage and there is a final surprise I shall not reveal here.

I longed for Michael Sheen to be able to show his incredible acting talent in a production worthy of him. This is a great Hamlet ruined by a director’s conceit.

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Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Ian Rickson

Starring: Michael Sheen, Michael Gould, Sally Dexter, James Clyde, Hayley Carmichael, Vinette Robinson
With: Adeel Akhtar, Pip Donaghy, Callum Dixon, Benedict Wong, Eileen Walsh, Adam McNamara, Matthew Trevannion
Designed by Jeremy Herbert
Costumes: Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting: Adam Silverman
Sound: Gareth Fry
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Choreography: Maxine Doyle
Fights: Kate Waters
Running time: Three hours 25 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7922 2922
Booking to 21st January 2012 but sold out. Day seats available
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 9th November 2011 performance at The Young Vic, The Cut, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo/Southwark)

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