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Hamlet

Michael Sheen takes on the title role of Ian Rickson's controversial take on the Bard's classic, set in a psychiatric institution.

By London
Sally Dexter and Michael Sheen
in Hamlet
(© Simon Annand)
Sally Dexter and Michael Sheen
in Hamlet
(© Simon Annand)
Ian Rickson's production of William Shakepeare's, Hamlet, now at the Young Vic, is likely to be divisive. He has chosen to set the play within a secure psychiatric unit. Audience members enter the theatre through a rear entrance and snake through a series of drab institutional corridors peopled by stern orderlies before taking their seats in the auditorium.

As a result, Michael Sheen's performance in the title role becomes very much the focus of the production; everything is filtered through his perceptions. His is a compelling Hamlet, vulnerable yet manic, desperate yet aggressive. He is capable of both great tenderness and unnerving wildness, particularly so in The Mousetrap scene where he does dubious things with the tube of a vacuum cleaner. But he's very much dependent on Rickson's conceptual experiment.

The production brushes aside the play's political themes in favor of exploring Hamlet's mental stability; he is a man undone by grief, and haunted in more ways than one. When he puts on his dead father's military greatcoat he seems to become him, his voice rising to a terrifying roar. There are clear influences of RD Laing here, along with strong echoes of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.

The production plays with the idea of sanity and makes it unclear how much, if any, of what we're seeing can be relied upon, how much of it is part of Hamlet's imagination. The court scenes become group therapy sessions and Claudius (James Clyde) a slick dispenser of medication in a flared suit.

The second half takes us even deeper inside Hamlet's mind. The stage is ingeniously converted into a giant sandpit, both an arena of battle and a mass grave. Of the supporting cast, Vinette Robinson makes a strong Ophelia. Her mental collapse after the death of her father is truly upsetting as she sits hunched and shivering, eyes shining with tears, plucking out sad songs (composed by PJ Harvey) and doling out pills.

Sally Dexter makes an intriguing Gertrude; coquettish and youthful with a weird fixed smile, her performance further blurs the relationship between her Hamlet. Clyde, as Claudius, remains cool and aloof; the only cracks in his smarmy façade come when he believes himself safe behind the glass walls of the observation room.

Yet, by taking the audience so deeply inside Hamlet, by making everything internal and muddying the line between the real and the imagined, the production strangely robs itself of some level of emotional intensity.


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