Young Vic Theatre, London
12 November 2011, matinee
Directed by Ian Rickson
With Michael Sheen as Hamlet
You’re asked to turn up half an hour early for “The Journey”. They lead the audience round to the back of the Young Vic theatre and you’re led through corridors which appear to be the secure wing of a mental hospital. You see the chapel, the drugs cabinet, a small gym with two of the cast working out around a gym horse, the trays of cold sausages rolls (the funeral baked meats), the doctors’ office doors. Various cast members are watching you go through, either as orderlies or inmates. Then you emerge into a brightly lit reception area (which will be the inner stage of the set) then out onto the stage, which is dressed as a large gym, to find your seat. A couple in front of us were amazed at the novelty. They’d never seen anything like it. Sheltered lives. It was simply the walk through leading along to any Disney ride. With the painted walls and metal cages around stuff, we decided it was the Star Tours ride walk-through.
We had high expectations. Ian Rickson also directed Jerusalem, currently playing in the West End, one of the best plays I’ve seen in my life. Karen and I have been writing together for decades, and we’ve never disagreed on a production so much. We got to the interval, and I felt ninety-five minutes had flown by. I thought it was a brilliant Hamlet. Karen thought it the worst production concept she’d ever seen (no problem with Sheen’s acting). That’s extreme polarisation. The Daily Telegraph review agrees with Karen.
Charles Spencer said: I have never left a production of Hamlet feeling as irritated and cheated as I was by Ian Rickson’s mindlessly modish staging starring Michael Sheen at the Young Vic. I have seen duller and worse acted Hamlets, but none in which a director seemed so implacably and egotistically intent on twisting the play to his own dubious ends.
We saw this review afterwards. Her reaction is I couldn’t agree more.
This is Hamlet Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest according to some observers. I thought it owed far more to Martin Scorsese’s movie Shutter Island featuring Leonardo Di Caprio in its mental hospital secure wing location, and its sense of what’s real and what’s not, and the tricky twists fit that too. Last year’s National Theatre version, with Rory Kinnear, was Hamlet as West Wing. The political Hamlet. This production is just a year later, in a theatre a few hundred yards away from the National Theatre. They have gone for the opposite in every way.
Michael Sheen with wrist restraints; inner stage and monitor behind him
This is the mad Hamlet. They virtually drop the Fortinbras sub-plot (but not quite …). That was played up to its full in the National production, with none of the usual cuts. Here, the lack of the political dimension detracts from Claudius as King, and he loses lines to cuts of the Fortinbras plot. There’s no doubt: we’re within Hamlet’s crazed vision. Everyone is mad in one way or another. Sheen plays Hamlet and mutates into Hamlet’s father, setting the ghost clearly within his head. Horatio becomes Dame Edna Everage’s sidekick, Madge Allsop, a tiny woman, leeching onto Hamlet’s side, shadowing him. Yes, woman. And they keep references to Horatio as he and him. Horatio has to stand in (or rather ‘kneel in’) as Young Hamlet and listen to the Old Hamlet rant. Christopher Hart in the Sunday Times says the Horatio casting was downright eccentric … not just a distraction but a failure, weakening every scene s/he appears in. He has a point. We thought the leech-like follower would have worked if she’d been mute. But then you’d have needed another Horatio for his lines.
Polonius has the first signs of memory loss … Alzheimers? Dementia? Rosencrantz is also a woman, this time with OCD about being touched. Gertrude craves prescription drugs, which is Claudius’s hold over her. Claudius is Big Nurse … sorry, that’s Ken Kesey … Claudius is the Consultant Psychiatrist in purple three-piece suit with long, slicked-back, jet black-dyed hair. He’s reduced to one dimension too, the evil controller. It’s all located somewhere in the early 70s, with clunky dictaphones, big old open-reel tape recorders, bad suits with flared trousers.Karen added criticism of the charity-shop 70s costumes, which had also irritated her in Pete Postelthwaite’s King Lear.
Whenever you have high-concept Shakespeare, the vision works for the scenes that inspired it. Claudius’s first scene with Hamlet, clipboard and mug of tea in hand running (and manipulating) a counselling group sat in a circle, works perfectly with the lines. Polonius becomes Hamlet’s personal analyst, ineffective and incompetent. For a lot of it, the secure wing works. The orderlies act as the presidential guards did in the NT West Wing version. Everyone is checked into and out of the gym, frisked by the orderlies in the brightly lit office behind glass doors. Alarms sound and red lights flash when doors are opened. Claudius dosing and injecting a forcibly-restrained Hamlet in a wheelchair is great. Then you have to stretch the concept to snapping point. The madness allows all sorts of things to happen. Polonius can crawl into view after his death and stand up as the sexton. More alarmingly, the dead Ophelia can crawl out of her grave in the sandpit and become Osric for the final scene. It’s all madness anyway.
Ah! The sandpit. The central 75% of the stage lifts to reveal a giant sandpit with grave and lots of bones for the gravedigger’s scene. It stays like that to the end, so people can conveniently die in it, thus eliminating Fortinbras’s stage management role (clearing all the dead bodies). On the other hand, once you’ve eliminated that, I’d be inclined to finish with no curtain calls. They got up and took their bows.
Hamlet (Michael Sheen) and Ophelia (Vinette Robinson)
Ophelia’s madness scene is a major plus. She’s in a wheelchair with an autoharp. Rather than the usual ‘make the tune up as you go along’ ditty, they had music composed by P.J. Harvey for her mad song. Instead of healing herbs, she distributes capsules of medicines. The scene (dreadful in the NT version last year) nearly always fails for me due to the appalling script (a rare fault by one W. Shakespeare). This Ophelia made it work, and Vinette Robinson’s performance was outstanding throughout. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern work as a male / female couple, and look great, like Mormons on the march, knocking on every door in the street in their early 70s suits. They contrast totally. He is darkly bearded, curly haired, Middle-Eastern. She is uptight, crop-haired, with the strong Irish accent of the primmer kind of nun. The Telegraph saw this and the casting of Horatio as a wilful gender-blindness. I thought it reflected on Hamlet’s relationship with women. You once did love me from Rosencrantz as she recoils from him changes the meaning totally. Horatio is the acquiescent needy hanger-on. You can’t do a mental hospital version without playing up the Freudian bit, and Gertrude is sexy. Sally Dexter as Gertrude looks about the same age as Michael Sheen. Hamlet blindfolds her in the player’s performance and puts a tube with a penile end in her hand, and waves a penile vacuum cleaner tube at her legs. Oedipus? Schmoedipus! What does it matter as long as the boy loves his mother? as the old Jewish joke goes. OK, sometimes I see what the Telegraph was getting at …
The players entrance, hobbling on with a wheezing elderly player king was good, but the actual play-within-a play is confusing and weak. Not only that, it’s all played to Roy Orbison’s classic Crying and closes the first half. How can the Young Vic credit Wisdom Toothbrushes for a pile of free toothbrushes in the walk through, but fail to credit the composer and performer of a song played in its entirety at a crucial point? Especially as they repeat the ending of Crying as Part Two starts, and while putting popular songs into Shakespeare is fashionable, it’s also borrowing high drama from the song, rather than creating it on stage. That “interval freeze-frame” device really is becoming the obligatory Shakespearean cliché.
The last scene, especially Hamlet’s death, is a minus. The poison hasn’t started to circulate at all as he sits on the edge of the sandpit for his last speech. It’s efficiently done for stage clearance, but anti-climactic. However, the gym setting and proper fencing vests and masks at least explain what swords are doing in the early 70s. The “surprise” ending fails to compensate.
Michael Sheen with Benedict Wong (Laertes) … conveniently in the sand pit
The production has great clarity on the meaning of lines. Modern intonation and pausing to reflect the meaning differently is a given in Shakespeare interpretation, but few take it as far and as thoughtfully as Sheen does. I thought it worked to great effect. The Guardian review by Michael Billington lists examples, but he’s also largely negative, feeling as others that it breaks the rhythm of Shakespeare too much. Sheen does the most dramatic performance of Hamlet’s father’s speech I’ve seen, and there are several points where he explodes in real violent temper, with Ophelia and with Gertrude. It’s a huge, energetic performance. Billington points out how much Hamlet dominates in this interpretation, which reduces the other characters. He says: We’ve all heard of Hamlet without the prince. Rickson virtually gives us the prince without “Hamlet”. I felt that way about the RSC version of Macbeth this year: it was the 19th century actor-manager approach of Henry Irving – Shakespeare as a solo showpiece. But I didn’t feel that way about this Hamlet.
This production split the reviews right down the middle. It was love it (me, The Independent, The BBC Arts Desk, The Times) or hate it (Karen, The Telegraph, The Daily Mail). The Guardian and Sunday Times are in the middle, but highly critical of the tricksy bits. Tellingly, only a handful of people stood up to applaud at the end. In the last two big London productions we saw, Jerusalem and Richard III, it was 90% on their feet. Most of the reviews (rather snottily) point out that this is Rickson’s first excursion into Shakespeare. We had to argue it out for the whole three hour drive home. As a last word (in favour of my view), major productions, the ones that are still talked about years later, invite this kind of polarization.
GRATUITOUS SMOKING NOTE
10 out of 10. None, even though real mental hospital inmates invariably chain smoke to pass the time.
A fair £2, but we would have liked to see some thoughts on the concept, in the way the RSC do.
Hamlet, RSC 2016 Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet, Stratford