Star rating – 8/10
There have been a lot of great Danes (pardon the pun) lately, the most notable version of Hamlet being performed at the National Theatre, with Rory Kinnear giving a terrific performance in the title role. But this complex play is more than capable of standing up to many different interpretations, and so there is enough room on the proverbial stage for the mesmeric, chameleon like Michael Sheen to try his hand at the role.
The Young Vic’s version from director Ian Rickson is very different – it is bold, jagged and challenging. The audience enter via a back stage tour through locked corridors and CCTV cameras giving an eerie feel, and it is not initially clear what sort of world you are entering. It soon becomes apparent that this play is set in a high security psychiatric hospital, and this Broadmoor-like backdrop seems to be a brave and brilliant masterstroke for the first half of the play. Full marks must go to designer Jeremy Herbert for transforming the Young Vic beyond recognition to achieve this.
And the cast, led by the magnificently manic Sheen are terrific. Sheen is simply terrific. He rages and rants and seethes as the injustice of what has happened to his father the King becomes apparent. His performance is epic, and it might seem picky to mention it, but getting him to also play the part of his father’s ghost at the start of the play, and also the new King Fortinbras at its end seems a bit muddled. It makes him seem a bit more schizophrenic that is usual for Hamlet, and muddies the dramatic waters a bit.
Ophelia is played with haunting tragedy yet great gusto by Vinette Robinson. The fight scene between herself and Hamlet is scarily authentic, and her descent into madness is very convincing. James Clyde as Claudius plays the new King come manager of the secure institution terrifically, even if this version does not make him seem quite as evil as the Bard intended. Sally Dexter does as much with the unsatisfying and to be honest pretty marginal role of his new wife Gertrude, also here an inmate, as well as she can. Hayley Carmichael seems a strange choice to play Horatio – not normally a part associated with a woman – but supports her friend Hamlet well. Michael Gould is great as Polonius, wringing some humour from the dark lines he utters in a novel way. Another little gripe is that Benedict Wong’s accent is quite difficult to understand as Laertes, which is a bit of a weakness.
The novel institutional setting is perfect in the first half, but after the interval it seems to direct the course of the action, rather than serving as its backdrop. And it all goes a bit bonkers near the end – not a problem if it is really Broadmoor, but you have to keep remembering that this is the court of Elsinore in Denmark – and the staging overtakes the action a little which is a shame.
But nothing can take away from the brilliance of Michael Sheen’s performance here. He is a gifted and mesmerising actor who wrings every ounce of passion and tragedy from the role. It is a real privilege to witness him delivering his craft at such close quarters.