Review – Hamlet, Young Vic

With Hamlet it’s all about Hamlet. It’s the David Tennant Hamlet, or the Jude Law Hamlet, or the Rory Kinnear Hamlet or the Mel Gibson Hamlet. Claudius gets a few good lines, and some young actress gets to act a bit mental and some not so young actress gets to act a bit weird and pervy – but basically the rest of the cast are all scenery against which a solo performance is given.

Poor old Michael Sheen then, because Michael Sheen’s Hamlet doesn’t feel like Michael Sheen’s Hamlet at all – it’s the Young Vic’s Hamlet.

It’s not that Sheen isn’t good. Far from it. He spits and sweats his way through the lines impressively. He might lack the energy of Tennant, the melancholy grumps of Kinnear and the cardigans of Law, but this is an extremely accomplished performance. Earnest is probably the adjective I’d attach to him most. But enough about him, let’s talk about the theatre…

So the Young Vic – as always – looks completely unrecognisable from any time I’ve been there previously. The entrance feels all a bit punchdrunk – long clinical corridors with vaguely indecipherable paraphernalia scattered around – and my constant companion, who is usually game for theatre but has an abiding hatred of audience participation, was scanning for the exits. But never fear: eventually we found our way into something resembling a theatre with a large but surprisingly intimate thrust stage.

The concept behind this production of Hamlet is that it is set in a mental institution. Claudius is the Chief Psychiatrist, Polonius and the various guards are the warders and everyone else is presumably an inmate.  It never quite stacks up (if my psychiatrist insisted I call him the king and brought his wife to work with him the whole time I might have a few issues) but there is enough there to make an interesting aesthetic and forms a nice play on the old debate over “antic disposition” vs actually properly crazy.

Photo: Simon Annand
The performance really comes into its own in the second half when (I really want to spoil it but I won’t) the full scope of the Young Vic is revealed, making for one of the most violent and interesting final scenes of Hamlet I’ve ever seen. The final few minutes don’t really make sense (why is Fortinbras digging a mass grave in a mental hospital? why is he wearing a hockey mask?) but it does look very, very cool. The final twist is (while completely incoherent) at least unusual.

Overall, this is an interesting production. The cast are all solid and Sheen is very good indeed, but it is the building which is the star. The minimal set is evocative and the wonderful lighting design is impressive, particularly (and this is going to sound like ironic praise for a lighting designer) how dark it is at some points. It’s extremely rare that you get pitch darkness in a theatre but here it is incredibly affecting when not even the emergency exit lights are glowing. I mean in a fire we’d have been fucked but top marks for theatricality.

(If you’re expecting Martin Sheen, you’re going to be disappointed. I didn’t make that mistake, of course. Just that someone else might have.)