That this Hamlet is mad, there can be no doubt. Yet at multiple points during Ian Rickson’s resolutely conceptual production, you find yourself wondering whether you too are descending into insanity.
Designer Jeremy Herbert creates an elaborate maze of bleak corridors, closed doors and windowed rooms, through which we make our way into the theatre, catching glimpses of a soulless psychiatric hospital as we go. When we emerge, blinking, into what we gradually realise to be the Young Vic auditorium, the feeling of disorientation and interrogation is inescapable.
Don’t let the influence of choreographer Maxine Doyle fool you, though; Punchdrunk this is not – but in all fairness, it does not profess to be. Rather, as a means for the audience to feel connected to the off-stage world – usually confined only to their imaginations, but here fully tangible with all its sights, sounds and smells – it is a remarkably powerful device. When the metal doors clang shut and characters are bundled off, we know what lies beyond and we know we wouldn’t want to go back there either. The institutional setting creates a sense of unease even before the bristling opening, where sirens and warning lights alert us to abnormal activity before plunging all into blinding darkness.
Triumphing within this bold interpretation, Michael Sheen delivers a fascinating and moving Hamlet. He exudes boyish vulnerability as he clings to his mother or clutches poor Yorick to his chest, yet is capable of both tortured bewilderment and quiet lucidity during his soliloquies. In Rickson’s staging the greatness and regality of the prince is subordinated to his mental state, which does not so much descend into madness as find itself rooted there, uncomfortably, from the outset. So while The Mousetrap is a phallic, Dadaist atrocity, Hamlet’s mania also allows for some powerfully tender moments – in his mother’s chamber he sadly fails to convince even himself that he is “mad in craft”.
Sheen’s delivery of the language is uniquely alive and often surprising, the words seemingly getting snagged on thoughts before issuing forth in a frenzied rush. The unconventional casting of Hayley Carmichael as Horatio and Eileen Walsh as a pitiously love-sick Rosencrantz adds a curious dynamic to Hamlet’s friendships, and offers new poignancy in the questions of loyalty and betrayal. Yet Sheen never quite feels dangerous, even when the anger of the father explodes from the mouth of the son. The institutional setting adds a subliminal level of security which undermines any threat to himself or others, highlighting how the concept frequently threatens to overwhelm the powerful central performance.
Both the familial relationships and politics of Shakespeare’s play are also all but ignored. James Clyde’s Claudius is a sharp-suited shrink, dealing out drugs, advice and shallow concern with scant feeling, and whether he and Sally Dexter’s Gertrude are actually related to Hamlet is not immediately clear. As the dictaphone-touting, amateur analyst Polonius, Michael Gould brilliantly captures the creeping signs of dementia. As Ophelia, Vinette Robinson initially lacks delicacy of emotion or delivery, but her descent into madness is so absolute, so crippling, that illness seemingly replaces grief in this sad demise. Benedict Wong, however, is practically incoherent in his forced anguish as Laertes, and displays such little feeling towards his sister that it borders on animosity. In both ‘families’ the ties that bind are loose and undefined – again, what is real and what is imagined can hardly be distinguished.
Thus Hamlet’s madness seeps into the whole production. By the end you are unable to believe what you see in a world where everything from the permanence of death to the ground beneath your feet, is shifting and unpredictable. Whether we are fellow madmen or mere figments of Hamlet’s warped imagination, it proves impossible to escape Sheen’s gaze of pure haunted hell. Forget everything you think you know about Hamlet and you’ll find magic in this madness.
Hamlet runs at the Young Vic Theatre, London from 28 October 2011 to 21 January 2012. £10 day tickets are available in person from 9.30am on the day of the performance.