The run of Hamlet at the Young Vic theatre earlier this year has been widely condemned by critics, some of whom were as cruel as to announce that ‘Michael Sheen could be right up there among the great Hamlets but director Ian Rickson’s gimmicky production is a disaster’ (Charles Spencer, The Telegraph) and that ‘I have never left a production of Hamlet feeling as irritated and cheated’. In fact, all that reviewers seem able to agree on is that it was a horrible idea but that Michael Sheen was brilliant, a compliment for him at least. I would argue that not only was Michael Sheen brilliant but the play’s poor reviews were completely unjustified. It was new, it was innovative and it took Shakespeare’s Hamlet further into the realm of horror and madness than ever before.
Director Ian Rickson sets his version of Hamlet in an insane asylum which the audience enters on coming into the theatre. You are led through the secure psychiatric centre with working electronic gates and doors, flashing lights, alarms, desks and orderlies asking you to turn off your mobile phones so as not to interfere with the medical equipment. This makes it an unusually interactive experience for an audience who has not yet seen any of the play.
The medical theme runs throughout the play, all the characters in the play are either psychiatrist or patient. Hamlet a visitor of his mother at the asylum run by Claudius is soon sat down by Polonius the psychiatrist in a group therapy session. Drugs are regularly dispensed and it seems far more that Hamlet really might have gone mad rather than putting on ‘an antic disposition’, an idea solidified by the appearance of the ghost, also played by Michael Sheen. Hamlet does not see his father, he is his father, the haunting appearing more like a possession with Sheen swapping flawlessly from Hamlet’s dialogue to a possessed frothing madman without even having to move on stage.
Rickson also seems determined to play with the minds of the audience as the whole theatre becomes completely dark for the second half of the scene where Hamlet first meets his father’s ghost. The lights are off for a full five minutes where clever sound system throwing of Sheen’s voice makes it sound as if he is stood right next to you in the dark. After a few minutes with prolonged silences it becomes difficult to convince yourself that he is not. Flickering medical lighting and plunges into darkness at several intervals through the play create a chilling experience.
Critics seem to disapprove of Rickson’s concept on the basis that it focuses only on Hamlet’s madness, which of course is supposed to be only acted, and it then misses the original plays subtleties and other themes. Certainly other characters do take a back seat but any reading of the play from one particular angle is going to miss the plays other aspects. The point is that Hamlet is so popular because it has been over four hundred years since it was written and people are still finding new things to say about it and new ways to perform it.
On the whole, setting Hamlet in a mental asylum worked surprisingly well. The language had not changed, Shakespeare’s text was still in use, only in a different setting. Despite my own complaints that it wouldn’t work before going to see the play I was completely convinced by the end. Even the choice of which characters are made into psychiatrists, orderlies, patients or visitors was interesting. Hamlet arrives a visitor but leaves for England strapped to a wheelchair. Polonius and Claudius are psychiatrists but the guards are orderlies. Even gender is not fixed as Rosencrantz and Horatio are women but bizarrely dressed in a masculine style. Then there is Gertrude with no apparent place within the asylum but who plays the whole second half without shoes, often a sign of declining mental health.
The highlight for me though was the end of the play. Not the climactic final scene where everybody dies but the play’s final scene where Fortinbras enters Elsinore. We have just witnessed Hamlet die and be placed in the graves dug in the earth revealed for the second half when the stage is lifted into the air and held ten metres up. The earth is covered by a cloth out of respect for the dead and Fortinbras enters in a black version of the white fencing suit Hamlet has just been wearing for the duel. Fortinbras delivers the play’s final lines with his fencing mask on. The asylum’s lights flicker as he does so, the lights above the audience flash black then Fortinbras is revealed in the light without his mask for two seconds only, the music reaching its full height of intensity. Fortinbras is Hamlet. The lights go off for another three seconds before they all come back on and there is no sign of anyone on stage and you cannot be sure if you saw him at all.
Ian Rickson’s Hamlet was a good play and a good adaptation. As a performance it held the attention of the crowd, prompting them to give a standing ovation at the end of the performance. There were of course a few occasions where the asylum surroundings seemed irrelevant but these were by far outnumbered by scenes that were completely transformed and re-thought. I have never come away with so many new ideas about Hamlet after seeing a performance. It is a shame that this stage production was not filmed and due to the negative critical response it may never be seen again. It excellently showed the aspects of Hamlet that are important in the current age; reality, madness, drugs and surveillance. It was a Hamlet of its age and did not receive the exposure or acclaim it deserved.
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