So it was with a sense of trepidation that I made my way to the Young Vic, ready to experience the new route into the supposed Psychiatric Unit in which the play had once again been set (although to be honest I thought this was more a cheap gambit to get everyone into their seats on time in the tight Young Vic auditorium). The stage is bare apart from a coffin, and backed by glass panelling leading into an office, NHS chic. The lights drop and in the dark the ghost stalks Elsinore's battlements. However, when the lights are raised again, and even after Hamlet took the stage, one couldn't help being influenced by the sterile, aseptic hospital environment. Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet and Polonius sit around as in group therapy, the King and Polonius doubling as hospital figures of authority. But the play wasn't catching fire and the audience was flat despite strong performances, especially from Michael Sheen as an angry, threatening Hamlet.
But suddenly the Players took the stage and everything changed. They were led by a bearded, bewildered Player King (Pip Donaghy), and a leaping, bawdy Lucianus, lubriciously rubbing a vacuum-cleaner head between his legs. As Hamlet provides an increasingly deranged commentary with megaphone and flashlight, the murder of Gonzago is enacted, Claudius (James Clyde) and Gertrude (Sally Dexter) fled from the stage, the audience suddenly engaged and the play came alive. It seemed to take this scene to break the production from its anchors in the mental hospital and gave it the imaginative freedom it needed.
The second half was superb. Hamlet overhears Claudius’ praying for forgiveness in the office through the intercom. Ophelia (Vinette Robinson) sings to the music of PJ Harvey, unbearably affecting. The heart of the stage is raised to show the gravedigger in a sandpit, which effectively split the stage and prevented Claudius from reaching Gertrude as she sipped from the poisoned chalice.
Michael Sheen captivated throughout. His Hamlet was not some ineffective dreamer but hot-blooded and impulsive - in fact, he was grounded in an angry reality, and couldn’t be further from the psychiatric case predicated by the production’s superstructure. His verse was spoken with lightness and clarity, wringing all the natural rhythms from Shakespeare’s words, and brought freshness and vitality to the great soliloquies.
But whilst Sheen dazzled, the production itself frustrated. There were lots of good ideas (the female Horatio (Hayley Carmichael) and Rozencrantz (Eileen Walsh) added some tender nuances), but the whole lacked coherence. Why, for example, in a production which had generally been trimmed intelligently and focussed on the intimate, had traces of Fortinbras been allowed to remain in order to facilitate a minor coup de théatre at the end? Was this a final confirmation that the play itself had been an outworking of the prince’s damaged phyche? If so, then Rickson might have had the courage of his convictions throughout. As it was, we had a great performance from Sheen, some interesting ideas and a production that held its audience throughout the second half. But as a coherent whole it missed its mark in the end.