The year started for me with the National Hamlet, and since then I’ve seen the Northern Broadsides Hamlet, and the Globe’s touring Hamlet. In contrast to all these productions along comes a very unnerving production with Michael Sheen as Hamlet. The play is set in a psychiatric hospital and the concept works in some places and not as well as others. The production is unnerving in the way it uses space, interprets the text and in its casting. However, I found the experiment fascinating. Having seen a very safe Tempest at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in September, I was really pleased to see a company taking risks and exploring exciting ways of interpreting the text to explore meaning.
At the Young Vic, the audience enters the auditorium through the back of the theatre. We are taken through a labyrinth of corridors and passed back stage rooms which are doctors consulting rooms and other rooms become hospital store rooms. Finally, we reach an office and this takes onto the stage. There’s something very satisfying about being able to walk across a stage to get to a seat, because nornally the stage is out of bounds. Presenting as possible, what is normally forbidden in many ways sets the overall tone of the production.
There are some very nice elements. The large coat covering the coffin becomes the ghost of Hamlet’s father, when Hamlet puts the coat on he becomes the ghost speaking the ghost’s lines. Horatio (Hayley Carmichael) is played by a woman and it isn’t clear whether he is a boy/man/girl. Is s/he like Rosencrantz, also played by a woman(Eileen Walsh),who seems to be an ex lover.
In this production, the dead return to life to become different characters. This is a very effective way of doubling and creates new ways to think about the play. Polonius (Michael Gould) becomes the priest emerging from the grave still displaying the wound on his face where Hamlet stabbed him in the closet scene. There’s an irony that he is overseeing Ophelia’s funeral in this role. Ophelia (Vinette Robinson) untangles herself of her winding-sheet to become Ostric. This an Osric who does not play the hat on off game with Hamlet, an Osric who is very sinister in the way s/he takes control. The most surprising of the transformations is Hamlet who enters from the back of the stage at the end and is now Fortinbras.
There were some excellent performances from the women in this production. Gerturde (Sally Dexter) becomes the abused woman dancing with Hamlet in the play within the play to find herself being pushed around in a macabre nightmare. In her mad scenes, Ophelia is in a wheelchair as if to suggest physical as well as mental illness.
I felt that the enclosed claustrophobic world of the hospital works to some extent, but it is too insular to give the sense of a nation at threat from the actions of a court. A court in a hospital doesn’t work well as an idea and the sense of the family and its heirachy are lost. What the concept does is place the spotlight back onto Hamlet, whilst recent productions have focused on the wider politics of the play. The production asks us to think about whether we think Hamlet is mad throughout the play. Some productions have shown a much more determined man of action after Hamlet has killed Polonius, in this production Hamlet seems to become more frantic and irrational. With a strong supporting cast, this was very much Hamlet’s play.
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