Ian Rickson’s Hamlet begins outside the Young Vic, as the audience is led through the grimy corridors of a psychiatric unit. We pass tiny rooms piled high with pills, patients practising fencing, countless wandering wardens and doctors feverishly taking notes. It’s a stimulating encounter, which places us – oh so briefly - in the shoes of a mad man.
But this atmospheric journey ends as soon as one enters the theatre, which is blanketed in a beige carpet. The detail of the introductory promenade is dropped and, apart from a sectioned-off office, the context feels vague. The air hangs limply, with the kind of dull atmosphere one might find in a forgotten youth club.
This dull, dank atmosphere pervades Rickson’s production. Although this high concept show has created shock waves (is this Hamlet re-imagined as the zany hallucinations of a mad man?) it is actually frustratingly indistinct. If one is going to shift Hamlet into such a contrasting context, then one needs to commit wholeheartedly to such radical re-imaginings. But this adaptation feels like a half-baked concept, which never quite rises to the occasion.
The level of detail just isn’t here and grating inconsistencies emerge. A strong adaptation should bring new meaning to worn-out lines, but Rickson’s show actually renders many lines ridiculous. ‘The Royal bed’, ‘the kingdom contracted in woe’, ‘the war-like state’; all these references point to the awkwardness of the adaptation and, as we flinch, distance us from the production. Maybe, just maybe, if Rickson had really committed to his concept and created a Kingdom out of his psychiatric unit, courtiers out of his patients, then Shakespeare’s language could’ve tingled in an interesting way. But the context is so loose – the roles within it so poorly defined – that lots of the lines just sound silly.
The context also strips previously impressive characters of their power – and, consequently, their standing in the play. Claudius’ role within the institution is never clearly defined, although I imagine he is the head. Perhaps if Rickson had found a way to represent Claudius as a terrifying boss, with a stranglehold on his patients’ sanity, this role might have found some purpose. But other than one brief torture scene, when Claudius injects Hamlet before banishing him to England, this ‘King’ has little power over his subjects – and, more crucially, little hold over Hamlet.
This lack of any real power play, any real danger or fear, consistently undermines the characters. After all – what is Hamlet without a real nemesis? Perhaps more importantly, what is Hamlet in a world unaccustomed to murder and that does not know war? These omissions mean the characters, their languages and their props, fit awkwardly together. When Hamlet lurks outside Claudius’ office, deliberating whether to kill him, he looks downright ridiculous clutching a dagger. I cannot understand why Rickson did not attempt to make the smaller details work within his new environment. Even if Rickson had transformed Hamlet’s sword into a syringe, it might have made a little more sense of the man and the moment.
Michael Sheen is initially awkward, and his earlier monologues feel schizophrenic, as if he is two people talking at once. Perhaps this is meant to feed into the whole Freudian take on things, but the delivery is still distractingly manufactured. Sheen does settle down, though, and eventually finds the most extraordinary spontaneity in his performance. His speeches are peppered with startling pauses, which create the distinct impression that Hamlet is thinking on the spot. Rory Kinnear’s Hamletat the National last year motored along at quite a pace; he was a man with a laser-like mind. But Sheen’s Hamlet is more stuttering and more humble. If only Sheen had been served by a better production, this could have been a thrillingly contemporary performance – for, what could be more modern than a Hamlet who seems to be formulating his ideas in the moment, in our moment?