Hamlet (Young Vic)

Posted on November 27, 2011

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The website warned me: “When coming to see Hamlet, you’ll find a new way into the Young Vic. Please arrive at the main box office 30 minutes before start time to experience this different route, which is fully accessible.”  “Oh lord!” was my first reaction, is this meant to be some ‘immersive’ (ie intrusive) experience? Thankfully no, but the backstage corridors of the Young Vic have been reworked as a new entrance which gets you into director Ian Rickson‘s mindset for his take on ‘Hamlet‘.

When this production was announced all I could think of was “ANOTHER Hamlet?” We’ve had David Tennant, Jude Law & Rory Kinnear all in big productions over the last few years for the RSC, Donmar, National…  is there an unspoken rule that the companies all take turns putting one on every year?! And now the Young Vic has gotten in on the action.

Some critics have gone to town tearing this ‘Hamlet’ to pieces and I think it’s unfair

Thankfully, this is very much a ‘Young Vic’ production of ‘Hamlet‘. All the historical & pseudo-classical fixtures are gone, to be replaced by a psychiatric ward. This is the high-concept of the production and has many things going for it, it revives the play in ways and gives a skewed subtext to the action. I enjoyed watching Michael Sheen‘s reactions and takes on the language as the play bends to accomodate this vision. There is something very anti-establishment about giving the text a radical make over, but the test is really if, by being radical you can illuminate the tale from a different angle, or if you’re just being different for the sake of being different.  And here, it is all intellectually & academically interesting, but the results are a bit laboured.

For me the problem was that once you accept the conceit (Hamlet IS mad), the play is robbed of some of its drama. It’s like being told “Bruce Willis is dead” before you see ‘The Sixth Sense’ or (and much more to the point) “Leonardo DiCaprio is a patient” before you watch ‘Shutter Island’. I enjoyed rewatching both those films with the knowledge AFTER the fact, but to be told that BEFORE is the definition of  ‘spoilers’. The play becomes ‘interesting’ but not ‘enlightening’ – if you see what I mean.

Now this is being said as someone who has seen ‘Hamlet‘ in various forms more times than I care to remember, so I walk in with expectations (and that can be the death of many a good production – unmet expectations).

Which all sounds far more damning than it really it. Michael Sheen is pretty bloody brilliant as Hamlet and pulls off some unexpected dual casting very, very well (far better than I imagine most actors doing it). Sally Dexter‘s Gertrude is one of the best I’ve seen (the closet scene is maybe the best of the whole production) and seeing her gleeful jump into position for the curtain call made me giggle after such a heavy night. Vinette Robinson makes one of my least favourite speeches in Shakespeare’s canon (the ‘crazy’ Ophelia speech) enjoyable – and the use of pills instead of flowers was a very nice touch. Michael Gould‘s Polonius is also great to watch.

Again we’re treated to another bewildering example of ‘colour-blind casting’. Is it too much to ask that family members all be of the one ethnic group? Or was this meant to be another example of  ‘madness’? And the gender swapping of some characters (esp Horatio) does not really add anything to the play.

Some critics have gone to town tearing this ‘Hamlet‘ to pieces and I think it’s unfair. I applaud the instinct to push past convention, to try new things with old texts, to push Shakespeare to new limits. The strength of Shakespeare is that his plays can survive this – these are timeless, powerful pieces, not weak and fragile things. Alan Rickson has presented us with a different, interesting take on Hamlet (in fact, had this been at a more ‘fringe’ venue, the critical response would have been much warmer I swear).

Not a triumph, but there is a lot in this ‘Hamlet‘ for theatre lovers. Just don’t expect a barn-storming, definitive take on the Dane.

Rating: Like flicking to a random page of a Karma Sutra and thinking “Let’s give that one a shot”, it may not be 100% satisfying, but at least you’ve put a new spin on it – literally.

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Posted in: Play