“That was creepy,” said my sister, “I’ve been round actual deserted asylums, and that was creepy by comparison.” To enter the Young Vic’s production of Hamlet, we were directed round to the back of the theatre, and in through a back door into a series of narrow passages decked out as an old-fashioned psychiatric hospital. We squeezed past noticeboards with the gym schedule (a lot of fencing practice in this institution…), watched people moving around on a CCTV screen and were ordered to keep moving by an irritated orderly. She was right. You could see the techniques they were using, recognise the little references to lines in the play (a platter of salami and chicken legs for the “funeral baked meats”, etc) and even think it was a rather watered-down version of the immersive theatre experiences staged by outfits like Punchdrunk. But we were still slightly on-tilt as we came out into the auditorium.
This Hamlet is set in a psychiatric hospital, with the hero struggling to deal with the apparent murder of his father by the usurping doctor Claudius, whilst the patients and orderlies alike are bothered by rumours of a giant figure who stalks through the place at night. At the beginning it seems most of this could be explicable – it’s a portrait of a troubled young man who responds to his father’s death by dressing up in his coat and constructing elaborate revenge fantasies. As the show goes on, however, we’re drawn further and further into Hamlet’s world. Places and times get blurred, the floor of the gymnasium opens up to reveal a giant sandpit, and dead people walk accusingly across the stage.
This setting produces a stylistic imperative: here we have the apotheosis of Awkward Shakespeare. I mean that as a good thing. The characters in their various states of turmoil seem incapable of the easy turn-taking which “normal” conversation and verse-speaking both usually require. We’re kept on edge by jerks in the poetic machinery as characters forget the word they want, or speak past each other, or can’t work out where the other person wants them to come in. Or, even more poignantly, a speech comes out like a carefully memorised lesson from someone who’s learnt to say the right thing to doctors and keep their head down. I’ve never seen a Hamlet where the admonition to speak “trippingly on the tongue” has been put in practice more variously or more effectively. The programme boasts voice work by Patsy Rodenburg and special thanks to Cicely Berry, so aside from anything else this show is a masterclass by two giants of Shakespearean voice.
The psychiatric setting also forces – or helps – the production into a particular vision of the play. In some ways this is quite an old-fashioned take, with Hamlet framed as a study of a mind in disintegration. Unlike, for example, David Tennant and Patrick Stewart’s performances at Hamlet and Claudius in Stratford in 2010, where the emphasis on plot and balance between the roles made it feel more like a political thriller. The shifting narrative at the young Vic makes us wonder how much is inside the hero’s head and how much is in the world, but that means everything is focused through our reading of the star. Though what a star. Michael Sheen is absolutely terrific, giving a nuanced and impassioned performance. He is mesmerising every minute he’s on stage.
Nonetheless, this setting of Hamlet asks us to strap ourselves in and follow the prince on his own terms, which flattens some of the other roles. Polonius comes out strongly, with Michael Gould building unexpected pathos and sympathy for the hesitant, eager-to-please courtier. But Benedict Wong’s Laertes is relegated to a foil1 who appears shoutily now and then when needed. Most botheringly, we only get Hamlet’s view of Ophelia and Gertrude. Vinette Robinson’s intense performance doesn’t get to do more than evoke pity for the hero’s castoff girlfriend, whilst Sally Dexter’s queen is kept obedient by a prescription drug habit which Claudius feeds. This take on Gertrude in particular is letting Hamlet have his own way too much: his mother’s troubling sexuality and agency is safely coded into an addiction which explains away the actions her son doesn’t like, instead of facing us with a mature woman who makes conscious choices. That said, this is a frightening and engrossing production, and should be seen!
1 Thank you, thank you. I’m here all week. Tip your subeditor.