Review – the “Michael Sheen Hamlet” (or, rather, the Ian Rickson Hamlet) – Young Vic

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Who in the world buys tickets to shows eight months in advance? Well, if you’re like me, you will all the time if you want to buy them when they’re cheap – especially if it’s a show you’re worried will sell out. In this case, there was a hot tip on Twitter that the Young Vic had a great new production of Hamlet, directed by Ian Rickson (of Jerusalem fame) and starring Michael Sheen. A theatrical event, I thought, the sort of thing I did not want to be left out of – so despite not really knowing who Michael Sheen was (I apparently saw him in Frost/Nixon but forgot all about it), I went ahead and bought tickets in March for a show in November. And then waited.

November rolled around at last, and word on the streets was bad. First, 80% of my Twitter theater friends hated it (summary available on the As Yet Unnamed London Theatre Podcast). Second, the length was announced as three hours and twenty minutes. This is a problem, first, because it’s tiring: three hours is about all I can take. It’s also difficult because of the end time. While the Young Vic is one of the easiest theaters for me to get home from, given that my tickets were for a Monday, I was looking at setting myself up for a week of woe as I would be getting in a good half hour after bedtime. (Laugh if you will but if you see a lot of shows, exhaustion can be a real problem; I try to be really careful to schedule longer shows for Fridays and Saturdays.)

Third, the actual reviews, as they came out, were all over the place, but amongst the haters was some stunningly cutting summaries that just killed my desire to go. What was I to do with such mixed opinions? @weez said, “You must settle the controversy by going!.” So, despite the fact I thought an early night might suit me better (and getting the £60 I spent on tickets back seemed also very tempting), there I was last night, rushing in just before showtime and hoping the cold I had didn’t slow me down*.

By this point, it seems like there’s little for me to add to the reportage on this show. It’s set as if it’s in an insane asylum (a trope so original I first saw it in 1982 in an Arizonan “Coriolanus”), which works insofar as it makes the relationship between Hamlet and other characters a bit more fraught – Polonius (Michael Gould) is his psychologist, constantly taping his conversations, while Rosencranz (Eileen Walsh) and Guildenstern (Adeel Akhtar) seem far less greedy puppets sent to monitor Hamlet for pay but, rather, truly concerned friends who are frightened by his mental disintegration. It also enables some fun effects as people “watch” the patient behind the glassed off security zone (particularly painful in Hamlet’s confrontation with Ophelia), and affords some much more reasonable opportunities for people to overhear conversations (though for all of the patients to know they can hear what’s going on in the guard room simply by playing with certain switches stretches the imagination – even more so than what I needed to do to put meaning to Claudius’s garbled words).

But. Seriously. What does it matter if Hamlet is hallucinating the ghost, and seeing Polonius and even Ophelia come to haunt him, when we just care so little about what is happening on stage? Why was it I couldn’t make a connection with any of the characters? Did Sheen speak too fast? Did he fail to show fragility? Did none of the characters actually act like they had a connection with him, or each other, and did it seem, instead, like I was watching paid professionals go through their paces? Seriously, it is wrong for a production of Hamlet to reach an emotional peak when the aged player is reciting the tale of the death of Priam. Painfully, Ophelia’s mad scene was a horror of inappropriateness and unbelievability. Vinette Robinson never seemed to care particularly about Hamlet (or Polonius), so how could she have reached an emotional depth that would have caused her to lose her mind? Yes, she had a nice singing voice, but it was all so forced! As I sat there slowly readjusting my weight in my seat to try to alleviate the numbness in my bum, my soul was escaping from the building. There was some rock and roll, and an interval, and more flickering lights; I had little reveries of happy Hamlets of days gone by. And eventually it was all over. I know I’ll see a Hamlet that blows me away again; but I wish I’d sold of the seats to someone more easily impressed and instead spent the night with good friends at a bar rather than wasting it in this dessicated production.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, Novemeber 14th, 2011. Hamlet continues at the Young Vic through January 21st, 2012. Trust me, the play’s not the thing. However – see * – I did have good company for the show and if I’m honest with myself this is 80% of the reason why I went.)

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2 Responses to “Review – the “Michael Sheen Hamlet” (or, rather, the Ian Rickson Hamlet) – Young Vic”

  1. FeignedMischief Says:

    Like our quest to see all of Ibsen’s work, another quest is to see as much Hamlet performances in my lifetime and try and beat Tim aka @trpw’s record. But after reading your review and the others, I might just skip this one altogether. Curiously, any favorite Hamlet performances?

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