The Young Vic has been turned into a secure institution for Ian Rickson’s high concept Hamlet, where staff in scrubs body search visitors and keep a watchful eye on those who live there, ready to bring out the restraints when needed.
Our introduction to this murky world comes by way of an interactive journey through the back of the Young Vic, past a chapel, notices about the canteen food, and doctors’ offices. It could be a Soviet asylum during the Cold War, or an abandoned hospital now used for other, more ominous proceedings. Why it’s the home of King Claudius and Queen Gertrude of Denmark is not entirely clear, but still, it makes for a chilling concept and nicely sets up the theme of madness: when you already live in a psychiatric hospital perhaps going crazy is inevitable.
So the usual question – is Hamlet truly mad or just faking it? – seems less ambiguous in Rickson’s production, which begins with Michael Sheen’s Hamlet not just visited by his father’s ghost, but possessed by it. It’s enough to drive anyone round the bend. From then on, through clever use of casting, Hamlet sees ghosts everywhere, the product of an instable mind.
Ophelia’s madness, too, seems inevitable: the wheelchair and medication are whipped out as though everyone had simply been waiting for this moment. Vinette Robinson deals with the difficult scene well, making Ophelia’s downfall seem genuinely upsetting.
Of the rest of the cast, Sally Dexter is a flighty, hippy-like Gertrude, enjoying the passion of her new husband without thinking of the consequences. Claudius (James Clyde), meanwhile, resembles a 1980s small-time car dealer in his purple suit and mullet. What he lacks in gravitas he makes up for in smarminess.
There are some nice surprises in Rickson’s production – such as Hamlet making his mother an integral part of the Players’ drama – but also some queries. The casting of a woman – Eileen Walsh – as Rosencrantz implies a past love affair between her and Hamlet, an interesting spin on the tale. However Hayley Carmichael’s casting as a female Horatio, though perfectly fine, adds little to the story.
Jeremy Herbert’s design is sparse, most of the action being played out on a plain, carpeted floor. The sci-fi thriller atmosphere – I kept thinking of both The Shining and Aliens – is conjured more by Adam Silverman’s lighting and Gareth Fry’s sound. However for the grave digger scene Herbert transforms the stage into a giant sandpit, which then becomes, somewhat incongruously, the setting for the final denouement.
Whatever you think of the concept, it is held together by Sheen, who makes a magnetic Hamlet, giving the words a clarity and meaning that is sometimes lacking in other Hamlets. With his wild curly hair and expressive eyes, he does crazy very well, stopping short of caricature. He also keeps the pace up, making this on the whole an engaging production.