When the Old Vic last did Hamlet, he was played by Ben Whishaw, aged 23, then fresh out of RADA. Now the Young Vic has Michael Sheen, aged 42. But if each theatre has gone against their own names in casting actors at the other end of the age spectrum for playing the part, it’s inevitably a role that leading young(er) actors want to add to their CVs, and Sheen, who began his career on the London stage but is now based in LA and more often seen on the big screen, is now catching up.
Michael Sheen (Hamlet) and Vinette Robinson (Ophelia) in Hamlet at the Young Vic, London Photo: Simon Annand
Physically, with his boyish frame and mop of curly black hair, he can just about carry off playing a university student at Wittenberg, though he’s probably a mature one. But then perhaps age is of no consequence at all in director Ian Rickson’s concept, which doesn’t so much see Denmark as a prison but some kind of high security hospital for mad people, and Hamlet may be the maddest of them all. When the Ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to him, he plays him himself. And when, after Hamlet dies and Fortinbras’s arrival signals the end of the play, he plays Fortinbras, too. It could all be happening inside his tortured mind.
But then Hamlet’s is not the only noble mind here o’erthrown. Ophelia goes palpably mad, too (so crazy, in fact, that she sings songs newly penned by PJ Harvey), and Claudius and Gertrude are, like Macbeth and Lady M, clearly heading that way as their consciences catch up with them. In this context, it’s an interesting departure that an unusually youthful Polonius (Michael Gould) doesn’t seem like he’s hurtling towards dementia. Others have got there first.
This is Hamlet as re-staged as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with a glassed observation room at the back of the stage, large security gates that keep clanging shut, and flashing red alarm lights punctuating the action. In fact, all of this is spelt out in advance with a pre-show, Punchdrunk-like immersive walk-through backstage areas, where we spy various orderlies and patients. (Punchdrunk’s Maxine Doyle is credited as the show’s choreographer).
There’s a fine line between originality and gimmickry, and Rickson’s staging only occasionally falls at the latter hurdle. Mostly it is very well sustained, full of tension and surprise, and held with galvanising focus by Sheen’s mesmerising Hamlet, with particularly fine support from Vivette Robinson and Sally Dexter as the two women in his life, Ophelia and Gertrude.