There have been many Hamlets recently, several of them outstanding. We had David Tennant’s vividly intelligent, grief-torn prince: we had Rory Kinnear, a decent man trapped in a slippery world of surveillance. Do we need another? The answer, in Ian Rickson’s new staging with Michael Sheen in the lead, is, emphatically, yes. In fact, it is perhaps because those subtle productions are fresh in the memory that Rickson can go for broke, giving us an extreme reading that will certainly alienate some audience members, but that has a terrifying freshness to it. It’s a reading that pays a big price – we lose, most crucially, the significant political dimension of Shakespeare’s play – but it draws us into Hamlet’s experience in a hair-raising way.
Uncertainty runs through the play like a spine. Is Hamlet mad or not? What should he do? Whom can he trust? Can he trust himself? He is a man struggling with all the misfortunes we most fear: insanity, death, grief, abandonment. Rickson takes this uncertainty and makes it central to his production. It is not clear what level of reality we are experiencing.
Denmark appears here to be, if not a prison, as Hamlet describes it, at least a secure psychiatric institution. We enter through a back door, shuffling along a succession of bleakly lit passages to arrive in a communal arena with secure doors and functional grey carpet tiles (Jeremy Herbert’s design). From then on we are never certain exactly where we are. Is this a psychiatric hospital, with the patients acting out the drama? Is this Elsinore as Hamlet experiences it, seen through his “mind’s eye”? The uncertainty is disorientating.
It’s never clear here who is patient and who is physician. James Clyde’s Claudius appears to be the consultant, in charge of therapy. But we see both him, in his flashy 1970s suit, and Sally Dexter’s Gertrude, barefoot and dishevelled, as if through Hamlet’s eyes. Michael Gould’s solicitous Polonius appears to be a clinician, but could be an inmate.
At the centre is Sheen’s magnetic Hamlet: likeable, vulnerable, vivid and volatile. At the outset, he sits with his luggage, smiling patiently, as he anticipates departure. That escape route declined, he begins to unravel, taking us with him through his flat depression, lucid reasoning, profound insights and sudden terrifying plunges into despair.
He begins his “to be or not to be” soliloquy almost jauntily, as if making light of the question, but then draws us with him through the turmoil of his thoughts. He beats at his forehead to stop himself from thinking. The spirit of his father appears to possess him, producing a wild switch in personality. It’s an immensely moving performance, complemented by Vinette Robinson as Ophelia, who, lost in her own grief, becomes heartbreaking.
As with any highly conceptual staging, the play struggles inside the straitjacket in places. The greater political significance of the rotten state of Denmark disappears; the other characters’ journeys get submerged; some decisions are mystifying; the verse-speaking can be odd. But this electrifying, eerie production plunges us into a nightmare that feels all too real.