It’s every Hamlet’s worst nightmare. In the hush just before “To be, or not to be,” a cellphone rings. People tut and roll their eyes. The dramatic tension drains away like dishwater through a plughole.
At the Young Vic theater in London, Michael Sheen (“Frost/Nixon,” “The Queen”) clawed back his ground. He stared icily at the audience member, who rummaged in his bag until the offending object was turned off. Sheen carried on staring, ratcheting up the tension again. Then he turned, and launched into the most famous question in the English language. It was classy.
That’s more than can be said for Ian Rickson’s production. He sets the action in a secure mental asylum in the 1970s, and begins with some immersive theater. To reach the auditorium, the audience shuffles through a long corridor of strip lights, medication cupboards, security alarms and similar asylum paraphernalia.
Funnily enough, it looks and feels just like an audience shuffling through a corridor.
Claudius (James Clyde) is the new head of the institution, replacing Hamlet’s father who has just died. Polonius (Michael Gould) is one of his subordinates. They sit on cheap stacking chairs, drinking tea and holding clipboards as if at a committee meeting, while discussing the state of Denmark.
Fear of War
They’re worried about violent young Fortinbras coming to make war on them. What do they think he wants, I wonder? A new prescription pad? Some second-hand filing cabinets?
Sheen recovered from the irritation of a ringing phone, and turned it to his advantage. The production doesn’t manage the same trick, and the bathos of hearing about a powerful king while seeing a petty official is too great. The symbolism of Elsinore as a madhouse -- a reductive metaphor to begin with -- never takes flight. Nothing important feels at stake.
That doesn’t prevent Sheen from giving a powerhouse performance. At first, he hides the pain of his father’s death under tight passive-aggressive smiles. He’s self-protective, controlled, and shirks from being patted. “I know not ‘seems,’” he explains with touchy restraint to his mother.
In his first soliloquy “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt” he gasps for air, beats his brow, hurries phrases into each other. It’s a meaty portrayal of a soul in torment.
Sheen’s emotional clarity is sharp too, and thoughts and feelings appear plainly etched on his face and in his posture.
A great Hamlet doesn’t necessarily make a great “Hamlet,” and Sheen’s performance feels like a jewel without a setting. While individual moments have zing, there’s not enough sense of a larger journey from adolescent angst to acceptance. The directorial architecture is missing, and some ensemble scenes meander without focus.
There are some lively individual touches. Sheen also performs the violent Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, and he uses some of the vocal inflections of Laurence Olivier in those scenes. As well as indicating Hamlet’s own mental instability, it wittily suggests a younger performer in Oedipal conflict with a great father-figure of actors.
There are more striking ideas. Ophelia (a fine Vinette Robinson) dishes out pills instead of herbs in her mad scene. The actor playing Polonius doubles as the priest over Ophelia’s coffin. He doesn’t change his costume or wipe the blood from his murdered body, and it’s as if Hamlet’s guilty conscience is suddenly externalized.
Polonius as Manager
There are some comical moments too. Polonius is the kind of plodding, precise manager who records meetings on a Dictaphone. He’s sent to quiz Hamlet and ascertain whether he is mad. He quietly delivers theatrical asides like “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” and “How pregnant sometimes his replies are!” into his little recording machine, as if to be typed up later in his report.
Such moments don’t add up to a uniformly thrilling whole, and at three and a half hours it still feels like a few more snips could have been made to the text. A hit, a palpable hit? Not quite. Rating: **.
“Hamlet” is at the Young Vic through Jan. 21, 2012. Information: http://www.youngvic.org or +44-20-7922-2922.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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