In a fascinating interview, director Ian Rickson states that
“I don’t want to create a scheme which is neat and makes it easy for people to define what a play is because all great plays occupy a space which is mercurial and complex and deep and strange – like life”.
If that was his intention, he has certainly succeeded. Beginning with a ‘pre-show’ experience, we enter the theatre from a back entrance round the corner, and are guided through what seems to be a recreation of an old-fashioned mental asylum, with staff in vaguely medical uniform, various props and tableaux, notices with quotes from the play such as ‘we must be patient’, and tannoy announcements exhorting us to ‘please switch off all electronic equipment as it interferes with treatments’. A nice touch and a sign that at least one theatre is trying to address the mobile phone problem with imagination.
By the time we enter the auditorium, the mood has been set, and a sense of uncertainty and fear has been planted. The pitch blackness which begins the play and the clever use of institutional sounds and lighting all adds to the atmosphere.
We see ‘Claudius’ the ‘King’ apparently holding court as chief consultant, giving Laertes his discharge papers, whilst Hamlet, bags packed ready to leave, is prevailed upon by his pill-popping mother to stay. After some mind-bending attempts to comprehend how the text could possibly support this scenario, we finally gave up and found ourselves in a strange meditative state, able to enjoy the incredibly rich poetry and drama of Shakespeare’s words with heightened awareness.
To call Michael Sheen’s performance a ‘tour de force’ is a gross understatement. Sheen has the rare ability to generate a huge amount of energy without losing any of the subtlety of his interpretation, or the connection with his audience. We get a taste of what is to come when he plays both Hamlet and the Ghost in the opening scenes, literally switching from bone-weakening terror to rage in seconds. But there is no show-boating here. Hamlet as a play is famous for containing a proliferation of well-known phrases and quotations, and yet, we really feel as if they are occurring to him for the first time. The philosophising is not just intellectual musing, but a real emotional journey, culminating in the graveyard scene where the reality of death is palpable, and the jokes uncomfortable rather than flippant. Never has introspection been so thrilling.
Amongst the supporting cast Sally Dexter as Gertrude, and Vinette Robinson as Ophelia both stand out as strong female characters, with James Clyde making an impressive Claudius, combining the unctuous tyranny of the consultant with an underlying desperation as he loses control. However, it is the character of Polonius who is a real revelation in this production. As played by Michael Gould, he seems to be a Doctor or Psychiatrist, accompanied at all times by a dictaphone which he whips out whenever he senses that Hamlet is going to say something significant. In this context, he is a much more rounded character who is genuinely sympathetic, and whose relationship with Hamlet goes deeper than simply being the butt of his jokes, and this gives his accidental killing greater emotional impact.
The setting allowed for some original and illuminating moments. Hamlet repeats the phrase ‘Except my life’ three times – here it is in order for Polonius to catch the words on his dictaphone. Claudius makes his ‘confession’ in a sound-proof booth at the back of the stage, the speech only becoming audible over the hospital intercom thanks to some clever switch-flipping by Hamlet. The way that characters are ‘processed’ by security heightens the sense of Elsinore as a dysfunctional ‘state’.
Incredibly, this is Ian Rickson’s first attempt at Shakespeare. His unconventional perspective is very welcome.