Quite simply, you have to see the Michael Sheen Hamlet.
No, not the Ian Rickson-directed Hamlet, though most of Ian Rickson’s direction is wonderfully intelligent and really provocative and concepts like having Hamlet be the ghost (is he channelling? Is he a split personality? Is this The Two Faces of Hamlet? Joanne Woodward eat your heart out?) really win you over the moment they happen. This is a very creative look at Hamlet the play.
But it has one major flaw: setting the play in a contemporary mental hospital simply does not work and that is right at the heart of the production concept. The idea that Elsinore is dysfunctional and a bit of a mad house is hardly original; and hammering it home by having the audience approach the stage through a “Funny Farm” (if you get there early enough to do the walkabout) simply comes across as forced. When a family encounter is staged as if it were a group therapy session the feeling is not of illuminating the text but of imposing something unnecessary, jarring and heavy-handed. Okay, Elsinore is a mad house, I get it! Just leave in the line (they cut it) about something rotten in the state of Denmark and stage the rest of the play without the persistent reminders you are in a mental institution and people are smart enough to get the idea, I suspect.
Also I really could not see the point of making Horatio and Rosencrantz (or was it Guildenstern?) women. What have I been missing? Is Hamlet in love with them? Are they in love with him? Did they have affairs once upon a time? Why would this not work with a man playing the part? You think no one in all these centuries has noticed possible homoerotic pre-histories?
That said, the cast is good, most of the direction of individual moments and line readings is original and thought-provoking; and, above all, Michael Sheen is simply superlative.
Sheen’s is one of those legendary assumptions of the role. Every moment he is on stage you get the Full Monty – every line is delivered with intelligence, nuance, subtext and wit. There’s not a moment when he flags. He’s the craziest Hamlet in a while but he’s also one of the wittiest, one of the slyest. He’s funny at times; and he’s borderline scary as well. You can feel the barely controlled rage and despair along with a brilliant mind constantly analyzing his situation.
The level of complexity that Sheen brings to the part is energizing and gripping from beginning to end. His personal energy is phenomenal. He never flags. And he doesn’t allow his audience to flag. You are compelled to pay attention at every turn. I looked around the auditorium a few times during this long, long evening and no one was asleep.
This is a Hamlet interpretation to cherish for all time. It’s full of surprises all of which feel organic, growing clearly from a careful and brilliant reading of the text. Sheen’s sheer presence is mesmerizing. His star power is definitely in the same league as Gielgud, Olivier, Burton and David Tennant in the same role, probably also Kean and the legendary actors of the distant past. He conveys Hamlet’s fine mind non-stop, along with his Oedipal anxieties, his overwrought griefs and everything else you want to name. He compels attention and holds the stage with complete authority. This is one of the richest, most complex and most theatrically exciting performances of Hamlet you will ever encounter. And no matter how good you expect it to be, when you get there you will find it’s better. I promise! The performance consists of one seriously apt surprise after another. It’s what great acting is all about.
Every moment he’s on that stage (and believe me, that adds up to a lot of moments) Michael Sheen is totally captivating. The staging of the grave scene and the use of a sand pit for that and the final duel is a terrific image too. And I really liked the surprise final moment. Also, Ophelia for once is completely believable (best one since Jean Simmons?) and when Sheen says he loved her you not only believe it you feel a stab of heartbreak and a sense of what might have been if only his uncle had not killed his father.
Let us not quibble over this: Sheen is gigantic!
And, except for my irritation about the Mental Hospital Setting, Ian Rickson’s direction, blocking and engagement with the text are bright, creative and provocative. It is a pity about the mental hospital aspect. But in context that is but a pinprick.
This Hamlet and Crazy for You (see elsewhere) are the two shows in London right now that I believe you would be crazy to miss. I think this Hamlet deserves a West End transfer so that more people can see it; and that both shows should go to Broadway.