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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Young Vic


  Pip Donagh/ Ph: Simon Annand

We have been waiting a long time for Michael Sheen’s Hamlet, but he’s been rather busy in the last few years playing David Frost in Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon and Tony Blair in the same author’s movie, The Queen, not to mention the British football manager Brian Clough in The Damned United and the outrageous comedian Kenneth Williams in a biographical television play called Fantabulosa!
He’s become the go-to actor for quality impersonation of household names, but he’s so good at what he does (except, perhaps, that bumptious academic in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris) that we’ve never lost sight of his abundant talent while wondering when he was going to put it to the service of what used to be called high art.
Sheen has not even played any Shakespeare since his Royal Shakespeare Company debut in 1997, when he delivered a charismatic, boyish Henry V at Stratford-upon-Avon. He never looked like an actor who might go rusty, but you need certain muscles and lungs for Shakespeare, and you need to keep them oiled and exercised.
So the technical proficiency of his performance in Shakespeare’s longest role is more of a surprise, really, than that he should make a thoroughly engaging, bubble-haired Dane. In the intimacy of the Young Vic, he can obliterate any gear changes between verse and prose, declamation and soliloquy, and he does this brilliantly.
He was, when he emerged from drama school, the best Romeo of our day, even though the performance was seen only in Manchester. Soon after, he played a wild-eyed, supremely energetic Peer Gynt in London.
At that point, I confidently identified the most exciting, ferocious new actor in Britain since the appearance of Jonathan Pryce, another Welshman, though not from Port Talbot, the birthplace of Sheen, Anthony Hopkins and Richard Burton.
There’s something in the water, boyo. And the Welsh have the voice, and what they call the “hwyl,” or inbred passion, for great poetry, song and drama. But Sheen is 42 now, and his Hamlet in Ian Rickson’s provocative production is not the blistering tear-away I’d have loved to have seen 20 years ago, but a vindictive, middle-aged prince who sees not only his dead father in his mind’s eye, but the whole play, too. Elsinore’s not a prison but a secure psychiatric ward.
So he’s sort of on the back foot all the way through. He’s cribbed, cabin’d and confined in his uncle’s hospital, though how this relates to a country at war with Norway is never made clear. Rickson’s “concept” is overwhelming and ingenious, but potted with flaws. You spend a lot of the time trying to work out how it all fits in to the play.
The audience arrives through a backstage labyrinth of corridors and examination rooms, where the actors are practising their fencing or checking their schedules, or just huddling. Sheen is discovered, rather like Jude Law was, sullenly sitting alone. He grabs his dead father’s cloak and speaks his ghostly words (as Jonathan Pryce did, more vomitously, in his Royal Court performance).
He is accompanied by a female (why?) Horatio (Hayley Carmichael) and greeted by a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Eileen Walsh – more credible – and Adeel Akhtar) who remove their shoes on arrival. The Players are a sad trio, obviously decimated by cuts to the social welfare programme. James Clyde’s vicious, silken Claudius in a violet suit reports to head office behind a glass screen. Sally Dexter’s voluptuous but flaky Gertrude is far gone on drink or drugs.
How all occasions, and indeed all his imagined fellow patients, do inform against him: Michael Gould’s Polonius, one of the evening’s best performances, is some kind of officious caretaker, while his distraught daughter, touchingly played by Vinette Robinson, doesn’t even have much of a mind left to go out of. Ophelia’s mad song has been set to new music, by PJ Harvey, no less.
Not to be outdone, Sheen’s Hamlet bosses “The Mousetrap” scenes totally, even turning up Roy Orbison’s “Crying” to underline the widowed queen’s false grief. Although Sheen is not a young Hamlet, this is definitely a young person’s Hamlet, full of energy and ideas.
Osric, for instance, emerges from Ophelia’s grave, while Sheen pulls his final trick as Fortinbras in the last moments. The play’s the thing, not just to catch the conscience of a king, but also the literal-mindedness of the audience. In more ways than one, this is Hamlet’s solo show, with a few mad extras.

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