Led into the back of the reconfigured theater for Ian Rickson’s production of “Hamlet,” audiences are told to switch off mobile electronic equipment because it could interfere with treatment programs. Turning Elsinore into a secure psychiatric wing creates an apposite world for Michael Sheen’s madness in the title role, but the concept is overstated. A more aggressively slashed text could have strengthened the conceit, but Rickson delivers over three hours of Shakespeare. Exhibiting ever-increasing signs of strain, the mismatch finally proves fatal.
Initially, the interpretation is both coherent and cogent. Regardless of whether Hamlet is actually mad or merely putting on the “antic disposition,” he is described, classified and manipulated as a mad person. Placing him in this kind of unit, as realized in immersive, environmental theater fashion by designer Jeremy Herbert, makes complete sense.
Most of the other characters are given roles accordingly. Thus Claudius (a suitably languid and besuited James Clyde) is the smug senior physician, with Polonius (superbly detailed, creepily efficient Michael Gould) as a doctor whose spying on Hamlet is wittily done with a Dictaphone. Minor characters are hospital orderlies, with other sympathetic characters as patients.
Audiences seated in the horseshoe-shaped, thrust space are made to feel as if they are watching a series of cases, all of which are bound up and, as the beginning and end suggest, possibly imagined by Hamlet. At the very opening, he picks up his father’s coat, which lies on top of his coffin and dons it to “become” the ghost.
Sheen, one of Britain’s most mercurial actors, keeps his curly locks damp with sweat and his eyes flashing with sudden anger until Shakespeare’s act five. The venom of his attack, his speed of thought and the suddenness of his gear changes are impressive, but two crucial aspects are missing. His Hamlet displays his grievances, his justifiable self-pity and, most certainly, his rage. Yet because he doesn’t appear to be listening to any of the other actors on the stage, he seems neither vulnerable nor truly moving.
The biggest gain of Rickson’s approach are the mad scenes, notably that of the notoriously underwritten Ophelia (Vinette Robinson). In her final scene, instead of handing out “rosemary for remembrance,” she wildly scatters brightly colored pills and medication. Within a context that already accepts “madness,” her behavior has affecting power.
Prior to that, however, Robinson’s Ophelia seems unfocused and lost, as do several of the other characters who fall victim to the overweening nature of the production.
Rickson made his name coaxing and shaping exquisitely detailed performances from actors in largely naturalistic texts, notably “The Weir” and “Jerusalem.” The most peculiar thing about his first Shakespeare production is how inauthentic it feels, as if, faced with the Bard, he decided to mimic the avant-garde.
All the cliches are here from immersive site-specific design to fluorescent-tube lighting to use of video and groaning soundscape to gender-blind casting, none of which are second nature to him. The effort involved is more noticeable than the achievement.
After three high-profile London Hamlets from helmers Gregory Doran (David Tennant), Michael Grandage (Jude Law) and Nicholas Hytner (Rory Kinnear) in under three years, Rickson evidently felt the need to fashion something unexpected. But the prism through which he has chosen to view the play turns out to be a prison, the pity and the dramatic tension locked out.