The Young Vic Hamlet website prepares the audience with this message:
When coming to see Hamlet, you'll find a new way into the Young Vic. Please arrive at the main box office 30 minutes before start time to experience this different route, which is fully accessible.
You should do this, it's exciting. Also, with regard to the production, the website could just as easily claim:
When coming to see Hamlet, you'll find a new way into Hamlet...you will experience a different route.
This is a different Hamlet. It is fully accessible, but wholly unusual. It is set in a mental asylum/prison. The main set is a circle of institutional chairs. Featuring magic, horror, child's play and dream it has more in common with an adult's therapy session than a traditional West End performance. It feels like One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, Rocky Horror Picture Show and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Totally unconventional, extremely beautiful, soulful, special and strange.
Michael Sheen does what Michael Sheen can, many have described a 'chameleon' actor. Also a fiercely capable and acutely clever actor. He plays Hamlet as a character, with a complete, flawed but developing individuality. Not every Hamlet does this, sometimes we find a great actor wearing their 'nighted colour', their doublet and hose, doing their best with the Herculean text, but ultimately being themselves. The delivery here is crisply clear, but Sheen - his physicality, his voice, his age - is gone. Instead we see a lost, sad, sometimes spiteful and stuck young son. A bit of a dork. Then we learn that within his troubled mind seethes his inheritance - the tremors of his beloved but overbearing dead father, whose death has knocked him reeling out of mental equilibrium. The spirits of Old Hamlet and Young are locked in conflict within his psyche. He must take a stormy voyage of heart and mind to unite them.
This production shows Hamlet to be an unreliable narrator and we are watching only his version of events in Elsinore. He begins the play ready to leave the prison, bags packed, but is forbidden by Gertrude and Claudius. It is noticeable to have an inciting incident which is to stay rather than to go, and appropriate for a journey which ultimately heads only inward, rather than overseas. His mother wears a twirly corseted short white dress, a fairytale virgin girl bride, and Claudius a creepy double breasted purple suit, more a sinister Cluedo figure. The variety of costumes comes up rather Alice In Wonderland, as though a child Hamlet drew them in play therapy, they appear through his eyes, personal, slightly exaggerated - dreamlike.
Hamlet himself strips down his layers both physically and mentally as he rages and runs through the text and the space. The story of a son in grief fighting for mental health. In love with a gorgeous strong Ophelia (played by Vinette Robinson), his love becomes infected with the pestilence of paranoia and fear in Elsinore. Conventional Denmark's landmarks are paralleled in the psychological maze of modern prison Elsinore. The worst threat being England - the Broadmoor of the punishment spectrum. Horatio has the light ethereal quality of a child's imaginary friend, and the grave is a huge sand pit. A child's world of play and imagination where in the end all has to be fought out: desire, fear, possession, disguise, haunting, truth, courage, love and death.
Shakespeare's 'Seven Ages of Man' gives us the vocabulary of Hamlet's humanity. The deaths by poison show us the characters of Elsinore, good and bad, "mewling and puking" in each other's arms - back to sickly children. The duality within Hamlet and his father's ghost alive within him through Sheen's two voices, could double with this description of the Sixth age of man: "His big manly voice / Turning again toward childish treble, pipes. And whistles in his sound".
And then the terrible end, the tragedy of the play, how quickly new life takes over from the old... the stage is left a covered pit, our play and players to rot to "mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."
And then we realise it is the same story - of loss, of love, of self - which will be reborn, to begin again. As the next website should say "A new way into Hamlet..."