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The Star's the Thing?

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Michael Sheen isn't the first big 'star' to play Hamlet and nor will he be the last, but is the fashion to cast 'A-list' names in Shakespeare's greatest and most exacting role really a good thing?

If the reviews of Ian Rickson's production at the Young Vic, which opened at the end of last month, are anything to go by, then it's a question that many aren't even bothering to ask any more.

Whilst criticism for Rickson's version of the play seems to have focused on the decision to base it in a secure psychiatric hospital, few have questioned the casting of Sheen - known for his roles in The Damned United and Frost/Nixon, among others - in the lead role.

Before I go on, I must say that I have nothing against him as an actor; in fact, far from it. Sheen is probably one of, if not the brightest performer of his generation, but therein, for me, lies the rub.

The casting of Sheen as Hamlet, or indeed any of the other big names who have filled the Prince's shoes in recent years, such as David Tennant, gives off the suggestion that Hamlet isn't a large enough character in his own right. It's as if the great 'celebrity' of early modern drama doesn't have a sufficient number of alter-egos or angst bottled up inside himself, so requires the added seasoning of a real-life, Hollywood 'personality' to vie for attention as well.

Indeed, much of the promotional bumph for the Young Vic's latest production seems to indicate that this version is little more than a protracted, three hour long 'audience with...'. 'After worldwide acclaim,' we are told, 'Sheen returns to the London stage in one of the most anticipated performances of his career'. Maybe it might be easier, if Sheen is so fascinating in his own right, to let Hamlet just shuffle off his mortal coil and watch Parkinson on loop.

Perhaps I'm labouring the point a little, but the apparent need for celebrity casting implies a deficiency in Shakespeare's work, which just isn't justified. There's a modern, critical obsession when reviewing versions of Hamlet, to compare those who 'take on' the role with others who have gone before them; a kind of 'my Hamlet is bigger, or better, than your Hamlet'. Even the language of commentary which has become synonymous with reviewing this play suggests a need to subjugate or crush Shakespeare's character beneath the personality of the actor themselves. It's one thing for an actor to be praised for making a role their own. It's quite another to concentrate, almost entirely as the fashion at the moment seems to dictate, on compiling lists of 'great' versions of the 'gloomy Dane'.

In a recent interview with The Guardian, Sheen himself said that 'there have been times when I would have loved to be more of a star'. Maybe his role as Hamlet, that great platform for the celebrity which it seems to have become, is the ideal opportunity for Sheen to do just that. That's probably far too cynical a reasoning to explain Sheen's casting in the Young Vic production, but either way, it's small wonder that Hamlet is so extraordinarily pensive; after all, he barely seems to get a look-in these days.

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