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Review Round-up: Rickson's Hamlet Divides Critics

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Ian Rickson's production of Hamlet starring Michael Sheen opened at the Young Vic last night (9 November, previews from 28 October 2011), marking Sheen's first appearance on the London stage since Frost/Nixon back in 2006, and Rickson's Shakespearean directing debut.

Rickson's interpretation of the Shakespeare tragedy - a gender-blind production which is set in a secure psychiatric hospital, and sees the Prince of Denmark played against chief doctor Claudius (James Clyde) - has attracted a mixed response from the critics.

Sheen is joined in the cast by Sally Dexter, Michael Gould, Vinette Robinson, Benedict Wong and Hayley Carmichael. The production continues its run at the Young Vic until 21 January 2012.

Maxwell Cooter

"It's Michael Sheen's Hamlet that makes this the hottest ticket in town and he doesn't disappoint ... There are several strong performances to support Sheen's portrayal. James Clyde's Claudius, a suave Bryan Ferry lookalike, all-powerful psychiatrist alternatively drugs and patronises his patients. Vinette Robinson is a powerful Ophelia, disintegrating completely after her father's death... and Michael Gould fussily obsessive Polonius, with his perpetual Dictaphone were also strong portrayals ... Jeremy Herbert's design... is a superb, eerily accurate depiction of a secure unit. But despite Rickson’s vision and Sheen’s compelling performance, there’s something missing. Just how mad is Hamlet is one of the central questions of the play and by deciding his mental state from the outset loses some of that subtlety ... Someone coming to the play for the first time would probably leave the theatre rather confused. It’s a pity that such quibbles detract from the strength of Sheen’s portrayal. It may not be the most assured production, but the central performance will be remembered for some time to come."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"I have never left a production of Hamlet feeling as irritated and cheated as I was by Ian Rickson’s mindlessly modish staging starring Michael Sheen at the Young Vic. I have seen duller and worse acted Hamlets, but none in which a director seemed so implacably and egotistically intent on twisting the play to his own dubious ends ... In 'gender-blind' casting, both Rosencrantz and Hamlet’s best friend Horatio are played by women, and the words of the Ghost are delivered by Hamlet himself ... It seems like little more than one of Rickson’s tiresome novelties ... It is also hard to accept that Claudius... is both the new king of Denmark and chief shrink at the hospital ... The pity of all this is that Michael Sheen... could be right up there among the great Hamlets. Though often wild and edgy, this charismatic actor delivers the soliloquies with both clarity and depth of feeling ... Vinette Robinson is an affecting Ophelia... but I will draw a veil over several other supporting performances which are embarrassingly inept. The gimmicks keep on coming to the bitter end, and I find it hard to fathom why Rickson, usually such a fine director, has felt the need to meddle so disastrously with this magnificent and usually indestructible play."

Michael Billington

"Ian Rickson... has clearly come armed with a strong concept ... But the acid test of any concept is whether it liberates the play and, for me, this doesn't ... If the play is the Freudian fantasy of a confined patient, it reduces the other characters to elements in his dream ... What you lose, in short, are the play's politics and the idea that the hero's troubles are one aspect of a turbulent society initially on a war footing ... All this puts the focus on Michael Sheen, who is fascinating to watch. He is intelligent, inventive and full of insights ... Sheen also delivers the 'What a piece of work is man' passage with a beautiful consciousness of human potential ... Sally Dexter creates a fine guiltily sensual Gertrude and Vinette Robinson's Ophelia... is truly touching. Michael Gould also lends Polonius the benign concern of the professional analyst. But, for all the palpable thought that has gone into this production, I missed much of the play's primal excitement and found myself echoing Gertrude's plea to Polonius for 'more matter, with less art'."

Paul Taylor

"Sheen has said that he wants to make the play 'difficult and jagged again'. He and Rickson have certainly succeeded – though at a price ... James Clyde's Claudius is like a tacky travesty of a heart-throb leading consultant. For a chief doctor, Michael Gould's excellent Polonius has pathological problems with empathy ... Sheen has just the right electrically dangerous, mocking intelligence for the part ... The dead re-emerge in new eerily incongruously dream-like guises, most notably Vinette Robinson's wonderfully intelligent and mortified Ophelia ... The trouble with this strategy is not just that it abolishes any coherent sense of the interplay between Hamlet's consciousness and the objective political reality in Denmark. The supreme exponents of the role of Hamlet make you feel that they are baring a part of their own soul as well as that of the protagonist ... Sheen has the largeness of soul and spirit to render himself naked in that way. Because we are quite never sure in this version about the hero's reliability, that intensity of contact with the audience goes faintly missing."

Alun Palmer
Daily Mirror

"Michael Sheen’s triumphant take on the Prince of Denmark ratchets up the madness to the point of paranoid schizophrenia and it could all be in his warped, deluded mind ... From a simpering protestation of sanity, Sheen soon shows the monstrous madness and dual personality within ... Sheen spits fire and venom, at first in terrifying darkness, as his true nature is revealed. For once Claudius, the villain of the piece, appears a picture of psychiatric, clinical understanding in comparison ... The visiting troupe of actors, who Hamlet gets to re-enact Claudius’s betrayal to spur him to a confession of guilt, become a form of drama therapy. Sheen’s Hamlet casts the Prince as truly insane, a conniving and vicious psychopath yet with a tenderness crushed beneath. After the plaudits the Welsh actor has received before, this could be his finest moment. And that’s saying something."

Libby Purves
The Times

"Every director seeks a new reading of the puzzle of Hamlet: Ian Rickson finds it in madness. Sheen’s pallid, elfin hypersensitivity and wide animated eyes denote a prince unhinged, lost in inner space. This one is not feigning. The court is a circle of plastic chairs, therapy-group style; Claudius (James Clyde), a smooth patronising doctor addressing them ... It could all be a tiresome directorial conceit, but the brilliant and horrible thing is that it fits. You realise how much this text oozes disturbance: timings out of joint, weariness of life, unbeing, delusion, paranoia, remorse ... Laertes does not say that Ophelia’s madness 'turns all to favour and to prettiness', because Vinette Robinson’s dissonant singing and scattering of psychoactive medications ... is not pretty ... Sheen is unbearably moving as he chokes out the word 'murder', horrified by what he has done to Polonius in his frenzy ... Ian Rickson, whose life-affirming Jerusalem still runs on the other side of the city, has given us a nightmare, brilliant and terrible. "

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"Michael Sheen is a prickly and rewarding Hamlet. And that is enough to make this assertively peculiar production of Shakespeare's most famous tragedy worth seeing. Sheen magnetises attention. Whenever he is on stage he is a vortex of soulfulness. Dynamic in the soliloquies, he is adept at switching between elfin charm, puzzled remoteness, energetic derangement and blistering rage ... There are other attractions: Hamlet's companion Horatio is played with fascinating unorthodoxy by Hayley Carmichael and Sally Dexter is haunting as Hamlet's physically voracious mother Gertrude ... We are troubled throughout by an awareness of the precarious distinction between reality and illusion. Is everything we see no more than Hamlet's bad dream? ... In the end, it is the bravura of Sheen's performance that will live in the memory. His is a dangerous, psychotic Hamlet - yet a tender, vulnerable one. It is an audacious achievement."

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"Pretentious director alert. Hamlet the Dane may be scuppered by madness, but Hamlet the play is here undone by too many look-at-me larks from director Ian Rickson. Poor Michael Sheen. He plays the prince with an absorbing energy which is just about credible until the very last moment, when Mr Rickson introduces the absurd twist of a happy ending ... Once launched, this fine actor gives everything. His Hamlet, with 1970s Kevin Keegan curls, sits meekly in the loony bin. He is quite old, and burly, too, yet modest. He speaks both his lines and those of his father’s ghost, his body torn in all directions ... A charitable soul could just about argue that Mr Rickson explores ideas of mortality. The stronger conclusion might be that he clumsily upstages both his star actor and that man who wrote the play."

- Natalie Generalovich


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