Ian Rickson's new Hamlet at the Young Vic contained a lot of firsts for me. It was the first time I've been scared in the ghost scene. Thefirst time I've felt genuine danger in the Players' mouse-trap play. The first time I've believed that Hamlet was a neuron-flick from suicide, not just once but several times. The first time I've given a shit about Ophelia.
It made me realise how much I put up with in other Hamlets. And this has been a glorious decade for the Dane; Simon Russell Beale, Sam West and Rory Kinnear are just three who have hit my solar plexus hard. But I have always assumed that even a fantastic Hamlet necessarily contains moments of slackness and snooze. Who can make every one of those lines matter in such a dense play? Don't we all know that the Ophelia madness stuff is just a bit, well, embarrassing? Isn't Horatio basically a prop? And doesn't all that introspection, now and then, even with the best actors, tip into over-familiar emo whining?
So it's a very rare Hamlet that makes you resent the interval.
Rickson sets his production inside a secure mental institution; a bleak 1970s hellhole complete with stained carpet tiles, guttering strip lights and clanking metal security doors. Burly guards in velcro shoes strip-search newcomers. The court converse on a circle of wipe-clean chairs like a therapy group. Bodies are discreetly slipped into a sandy pit beneath the floor. James Clyde's Kilroy-Silk Claudius, a menacingly smooth supervisor and jailor in his blue three-piece and bouffant hair, smiling slips pills into palms.
But is Claudius really in control? Are the others really the victims? Rickson's conception has divided the press, with many critics finding it gimmicky or reductive. I feared, before I saw it, that I would share their view. In fact, I think they're mad.
Yes, Rickson takes a stance. And boy, does that stance illuminate the play with new urgency. Every mention of madness (and you realise how many there are) shines anew. The sense of human instability, threat and vulnerability animates every moment with an almost unbearable tension and poignancy. The stakes are heaven-high.
But the ambiguity remains. It is uncertain whether Michael Gould's nervy Polonius, armed with a dictaphone yet apt to moments of paralysing confusion, is Claudius's crony or captive. When Hamlet himself transforms into his father's brutal, enraged ghost with the help of a coat, a knife and some seriously good acting, we are unsure whether this is a collective hallucination, a bout of schizophrenia or a piece of genuine demonic possession. We are still not entirely sure whether all of them or none of them or some of them are mad. The context makes us question their insanity as much as accept it, and highlights how ordinary emotion makes nutjobs of us all. This could be a dream; a suggestion; a reality. Whatever it is, it works.
Taking one stance does not destroy the others inherent in the play. All the other possible interpretations of Hamlet are layered behind this production like shadows, as they always are. But what this thoroughly conceived vision does for sure is make every image and every word dagger-sharp and new. It made me realise how bored I am of the humble, white-space, the-verse-makes-the-imagery productions I thought I loved.
Fuck it. Let's be bold.
And Sheen carries it all with heartfelt originality, scrubbing at his corkscrew curls as if he can draw his thoughts to the surface for examination. Manic, he is a brilliantly funny, physically explosive Rik Mayall. Depressive, he is a coiled snake, flicking his tongue to taste the bitterness of the world and staring out from the prison of his consciousness with over-bright, yearning eyes.
This show deserves queues round the block akin to Rickson's other big theatrical statement currently playing in London, Jerusalem. Get in line.
There is a fantastic episode of Radio 4's Great Lives in which Sheen describes the influence of Philip K. Dick on his performance. Well worth a listen. Thanks to the lovely Toby Field, the producer, for pointing me to it.