Thursday, 24 November 2011

Review: Hamlet, as performed at the Young Vic


Warning: there are spoilers in this review, because the Young Vic play is different from the Shakespeare version and I will discuss those differences!

This was the third performance of 'Hamlet' I have seen this year. The first one was at the National Theatre, the second at Shakespeare's Globe and now, last night, at the Young Vic. The reason I want to compare these three is because they were all so different and each had its positives and negatives. I'm assuming most of you know 'Hamlet', but here's a short summary:
Prince Hamlet returns from Wittenberg for his father's funeral, only to find out his mother has already married his uncle. At night the King's ghost comes and tells Hamlet he was killed by the uncle and mother. Hamlet fakes madness to find out the truth, but in the process he looses his love Ophelia and in true Shakespearean style, everyone dies at the end.

I think it is one of Shakespeare's most touching plays, with Hamlet being a beautifully tragic character. He is a typical example of a tragic hero, someone who seems to do all the wrong things from good intentions. If you are familiar with the Greek myths it will remind you of Orestes, I think it is clear Shakespeare was inspired by  that story line.

I will start with the most recent performance: at the Young Vic.  Ian Rickson (director) had so much going for him: a great play, a great stage and a great leading man, Michael Sheen. And I am all for reinterpretation, they did it at the National Theatre as well. I think it shows great skill as a director if you can reinterpret or modernise a play like 'Hamlet', or any Shakespeare play for that matter. It is such a shame however if you cannot explain it properly. If the audience walks away confused then you did something wrong. Rickson had decided to situate the play in a mental institution, which was in itself a good idea. Hamlet's madness seems so genuine at times, and he is, in a way, a lost soul. You entered the theatre through the backdoor and was led through "the institution".  They had clearly spent a lot of thought on how to set the stage and what effect it would have. However, I, having seen and red 'Hamlet' multiple times, found it hard to understand what Rickson wanted exactly. Were all the characters in the mental institution? Were they all in Hamlet's head?

Hamlet is such an amazing character because he is so full of honest pride, love and pain. By saying his father's ghost was simply a figment of his imagination, that he imagined it all, destroys, in my humble opinion, his character. He is one of Shakespeare's noblest hero's and in Rickson's version he was presented as a mad man. Michael Sheen is, of course, an amazing actor and I think he did really well. The script was simply not that overwhelming. Sheen gave it his all and his Hamlet came to live, but there was something missing when he was not on stage. The others were not convincing enough, in my opinion. In both other versions Polonius had me laughing out loud and I welled up at his death. Here, I only felt sorry for Hamlet because it meant he was now a killer. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were not, as the British Theatre Guide says, 'quirkier than ever', they were dry and it seemed a bit forced. Maybe it was due to the strange setting, where Gertrude was a drug addict and Ophelia came back from the grave (she literally got up from the grave) to play a different character, but the play had lost part of its charm for me. 

The Shakespeare's Globe version was completely different. Of course the setting was very different and very classic, but the actors seemed to have so much more fun in their roles! Perhaps that was due to the fact that they were constantly together because they were touring through the country, but they were all so convincing. Almost all of them had double roles but that never confused me and what was the best was that the play had some genuinely fun moments. The Young Vic version was so downcast and melodramatic all the time and I understand this is a tragedy, but Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Hamlet in his madness are funny at times and I think it is important to put this in the play as well because Shakespeare put those in for a reason!

The biggest crime the Young Vic committed, in my opinion, was the ending. Hamlet was dead, in Horatio's arms. Then he is kicked into the grave where everyone else lies by one of Fortinbras' men, who are all masked. As far as I can remember Fortinbras and his men are respectful and amazed at what has happened, not treating them like waste. And then Fortinbras appears, masked as well, (HERE COMES THE SPOILER) and when he takes of his mask it turns out to be Hamlet and then the play ends. I cannot believe they made Fortinbras so disrespectful, because Hamlet bequeaths Denmark to him with his last breath and as far as I can remember Fortinbras is a good character in the play. 

The National Theatre version also had a different setting, but here it worked. Denmark seemed a bit of a police state and Polonius was head of National Security. Rory Kinnear was a great Hamlet, serious but also funny in his fake madness. But Joshua McGuire (2nd picture) was the best. He was witty, tragic and such an energetic actor. Also, the Globe's Ophelia was the best. I truly felt for Jade Anouka's Ophelia, whereas Vinette Robinson (Young Vic) disappointed me. Her songs were strange, her flowers had been changed for pills and she seemed oversexualised in her madness. 

There are many more things I could say and I do not want to seem overly negative of the Young Vic's  performance! Have you seen any of these performances? What did you think?


  1. Thanks for reminding me of how much I love Hamlet. I studied it for A-Level and it had a big impact on me, Hamlet is such a complex character.

    I think I would enjoy the Globe adaptation the best.

  2. Excellent job reviewing these three and for the review of Hamlet as well. Your bookblog.ning friend.