What have Hamlet, Tony Blair, H.G. Wells, David Frost, the Emperor Nero, Brian Clough, the White Rabbit and Kenneth Williams got in common?
This is an easy one: they’ve all been played by the flavour of the month actor, Michael Sheen. The Welsh actor has played Tony Blair in three films – The Deal, The Queen and The Special Relationship. He is therefore well qualified to play the mad Hamlet, which opened at The Young Vic in London this week. Having also played the decidedly eccentric Brian Clough and the notoriously crazy Nero clinches it: the play is set in a lunatic asylum.
I have not seen the performance yet but I’m quite surprised at the critics’ astonishment that Elsinor has been transformed into an insane institution. Insanity weaves itself through the fabric of the text. The pressure Ophelia experiences from the men that surround her is far too much for any woman to bear and all it would take on the part of a director would be to highlight that. Hamlet, himself, is tortured by the knowledge that his father has been murdered, but more devastating is that his mother has almost immediately married his murderer. Moreover, Hamlet returns from university to attend his father’s funeral only to discover that he has been disinherited, his father’s murderer having contrived to make himself king.
It’s difficult to ruin a Shakespeare play by interpreting it in the light of twenty-first century preoccupations. The only thing that can ruin it is poor acting. The first night critics, in this case, although having reservations about the lunatic asylum slant, have praised the performances of the actors, especially that of Michael Sheen as Hamlet.
Sheen has clearly studied the role carefully. Think about it. There is the situation that I’ve described. And then there’s the problem of what to do about it. Obviously, he has to avenge his father’s murder, but that’s not in his nature. He’s a scholar, a philosopher, and if we could meet him in different circumstances we would find him a very entertaining and funny companion. The burden his father’s ghost places on him by demanding revenge is intolerable. He snaps. We know that already but the productions highlights that.
One could make a case for intolerable stress on most of the characters in the play, or if not stress, just a natural craziness. Claudius becomes increasingly obsessive, due to his guilt and his fear of Hamlet, until, at the end, he acts in desperation. Polonius is not by any means normal and his son, Laertes is abnormally reckless in his behaviour. The whole text trembles with psychoses.
Perhaps Shakespeare, or de Vere, as it’s fashionable to call him, intended Elsinor to be nothing else than a madhouse. But, of course, we can say that about any of the other convincing interpretations of the text that we have seen over the centuries. And we can also say that in two hundred years from now there will be interpretations of Hamlet in the light of twenty-third century preoccupations undreamt of in our philosophy.