You don’t have to be mad to extemporise here but it helps

Hamlet – Young Vic, Running until 21 January 2012

Ian Rickson’s production of Hamlet at the Young Vic begins with an elaborate entrance through the backstage area, which has been transformed into a passage through a mental hospital. As you wind through narrow corridors, you catch glimpses of action through windows and the pervading sense from the TV screens and telephones on display that we are entering the 1970s.

To be honest all this effort feels a little laboured although it does help to immediately ground the play in its overarching theme: is Hamlet mad?  It is a question that has been raked over many times, be it in productions, literary criticism or psychological analysis. However through Ian Rickson’s radical interpretative staging, it is a question that delivers a revelatory redefinition of how the play can be understood.

The play begins with a striking image; Michael Sheen’s Hamlet appears out of nowhere in long shot, trapped in a solitary light shining upstage. Rickson’s exquisite framing is a feature that runs throughout the play but this first image, with a clear allusion to Carol Reed’s The Third Man is particularly notable. It is a potent reference point, immediately conjuring up thoughts of Vienna; the spiritual home of Freud and the psychology movement. The Third Man itself is indebted to German expressionists of early cinema, such as  Fritz Lang and FW Murnau, who were fascinated by madness and its effect on the human condition.

References abound in this play; the 1970’s institutional setting brings to mind One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and, compared to the recent Hamlets of David Tennant and John Simm, Sheen has an alpha-male muscularity that is redolent of Jack Nicholson without, thankfully, adopting any more of Nicholson’s mannerisms.

The other crucial reference point is the work of RD Laing. In a play that has at its heart the discussion and understanding of madness, Laing’s work has a relevance that underpins the perspective that Rickson takes to the play. At the centre of Laing’s theories is the idea that psychosis is not a biological or psychic response but something that can develop out of socio-cultural situations. This has a direct relevance to the understanding of Hamlet. Hamlet is not ‘mad’ per se but he may have become mad due to the conditions that he has found himself within and the drama of the play may be an attempt to break him of that psychosis.

This reading is reinforced through Laing’s idea that ‘going crazy’ can be the sane response to an insane situation. In this, as in so many other cases, we can infer that Shakespeare touched on the principle a few hundred years before the development of psychology as a science. This may be a stretch but it does appear to reflect Hamlet’s understanding of himself; he wishes to assert his own identity, ‘to thine own self be true’, through his understanding and response to his father’s death. However Hamlet’s ideas conflicts with the response demanded by his ‘uncle-father’ Claudius; Laing would argue that Hamlet is stuck between the persona he has created, the avenger of his father, and the one demanded by parental authority and it is in this bind that the context for Hamlet’s ‘madness’ should be understood.

Click here to read full review

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