Hamlet, Young Vic, London The Westbridge, Bussey Building, Peckham, London Written on the Heart, Swan, Stratford-Upon-Avon

Michael Sheen is a thrilling Hamlet stuck in a mental hospital. It’s a pity his fellow inmates aren’t his equal

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The Independent Culture

Is he really mad, or merely putting on “an antic disposition”?

That is one of the big questions for anyone trying to sound out the Prince of Denmark. In the Young Vic’s eagerly awaited Hamlet – with Michael Sheen directed by Ian Rickson – Denmark is a prison/mental hospital. Wardens patrol; warning buzzers sound; huge, rolling, steel doors prevent break-outs.

King Claudius (James Clyde) is the doctor in charge, a smoothie holding court in the style of a group therapy session, everyone seated in a circle. The line between loonies and staff is weirdly blurred: Sally Dexter’s Gertrude – obviously sleeping with the boss – is a manic flirt in what looks like a nurse’s outfit-cum-straight-jacket. Sheen’s scruffy, sweat-drenched Hamlet grins nervously when it’s his turn to speak – fast-talking with spasmodic hesitations, eyes darting.

He returns to the same chair for his soliloquies – a suicidally depressed “To be or not to be” – as if rehearsing what he’d like to say at the next group session.

Of course, Hamlet famously has The Mousetrap, the play-within-the-play, plumb in the middle. In Rickson’s psychiatric Elsinore, role-play extends beyond that. Michael Gould’s Polonius is a nutter who deludedly acts like a shrink – assessing Hamlet’s lunacy with tape-recorder in hand (presumably encouraged by Claudius). There is no ghost either, just Sheen’s timid prince suddenly spinning out of the darkness, assuming his father’s voice – roaring, bullying, vengeful.

This is rather thrilling, pulled off with fiery brilliance. The trouble is that the supporting cast – except for Gould and Vinette Robinson's devastated Ophelia – aren't great. The asylum concept is sorely strained at points and the production loses steam.

Meanwhile in The Westbridge, by new writer Rachel De-lahay, contemporary south London is bracing itself for riots. The police have been grilling André (Ryan Calais Cameron), a cheeky black teenager. A gang rape has, allegedly, taken place on the Westbridge estate.

Before you know it, bricks are being hurled and shops raided. The surround-sound of smashing glass and sirens is unnerving in Clint Dyer's rough-and-ready premiere being staged – under the Royal Court's Theatre Local banner – in an ex-factory in Peckham Rye. The audience sits in the middle of a long, dilapidated room with raw concrete walls and boarded-up windows, swivelling on old chairs as Dyer's ensemble scurries round an encircling, strip-lit walkway (design by Ultz). This generates an edgy energy, but sometimes you're straining to hear the words.

In terms of topicality, the reverberations are obvious. However, in De-lahay's London SW11, it's inter-racial tensions that prove inflammatory as the rumour spreads that the rape victim was an Asian girl, maybe as young as 14. Latent xenophobia and conflicting ethnic loyalties start blowing apart mixed-raced couples and families.

The piece isn't pessimistic, however. In fact, it veers close to sitcom as Chetna Pandya's Soriya and her boyfriend, Fraser Ayres' Marcus, are obliged to flat-share with her white friend, Georgina, a diet-obsessed model who claims that she can't be the new face of a pizza chain because she's too svelte.

Though De-lahay's dialogue steers too close to TV soap at points, the writer has promise. Many of the characters are mercurially complex, Paul Bhattacharjee playing Soriya's British-Pakistani father with a subtle mix of chauvinism and kind tolerance.

Finally, David Edgar's new RSC play attempts to dramatise the translating of the Bible into English. Written on the Heart does not only explore the contentious issues for the religious factions (reformist versus papist) when compiling the King James Bible of 1611. It also cuts back to the previous century. In 1586, we see puritanical fundamentalists smashing stained-glass windows. In 1536, we eavesdrop on the earlier translator William Tyndale's last night, sentenced to be burned at the stake for heresy, yet refusing to repent his vernacular rendering of the Scriptures. Yet there's a great irony in Written on the Heart. Fundamentally, the playwright cherishes Tyndale's radically democratic drive, and his argument that every lowly ploughboy should have direct access to a simple, clear Bible translation in his mother tongue.

The bad news is that Edgar's play is ridiculously hard to follow. Or am I just a woefully subnormal ploughperson? Granted, none of the dialogue is in Double Dutch (just a few lines in Flemish). But if you've not mugged up on who was who in the theological corridors of power in 1610, you may find yourself labouring to sort out which begowned grey beard is aligned with which clique, and why.

In spite of this, I admire Written on the Heart for grappling with such a knotty, scholarly subject. It casts a well-read and critical eye over the politics of the times, the compromises and the patchwork of previous translations enshrined in the KJB. I learned a lot; saw the wood for the trees eventually. Moreover, Gregory Doran's production, with its darkly glimmering rood screen, includes superb performances from Stephen Boxer as a warm, passionately righteous Tyndale and Oliver Ford Davies as an amusing, publicly mellow yet privately anguished Lancelot Andrewes, the bishop overseeing the Authorised Version and wanting to keep everyone on board.

'Hamlet' (020-7922 2922) to 21 Jan; 'The Westbridge' (020-7565 5000) to 19 Nov at The Bussey Building, Rye Lane, Peckham then at the Royal Court Upstairs, 25 Nov to 23 Dec; 'Written on the Heart' (0844 800 1110) to 10 Mar

Next Week:

Kate Bassett tracks down Robert Lindsay in The Lion in Winter

Theatre Choice

David Grindley's acclaimed revival of the heart-rending trenches drama Journey's End ends its UK tour at Nottingham's Theatre Royal (Tue to Sat). Roadkill is a powerful, site-specific play about sex trafficking, presented under the aegis of the Barbican but bussing the audience out to a faceless house in east London (to 20 Nov).