19 Michael Sheen

Michael Sheen as Hamlet
Directed by Jeremy Mortimer

At the dawn of the new millennium, the BBC decided to commemorate the occasion with a series of radio productions of Shakespeare's plays. Some were critical of the project since the bard has hardly been ignored by Radio 3 and in the announcement there didn’t seem to be anything to suggest that these would be doing anything too out of the ordinary. When broadcast most were well received, especially since the casting suggested that the producers were looking to attract the young audience seeking accessible productions after the film cycle which ran in the late 90s beginning with Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.

The risk in the inevitable Hamlet was the casting of Michael Sheen who though respected for his stage work had yet to the hit the mainstream and define his career playing real people – Kenneth Williams, Brian Clough and of course Tony Blair. Anyone expecting that distinctive impression offering the famous lines will be disappointed. Sheen here as a much deeper cadence with a Welsh lilt, far more actorly and perhaps slightly mannered.

In his interpretation, Hamlet is already directionless at the opening of the play, apparently going back to college because there’s not much for him in Elsinore. His instability is given purpose by the visitation of the ghost (an understandably bitter, angry presence) the revenge for the bloody deed offering a course of action, almost a career. In carrying out his plan, he’s efficient but flamboyant and very much not mad. There’s a logic to his actions and it's only in the central soliloquy that the fear returns (and oddly this about as Blair as Sheen becomes).

All of which said, I’m not sure Sheen really wins here. His approach to what’s one of the most familiar scripts in drama is to ride over the famous lines, which he should of course, but he also doesn’t seem to be enjoying the language or the poetry. He’s more relaxed in the prose sections, certainly, and when Hamlet is in his best humours. But unlike Simon Russell-Beale, whose audio performance I loved, I found myself unable to empathise with him, or really believe in what he’s saying. I do suspect that he loses a lot of his presence in audio and I'd love to see what he'd do with it on stage. There’s no denying he settles down towards the end – he’s especially good in the gravedigger scene and the ‘Readiness is all is’ is heartbreaking.

Except that by then the rest of the production has begun to drag. This is the full text from the second Quarto and it certainly feels it. It's perhaps too accessible, designed to be as inoffensive as possible so as not to alienate a general and educational audience (it's a co-production with the Open University). At best, the production is doing some interesting things with the private and public face. David Bradley’s delicious Polonius is a different, more vital figure in his office sending Reynaldo to spy on his son than addressing Claudius (Kenneth Cranham) and Gertrude (Juliet Stephenson).

Elsewhere, the producers are largely leaving the interpretation up to the listener, and my taste has always been for directors and actors with a clear agenda, but this doesn't seem to have one. It also can't quite tell how epic it wants to be. Kenneth Cranham spends much of the time regally declaring the text whilst the likes of Stephenson and (the very young sounding Ophelia) Ellie Beaven are enjoying the chance to intimately address the audience and often in the same scene.

The simple soundscape lacks atmosphere and is a touch confused. Inconsistently, in the aforementioned (often cut) Reynaldo scene, typewriters clatter away in the background, yet everything else is clearly taking place in an echoing castle and other characters are transported by horse drawn carriage. Which should be interesting, I suppose, but acts as distractions stopping you from being taken in by the drama. The music is boring too – opening with a bit of plain song then drifting into something akin to electronic lounge music but again without a clear direction. The only truly great moment is when the mime before The Mousetrap is presented mickey mousing on a plonky piano of the kind synonymous with silent film; if only the rest of Mortimer's presentation was that distinctive.


Anonymous said...

I recently purchased this from Audible, and although I am in no way, shape or form an expert on either Hamlet or Shakespeare, I think you're a bit harsh on it. I like Sheen a lot in the part - I think he *does* engender sympathy and gets the audience, or me at least, on side. The only other version of Hamlet I had previously experienced is the Branagh film, and certainly I didn't find him a sympathetic character there. I like Polonius a lot more this time around, too.


Stuart Ian Burns said...

I was a bit wasn't I? As I said in the review, there's no denying that Sheen has *something*; I just think he's dragged down a bit by the production and some of the other performances. I am slowly developing the opinion though that Hamlet's one of those plays that can't work on audio because so much of the empathy with the main character is based on visual markers.

Anonymous said...

Which is an intriguing way to look at it, as Shakespeare of course hardly ever seems to give any kind of stage directions, as far as I am aware. So any such visual interpretation will be almost entirely down to the writer and director... In many ways radio may be the purest way to do it, because the words are all you have, and on radio they're all they can give.

But as I said, I am no expert!


Anonymous said...

*Actor* and director, that should say. Oops!