First Night: Hamlet, Young Vic

view gallery VIEW GALLERY
4.00

This Hamlet is one part method, two parts madness.

Last year, Nick Hytner's National Theatre staging of Hamlet presented Elsinore as an East European-like surveillance state, replete with security cameras and bugging devices bent on monitoring the hero's every word and move. Now, Ian Rickson's hotly anticipated production of the play at the Young Vic, with Michael Sheen in the title role, goes for broke on the idea of Elsinore as the secure wing of a psychiatric hospital, with the twist that the drama may mainly be happening in Hamlet's grief-warped mind. Sheen has said that he wants to make the play "difficult and jagged again". He and Rickson have certainly succeeded – though at a price. This claustrophobic conception of the tragedy makes the state of Denmark severely subordinate, as an issue, to the subjective mental state of the protagonist.

You approach the production by walking down creepy, strip-lit institutional corridors with signs marked "Secure Rooms". "Chapel" and "Therapy". The chairs are arranged in encounter-group style on the grey-tile-carpeted floor of Jeremy Herbert's thrust-stage set. Security lights flash; buzzers rasp; steel doors open and close noisily.

James Clyde's Claudius is like a tacky travesty of a heart-throb leading consultant. For a chief doctor, Michael Gould's excellent Polonius has pathological problems with empathy. In a blackly comic touch, he even, without a qualm, delivers his asides about Hamlet's condition ("Though this be madness, yet there is method in't") as clinical notes into a dictaphone with his subject sitting right in front of him.

In a newly invented opening, Sheen's Hamlet is first seen alone with the coffin of his father. He makes off with the muddy military greatcoat and sword that are lying on top of it. Invested with them, he is later transformed into the roaring "perturbed spirit" of his evidently overbearing patriarch.

Nervily ruffling his mop of corkscrew curls, spasms of ecstatic elation and stricken self-doubt chasing each other over those big-eyed elfin features, Sheen has just the right electrically dangerous, mocking intelligence for the part. He swings from an initial edgy concessiveness at court to an extraordinary manic high as, like a lewd music-hall comic, he officiates over a wild Mousetrap that, with its blindfolded Gertrude and phallic Hoover-tube antics, makes the Marat/Sade look like Thoroughly Modern Milly.

The feeling that we are trapped inside the hero's mind intensifies in the second half when the stage becomes a huge sandpit grave and the dead re-emerge in new eerily incongruously dream-like guises, most notably Vinette Robinson's wonderfully intelligent and mortified Ophelia (who dispensed pills rather than herbs) as the effete fencing-master Osric.

The trouble with this strategy is not just that it abolishes any coherent sense of the interplay between Hamlet's consciousness and the objective political reality in Denmark. The supreme exponents of the role of Hamlet make you feel that they are baring a part of their own soul as well as that of the protagonist.

Celebrated for his uncanny portrayals of Frost, Clough, Blair and Williams, Sheen has the largeness of soul and spirit to render himself naked in that way. Because we are quite never sure in this version about the hero's reliability, that intensity of contact with the audience goes faintly missing – which is a paradox in a prodigious production that gives us the Prince without Hamlet.

Great Danes: Some big names have played the prince recently – but who's the best?

David Tennant (directed by Greg Doran for the RSC in 2008): Excelled as Hamlet the prankish provocateur. A lanky livewire with a wry twist to his mouth and mocking brows, he outraged the corrupt court with his confrontational comedy and compulsive mimicry. Even when strapped to a swivel office chair by Claudius's henchmen, he managed to improvise a subversive joke at the expense of his uncle.

Jude Law (directed by Michael Grandage in 2009): He did not impress Michael Coveney in this paper who found him "huskily monotonous", unfunny, and lacking in the "stage acting chops". But there were other critics who, while missing the character's "quicksilver humour," liked the "rare vulnerability and emotional openness" of this modern student prince in his faded jeans and black T-shirt.

Michael Sheen (gives a recklessly brilliant and bravura performance at the Young Vic): The ghost is not an external visitor from Purgatory but a case of demonic possession. Jonathan Pryce's (for Richard Eyre at the Royal Court in 1980) had internalised his father and vomited up his sepulchral. There are wonderful moments where his eyes flicker with an apprehension that he may be enacting the fantasy of a grief-shattered son.

In his disgusting mess of a bedroom, the Hamlet of Rory Kinnear (directed by Nick Hytner for the NT in 2010) didn't even bother to take off his trainers before getting under the sheets and took drags on a cigarette while delivering the "To be or not to be". A student with receding hairline, he beautifully captured the bipolar mood swings of a Prince stripped of a sense of dignity by a paranoiac state.

Verdict There have been more electrifyingly deranged Hamlets (Mark Rylance) and more spiritually searching ones (Simon Russell Beale) but of this quartet, I would choose Tennant for bringing out the dazzling dangerousness of this hero's intelligence and the challenge posed by his mercurial wit.

Paul Taylor

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'