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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
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.

    Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
    Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

    Stolen youth

    Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
    Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

    Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

    He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
    Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

    Made by Versace, designed by her children

    Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
    Anyone for pulled chicken?

    Pulling chicks

    Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
    9 best steam generator irons

    9 best steam generator irons

    To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing