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.