All Ham'let Eve
Jez Butterworth talks the importance of getting a dog for his writing

Michael Sheen's insane Hamlet

Hamlet-web-6aCredits in the Young Vic Hamlet programme include mind-bending illusionist Derren Brown and Mercury Music Prize winner PJ Harvey which gives you a hint of the flavour of this new production. Add in an actor of chameleon-like talents such a Michael Sheen in the eponymous role and you get an inkling this is going to be far from traditional.

And it is. The set is straight out of an institution, drab grey carpet tiles, chairs you only ever see in publicly funded buildings and a bland, functional office through glass at the rear. Staff (or are they inmates?) wear drab grey uniforms and shoes without laces. 

Initial thoughts are of a prison as in 'all Denmark' is one but when Claudius (James Clyde) and Gertrude (Sally Dexter) arrive for the post wedding speech it looks more like a therapy session conducted in a circle of chairs. This is Hamlet not in a prison but in a mental hospital (or is he trapped inside his own head?).

Sheen's Hamlet at first seems bookish and delicate. The first hint that there is more to him than initial impressions suggest come when he confronts his father's ghost. There is no spectural being, Hamlet is either possessed or having some sort of psychotic episode which turns him into an almost demonic, booming-voiced 'perturbed spirit'.

I must confess that at the interval I had a love/hate relationship with this production. Laertes seemed flat and Horatio was subdued to the point of feeling extraneous. I'd spent so much time getting my head around the whole asylum setting it bordered on a distraction.

But Sheen was superb, commanding all his scenes. And the production team certainly succeeded in creating an atmosphere that was at once tense, sinister and slightly claustrophobic with snatches of scenes delivered in darkness, sirens with red flashing lights when lock-down doors were closing and visitors being routinely frisked.

@adders suggested that Horatio might be a figment of Hamlet's imagination or an hallucination. Certainly scenes in the second half add weight to this theory. In fact the second half seemed to pull together the madhouse setting becoming increasingly nightmarish and delusional.

*Production spoilers alert* The second half is also where the Young Vic's stage gizmos come to the fore. A huge square chunk of the stage is removed by hoists revealing a sandpit ready for the Yorick scene and Ophelia's burial. The officiating priest is Polonius appearing all bloody and just murdered. Hamlet falters a little in recognition. The semi buried Ophelia rises up from the grave to deliver Hamlet the duel challenge from Claudius.

The best is reserved for last when there is a final twist...but I'm not going to say what it is because that is really too much of a spoiler.

Young Vic's Hamlet has grown on me immensely. Setting it in a clinical environment you do lose any warmth in the relationships and it can be difficult to connect. And @polyg argued that if everyone is mad it defeats the object. It is a fair point there are plenty of productions after which to debate that point, this is about how mad and delusional Hamlet and those around him actually are.

There is plenty to be chewed over and plenty of delicious little details - too many to write about. Yes it has its flaw - I remain unconvinced by Laertes whose diction made for a muddy delivery but there was so much I enjoyed overall, I'm going to give it five stars.

Hamlet is on at the Young Vic until Jan 21.


The first is Vinette Robinson who I last saw in Philip Ridley's new play Tender Napalm (he was in the audience the night I was there) and of course Mr W has been in two Ridley plays, Mercury Fur and Leaves of Glass (the latter being the first time I saw him tread the board).

For the second I set myself the challenge of finding a connection with Michael Sheen but it was actually really easy. He's acted with Dame Helen Mirren (The Queen) and of course Mr W was Ariel to her Prospera in The Tempest earlier this year.