With a motorised grinding the doors slide slowly shut before closing with a final metallic knell. Ian Rickson’s frequently thrilling high-concept production takes Shakespeare’s play and sets it within a secure psychiatric unit, with Hamlet as the inmate prince. The audience enter the Young Vic through a back entrance and are herded through long snaking stretches of institutional corridor by uniformed orderlies. En route we pass a mobile library, a chapel and a gym (complete with potentially ill-advised fencing equipment) before taking our seats in the grey-carpeted auditorium, a guard closing the doors behind us.
Rickson’s production brings to mind the line from The Madness of George III about the state of monarchy and the state of lunacy sharing a frontier. This is Hamlet as unreliable narrator; it’s never quite clear how much, if anything, of what happens is the product of paranoid delusion. His father’s murder, his regal status, his relationship with the other characters, nothing is certain, nothing is solid.
An early court scene takes the shape of a group therapy session conducted from a ring of plastic chairs. Hamlet sits shrunken and sullen with his suitcase by his side, eager to flee, but it is clear from the actions of the others – and his own downcast gaze – that he’s not going anywhere. Escape is not an option.
James Clyde’s Claudius, slick in his flare-legged 1970s suit, appears to be the consulting psychiatrist, doling out medication and well-oiled smiles, authoritarian yet at times almost kindly, but elsewhere the distinction between patient and physician is less clear. Sally Dexter’s Gertrude is coquettish and glassy-eyed with a lithium grin; Michael Gould’s Polonius brandishes a Dictaphone like a doctor, but there’s a sense he’s merely being indulged in a whim, that he wields no real power. Everything and everyone is filtered through Hamlet’s lens.
Michael Sheen’s performance is incredibly powerful. He is often achingly vulnerable, haggard and chasm-eyed, broken by grief. Yet he is also capable of moments of great mania and aggression, if not complete abandon. There is always a sense of restriction; he is penned in, in more ways than one. Sheen attacks the text with relish, delivering some lines in an almost conversational style while fracturing others, inserting pauses and shifts in tone. In The Mousetrap scene he cavorts with a vacuum cleaner tube, like R.P. McMurphy trying to spook the Big Nurse; when he puts on his father’s coat, he is transformed – he seems to grow in size, his voice rising to a roar – he is the ghost, he haunts himself.
Vinette Robinson makes an impressive Ophelia and her collapse, when it comes, is total. She’s wheeled on, a wreck of a girl in a hospital smock, fingers worn raw, fevered with tears, utterly undone. Rather than wafting round the stage in a state of semi-undress like so many recent Ophelias, she is hunched and crumpled, plucking out her urgent songs of loss before garlanding the other characters in tablets and caplets, a deluge of drugs.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tiptoe round Hamlet with unease and uncertainty, flinching when he draws too close; the casting of Eileen Walsh as Rosencrantz adds an extra dimension to their friendship, a shared private past that gives their interactions a fresh poignancy.
The second half takes the audience even deeper inside Hamlet’s mind. The stage is ingeniously converted into a giant sandpit, both an arena of battle and a mass grave. The membrane between life and death, the real and imagined, become increasingly permeable. The influence of Laing is there if you want to look for it, as is the shadow of Ken Kesey, particularly in the mechanistic movement of doors and floors: Elsinore as machine. There’s even a trace of the excess of HBO prison drama, Oz (though Polonius does not get shanked with a filed-down toothbrush). As events escalate, Sheen becomes increasingly clear-eyed and accepting of the insanity around him and inside him, readying himself for the inevitable end.
Not everything works. The final reveal feels like a leap too far, undermining much of the power of Hamlet’s quiet demise, and Hayley Carmichael’s Horatio never feels properly integrated into the production; some of the tussles between the conceptual and textual are also just too big to ignore, too forced, too overt. The immersive introductory ‘journey’ is perhaps not made the most of and the process of taking the audience so deeply within Hamlet’s inner world can at times have an emotionally distancing effect. But even when Rickson’s production comes unstuck, the sense of daring and, commitment to a particular directorial vision, remains.