Hamlet (Young Vic, London)

Young Vic, London SE1

It is not normally necessary to warn New Statesman readers that a review of Hamlet contains plot spoilers. But this Ian Rickson/Michael Sheen Hamlet is no normal production. Its gimmicks are so extreme that they seem designed to attract youngsters who have never seen the play. They could leave them with a lifelong enthusiasm for Shakespeare but a bad grade at A-level. For the grey-hairs, the liberties with plot and staging are, until the end, forgivable because the proceedings are so entertaining but Rickson's is such a perverse production that one tends to hold on to Sheen's mad Dane as the least wobbly part of a giddy world.

This Elsinore is a lunatic asylum. We are led in by the back door though an artificial labyrinth of cells, labs, consultation rooms and a therapeutic gym. Men with clipboards officiously outstare us. Tannoy announcements command us to switch off our phones lest they interfere with "equipment". This is no Priory but a cold clinic, suggestive of the political sanatoria of the Soviet Union and even more so of Punchdrunk's experiments in immersion theatre.

We are seated around a plain, unraised stage that replaces the thrones and fripperies of court with plastic chairs and tweed jackets with slightly too many buckles. In the first scene between Hamlet and his new father, the cast members are arranged as if for family therapy. Claudius, dressed like a spiv from the 1970s, is the plausible senior consultant, suggesting cures for Hamlet such as a spell in England. Polonius is his loyal, pedantic head of security. It sounds dull but partly because the lack of clutter produces brilliant acoustics, the stage is a compelling cockpit for the drama and a slight reordering of the play adds to clarity and pace.

Sheen is by a stretch the best Hamlet I have ever seen live - and they include Albert Finney, Daniel Day-Lewis, Kenneth Branagh, Ralph Fiennes, Alex Jennings, Simon Russell Beale and David Tennant. His great achievement, so important in a play that can seem like an anthology of famous quotes, is to make it seem as if Hamlet has just thought of everything he says. Trusting the verse, he phrases everything for meaning. At first, his speech is chopped, reflecting inner convulsions, but a marvellous fluency takes over that retains lyricism across a great vocal range. Bearded and goggle-eyed, Sheen boasts a haircut of unresolved curls that visualises the mental forest he needs to cut through to achieve peace. Yet he carries warmth. Presented with Yorick's skull, he hugs it to his chest, as he has earlier embraced his dead father's greatcoat.

He is also, however, stark raving bonkers. We know this not only because he is in the bin but because he haunts himself. His father's first
apparition is announced by a total blackout. When the ghost returns, it turns out to be Hamlet in his father's coat and stentorian voice. The boy has multiple-personality disorder. The surprise is that, so revealed, Hamlet continues to inspire the loyalty of Horatio.

Horatio, I should add, is here a rather small woman, Hayley Carmichael. This makes no sense unless we see it as an indication that Hamlet has such difficulty manning up that his best mates are girls (so is Rosencrantz). Otherwise, the cast is exceptionally strong: James Clyde's greasy, guilty Claudius: Sally Dexter's voluptuous socialite Gertrude, wiping her hands down her dress when Hamlet reveals that her husband is a murderer; a grey, bullyable Polonius essayed by Michael Gould; and a tender Ophelia from Vinette Robinson, whose normally embarrassing songs are composed by P J Harvey and thus worth hearing.

Each of the above characters, save Horatio, is here either mad or going mad. That's one way of looking at revenge drama. However, it is when the production goes mad that one wonders if the Bard has not been bound and locked in a cupboard. The dead resurrect themselves, sometimes slithering out of the grave like extras from The Walking Dead. At the end, Fortinbras whips off his mask and reveals - Michael Sheen. "Thank you, Derren Brown," quipped my companion (I later noticed Brown gets special thanks in the programme). What does this final flourish mean? That it all was just Hamlet's bad dream? If so, it is not Hamlet who needs therapy but Rickson.

Runs until 21 January 2012. Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 21 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of the Fourth Reich