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‘Grand Theft Hamlet’ (SXSW review)

“You can’t stop the production just because somebody dies.”

So says Pinny Grylls, co-director of the singular (and 2024 SXSW Documentary Feature Competition Jury Award Winning) Grand Theft Hamlet during rehearsals for one of the most peculiar Shakespearean adaptations ever attempted — specifically, a staging of the classic tragedy within a video game during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic by her out of work actor friends Sam Crane and Mark Oosterveen.

But first, given the team’s (likely true) acknowledgement of the lack of Venn diagram overlap between fans of iambic pentameter and massively multiplayer online virtual worlds, a bit of context may be in order.

Hamlet, arguably the better known of the aforementioned creative properties, is the tale of a melancholy Danish prince who famously muses, “To be or not to be.”

Or, as reframed by Oosterveen in modern parlance, “If your life’s terrible and unhappy and there’s no joy or love in it, is it better, braver to soldier on and to stick around like a schmuck while you just keep getting kicked in the balls repeatedly over and over again and nothing ever goes right for you?  Or actually is the brave thing to do, the smart thing to do even, the sensible thing to do just to end it all…?”

Indeed, the frustrated thespian has a visceral understanding of the Dane’s dilemma as the story begins, having just attended the funeral of his last living relative — leaving him to face his own unemployment and the global coronavirus shutdown in morose isolation, mitigated only by hours spent chatting over a headset with Crane as their avatars fight other players within the 24/7 crime spree of Rockstar Games’ anarchic Grand Theft Auto open world shooting gallery.

Then one day, while running from AI cops within the franchise’s obsessively detailed simulation of Southern California (a.k.a. San Andreas), the pair stumble upon an amphitheater modeled after the Hollywood Bowl and decide on a whim to stage a play in cyberspace while all the theaters back in the real world are temporarily shuttered.

Their quixotic plan is hampered by the fact that most of the other human players and automated non-player characters (NPCs) in the GTA space are literally and virtually gunning for them — but over time, they manage to make contact with random strangers willing to join their merry band (including a big-bottomed extraterrestrial operated by a foul-mouthed Muslim with the in-game alias ParTeb who suddenly pops up to audition with a beautifully somber recital from the Qur’an).

The film is packed with similar, unexpectedly moving ghost in the machine moments, like an argument between Oosterveen and Crane where the latter decries the futility of spending time on a creative vision if “No one’s gonna come…it’s not a real thing” while their avatars stand in a digitally rendered train station surrounded by an uncanny valley Greek chorus of silent NPCs who seem to empathize yet are merely illusions of humanity.

The irony, of course, is that the GTA platform and Shakespeare’s plays would likewise be futile creative visions without communities of living, breathing non-artificial intelligentsia supporting them — all of which makes Grylls’s documentation of her friends’ efforts to connect with the shadows of other poor players (while performing soliloquies atop blimps and limousines) such an enjoyable, inspiring surprise.

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Julia Ton, Rebecca Wolff
Written and Directed by Sam Crane, Pinny Grylls
Featuring Sam Crane, Mark Oosterveen, Jen Cohn

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