‘Grand Theft Hamlet’ Review: A Captivating Staging of Shakespeare in ‘Grand Theft Auto’ Changes the Game

“To be or not to be” remains the question in “Grand Theft Hamlet,” but it takes on a whole new dimension in Sam Crane and Pinny Grylls’ endearing and provocative chronicle of a production of Shakespeare that takes place entirely in the world of “Grand Theft Auto.” The soul-searching of a tortured prince has resonated for generations, but even those who might not want to bother with Elizabethan-era English these days are allowed to see its relevance in a time of self-curated online identity through the unconventional doc.

Crane and his fellow actor buddy Mark Oosterveen hardly had such lofty aims when they signed up for the cathartic violence of “GTA,” out of work and bored during the third COVID lockdown in England in 2020. The two aren’t experienced players of the game, but having been players in acting ensembles, they naturally gravitate toward an empty outdoor amphitheater. After a couple of soliloquies are batted about, the idea of staging an actual production is too. Soon, Grylls, Sam’s partner, is enlisted to join them despite never having played the game before, to document the creative process of gathering a cast, rehearsing and ultimately putting on a show, all of which is complicated by those roaming around the massive multiplayer online game looking for trouble, as was its original intent.

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“Well, you can’t stop a production just because someone dies,” Grylls dryly tells Crane when auditions can be interrupted by a missile launcher-wielding maniac or an aspiring actor who doesn’t know how to use their controller has their avatar wander off the side of a building. The backdrop is tantalizing beyond the mordant amusement of seeing actors die on stage in ways they haven’t before when Crane and Grylls take a refreshingly techno-optimistic view of what is possible in the virtual realm.

The infrastructure of the game leaves things wide open for human creativity to take it in directions that couldn’t be predicted and people foster connections without any superficial prejudices getting in the way as Crane and Oosterveen assemble a cast. Maybe they have an idea where ParTeb (a potential stage manager with a Creature from the Black Lagoon-like avatar) is geographically based from his accent, but the Tunisian still surprises them when he turns out to be half-Finnish.

Although no one shows their true face on screen, that isn’t to say they don’t bare their soul. Oosterveen, who is single and lost the last in his bloodline during the pandemic, and Crane, who has a family but increasingly isolates himself by playing “GTA,” are situated as counterpoints as much as partners, and they prompt self-reflection from the actors they find by talking about their characters with them. Crane and Grylls find so much else to cover, it isn’t until nearly two-thirds into “Grand Theft Hamlet” that anyone gets around to explaining the plot of the play at hand. The film never feels more real than it does when Crane and Oosterveen work out the frustrations that come with attempting to organize a collective as actors are pulled away from their TV monitors due to jobs they have. Getting everyone together in the same place is like herding kittens in the vast landscapes that Rockstar Games developers created.

Whereas the maxim “the show must go on” is typically accompanied with enthusiasm, it has a bittersweet quality here when it seems to apply to more than a single performance. To fulfill the production will mean a return to reality for the gamers in “Grand Theft Hamlet,” where it could just mean hiding behind costumes and presentations of their own design in a different way. A world with car chases and gun fights is inevitably more exciting than most people’s average lives, but who knew it could also be a little more revealing of who we are?

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