‘Grand Theft Hamlet’ Review: When Shakespeare Meets Gaming, Hilarity and Heartbreak Ensue

Documentary Grand Theft Hamlet may have been born out of the ennui bred by COVID lockdown in 2021, but it’s anything but boring.

Innovative, highly amusing and often touching, this collaborative project, competing in the documentary feature strand at SXSW, takes place entirely within the open game world of Grant Theft Auto Online. In this sprawling virtual space, temporarily out-of-work U.K.-based actors Sam Crane (who has played Harry Potter in the London production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) and his friend Mark Oosterveen decide to mount a production of Hamlet, a first for both the theater and gaming worlds.

More from The Hollywood Reporter

Luckily, Crane’s partner Pinny Grylls is also a filmmaker. She takes on the directing and editing, using the cellphone cameras avatars can use in the game to film from other angles and provide close-ups. The couple juggle caring for their small children with putting on the show and documenting the whole effort, while assistant director Oosterveen and an ensemble of professional and aspiring actors fill out the cast of Hamlet. Security — an absolute necessity given how often strangers approach bearing weapons, intent on killing other players, which is in fact the whole point of the game — and digital stage management are provided by a motley crew of random gamers, in it for the love and/or LOLs. Many are known only by their eccentrically spelled user names or “gamer tags” and colorful avatars, like green-skinned, Creature-from-the-Black-Lagoon-lookalike ParTebMosMir, a Tunisian-Finnish gamer who auditions by reciting the Koran at one point and stays until the final performance and cast party.

Delightful as the final product is, it’s impossible not to wonder how much we see on screen happened spontaneously and how much was recreated or entirely staged, despite the documentary label. After all, the final credits bill the film as “written and directed by Pinny Grylls and Sam Crane.” The writing, one suspects, is there from the start in the opening scene, which finds Sam (aka Rustic Mascara, in the game a beefy, bearded guy with blue hair and an undercut) and Mark (aka Ooosters, visualized as a normcore white dude) pootling around the SoCal-esqe landscape of Los Santos in presumably stolen golf carts. It seems unlikely that the two friends just happened to be recording themselves playing and chatting using the game’s VoIP feature when — hello! — they happen upon the Vinewood open-air amphitheater where, being actors, they can’t resist declaiming a monologue from Macbeth before the game’s NPC police show up to arrest them.

Nevertheless, the intrusions from passing players, often intent on killing Sam or Mark or each other, and non-player characters (NPCs) seem real enough — and heaven knows dramatic recreations are rampant these days in documentaries, there to fill out the bits the camera could never have captured. It doesn’t really matter here; we’re not dealing with a true crime, just game-play-level larcenies, assaults and murders, plus a few accidental deaths.

Sam, Mark and Pinny work through the process of putting on a show all the way, from auditioning potential actors to choosing locations for the performance to the ultimate opening night. Like any backstage drama or comedy, there are ups and downs, from the high of casting Dipo Ola to play Hamlet to the low of losing their leading man when Dipo finds he hasn’t got time to commit to the show having secured an acting job in the so-called real world. Attempts to use a blimp and various planes to move the cast around Los Santos prove problematic, and there’s always the risk of getting shot in the middle of a monologue, no matter how politely they ask the passerby to leave them in peace. Naturally, it all comes together, more or less, for opening night, which it seems was also closing night as well.

Along the way, there are a few scenes that also feel written or semi-improvised in order to add a little drama or pathos. For instance, when Sam and Pinny discuss their frustration with the project and how all-consuming it’s become, making them feel guilty for not spending more time with their kids and each other. They log off so they can find each other in their house in Hackney, London, in order to give one another a real-world hug. Mark, on the other hand, doesn’t have any hugging options, being a bachelor who at one point takes a break from the play to attend the funeral of his last living relative in Amsterdam.

It’s at these moments that the film gets across the weird weight of lockdown, a time of tension and anxiety but also an opportunity for creative growth none of us saw coming. The film brings these themes gently to the fore with a lovely lightness of touch, while elsewhere the filmmakers demonstrate a real eye for both the beauty and the bloodshed of Los Santos’ game world. In the sequence where Hamlet soliloquizes on “what a piece of work is man” for example, the “camera” zooms in on the ravaged face of a drunk or drugged NPC, squinting in the seaside sunlight — a damaged piece of work indeed but also, in his own way, like an angel except made up of code and pixels.

I happened to watch the film with my 15-year-old gamer kid, and he was thrilled with the movie, laughing delightedly throughout and remarking on how sweet it was. He was also, quite rightly, excited to see a film illustrating the creative, positive side of gaming instead of offering another illustrated diatribe, bemoaning how gaming is corrupting everyone’s mind and turning young people into murderous psychopaths.

Well, maybe some players get their heads turned that way, but Grand Theft Hamlet also underscores how much gaming, like acting on a stage or in films, is performative, cathartic, playful in every sense — and how Shakespeare plays, now considered so highbrow, are full of violence and retribution, just like GTA. All the world’s a stage, and all that jazz.

Best of The Hollywood Reporter