SXSW 2024: GRAND THEFT HAMLET Shows That Art Beckons, By Any Means Necessary

The incredible feat of creating anything worthwhile can be an overwhelming force. It can consume you, especially if your creativity is also your livelihood. The pain of art has ruined plenty of promising careers, as the hearts ambition out strips the ability of will.

Now imagine you are doing all that and a pandemic occurs. So now you are stuck at home, longing for a means of expression. And then an idea strikes you, a means of expression previously untapped. Only one more barrier: you have to create the art form.

This is the crux of Grand Theft Hamlet, premiering this week at SXSW. The documentary follows Sam and Mark, two acting friends in London who find themselves locked away due to COVID restrictions. But an idea occurs to them: what if we were able to stage live theater within a videogame? Could you do a gameplay version of Hamlet? And what better platform than Grand Theft Auto Online, among the most popular on the planet.

Now this may raise the question: how do you adapt Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy as part of a video game mostly known for its wanton violence? Well as Sam and Mark are quick to point out, Shakespeare’s work itself is often overtaken with criticizing corrupt and unchecked violence. Is GTL’s Los Santo’s environment that far removed from the Denmark of Hamlet? 

Still, there are plenty of challenges ahead got out heroes, namely in how exactly do you stage a play within the world of the game, and how you gauge even the interest in witnessing such a thing. Much of the joy of Grand Theft Hamlet is watching Sam and Mark’s sense of discovery and experimentation. There are also the points where they wonder if this all worth it.

True to the spirit of their dream, the film also utilizes Grand Theft Auto as its primary storytelling method. The entire film is based of gameplay footage, of people having conversation amidst play, often asking if what they are doing is inherently a fool’s errand. Both artists are in very different points in their life, and this leads to genuine tension between them. But that tension is only expressed through voiceover conversations against gameplay. It takes a while to get fully on board with the rhythms, but around halfway through you simply are in the world.

And what a world it is, filled with rampant violence, strange players and elaborate, often tasteless costuming. It is a sandbox built in a world where subtly is a sin and random violence seems to be the norm. At one point, while practicing the to be or not to be speech, Sam finds himself stared at by a mysterious onlooker, always on edge that he could be attacked at any time. It is unnerving and somewhat moving, until you catch the context again and give a nervous giggle.

Creating something is hard. Creating something in a way never attempted before is even harder. But Grand Theft Hamlet makes an excellent case that through that hardship, if you are able to survive it, that drive to create can make a life worth living, even when you are otherwise trapped.

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