Grand Theft Hamlet Review – IGN

This review is based on a screening at the 2024 SXSW Film Festival.

Spoiler alert: I cried at the end of Grand Theft Hamlet. Yeah, the documentary about a performance of the Shakespere tragedy staged entirely within Grand Theft Auto Online. And not because it’s an especially sophisticated and moving piece of theater, either. Grand Theft Hamlet might be sold as an improbable story about renegade performers turning Rockstar’s felonious video game world into a thespian’s fantasy, but there’s also a focus on how the COVID-19 pandemic decimated industries as well as lifestyles. More importantly, it shows how video games became one of the only ways to emulate social engagements at the height of COVID lockdown.

My Playstation escape of choice was Call of Duty: Warzone. Sam Crane and his good friend Mark Oosterveen, a fellow out-of-work actor, retreated to GTA’s massively multiplayer online world. The mindsets, paranoias, and bouts of sadness they discuss in Grand Theft Hamlet were like reliving traumas I haven’t yet been able to process. Sorry to start on such a sobering note, but I use the anecdote as testament to the power of documentary filmmaking – or, more importantly, an affecting and accomplished documentary. I went into the “Shakespearean GTA Movie” only expecting laughs and incredulous pixelated feats. Instead, I was brought back to a period in global history when time stopped, socialization shifted online, and video games became a salvation for many.

Sam and Mark’s amazing journey

Sam and Mark’s amazing journey starts during the UK’s third lockdown in January 2021. Before the pandemic, Sam had been cast in a life-changingly prominent role in the London production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. His wife – and Grand Theft Hamlet co-director – Pinny Grylls was a documentary filmmaker with promising career prospects. Mark’s multifaceted stage, television, and film career was as stable as ever. All three Londoners had the sunniest of dispositions, projecting positivity into the future – but the novel coronavirus brought all that to a screeching halt. Sam and Pinny’s 12-year-old (at the time) son started going on about a Minecraft YouTuber developing fiction narratives within the game, which sparked Sam and Mark’s eventual idea, as well as Pinny’s decision to document their never-before-seen objective.

Corralling Grand Theft Auto players

The thought of corralling Grand Theft Auto players to do anything but commit robbery and murder is hilarious, and Grand Theft Hamlet records it in all of its cartoonishly violent glory. Practice runs are frequently interrupted by rogue players with rocket launchers or NPC police officers who rain bullets on actors as they try to deliver moody monologues. Los Santos encourages deviant behavior that Sam and Mark cannot pause or avoid, so they learn to adapt around delays like respawns, accidental blimp crashes, and uninvited guests. The result is as hilariously chaotic and unpredictable as you might imagine, and accounts for quite possibly the funniest and most wholesome scene in the whole film, when a supportive player named “ParTeb” doesn’t want to act, yet offers his talents as security. Cue ParTeb hovering over Sam and Mark’s rehearsal in a fighter jet, blasting machine gun rounds at anyone who dares approach.

The process of casting Hamlet

Any production needs actors, and the process of casting Hamlet exclusively in Grand Theft Auto means auditions are held over typically crummy console headsets. Sam and Mark try wandering up to strangers in-game, but that hardly ends well. There’s comedy in their errors, but then hopeful participants start appearing thanks to a virtual casting call recorded by Pinny (who uses her character’s POV to stage cinematography). You start to hear why anyone would try out for Hamlet in this medium, and the film’s communal spirit grows stronger.

Exploring lockdown conditions

As for the dramatic angles that unfold throughout Grand Theft Hamlet, heartfelt speeches are sometimes drowned out by microphone static, and avatars struggle to convey emotional depths. There’s an uncanny unease to the blue-haired, skeleton-clothed digital representations of Sam and Pinny standing at attention as Pinny confesses her frustrations with Sam’s obsessive prioritization of Hamlet over real life – but this scene between two avatars has trouble generating genuine empathy. Sam and Mark meet Dipo, aka “Dolla101,” in a distracting Los Santos subway station, where he reveals that due to relaxed lockdown restrictions, he’s landed a new job and can no longer play Hamlet. They try to drum up tension and conflict as Dipo cuts his apology short because he’s enamored by the game’s transportation mechanics, but it’s another hard sell with the digital tools at the filmmaker’s disposal.

What transcends Grand Theft Auto’s coded barriers is Mark’s passionate admission that Grand Theft Hamlet is all he has; he is a man riding out the pandemic without human companionship. No family, no roommate. That’s where the documentary morphs from a gamer-culture curio into a defining exploration of lockdown conditions and how people of various situations coped with COVID-19 seclusion. I felt the heart and soul of Charli XCX: Alone Together beating in tandem with Grand Theft Hamlet, two docs about niche communities that came together to lift one another during quarantine. You could also relate Grand Theft Hamlet to Alien on Stage, another British doc about amateur performers who fantasized about bringing a humble production to the masses. Grand Theft Hamlet is more than Pinny’s documentation of the logistical madness; it shares vulnerabilities and an inspiring tale, finding hope even in lawless, dystopian video game universes.