Combining the gravitas of one of the Bard's most famous tragedies and the overblown action of video gaming in a live show, Hamlet: The Video Game (The Stage Show) sounds like a completely ridiculous idea. And yeah, it basically is – in the best way possible.
Written by Christchurch-born Simon Peacock, a video game voice director who has worked on the Assassin's Creed, Far Cry, and Deus Ex franchises, among others, this production of H:TSS(TVG) is a retooled and revamped version of the one staged by the Court Theatre in 2015. Its runtime is shorter, its jokes punched up, and its references updated, a bit like a modern remaster of a previous-gen classic.
The cleverness of this crossover between Shakespeare and Spacies is apparent from act one, scene one, where a guard's encounter with the ghost of King Hamlet doubles as an inane gameplay tutorial. From then on a broad approximation of the plot and characterisation of Hamlet provides the foundation for a series of amped-up action scenes, wry jabs at gaming tropes, and a small dose of Nerf-gun-assisted audience participation.
The constant name-dropping of video game titles is one cute but cheap gag that starts to wear thin by the show's end, but otherwise the laughs come thick and fast in a slick super-combo of sight gags, wordplay and physical comedy that show off the considerable comedic chops of the cast.
Dan Bain is a perfect fit for the lead role, playing Hamlet with a deft combination of deadpan, action-man machismo and slapstick buffoonery. He even manages to give the famous “to be or not to be” speech some dramatic heft while (literally) carrying a visual gag to its conclusion.
Alongside Bain, Kathleen Burns and Jared Corbin take on all supporting roles, a task that requires some serious costume-changing and props-wielding skill, as well as an ability to switch characters on a dime. Burns shines especially brightly – her fiery monologue as Gertrude on the gender inequality in video game costume design threatens to steal the show, and her AI Ophelia is the conflicted heart of the story.
Special mention must go to (former Gameplanet contributor) Andrew Todd for his slick audio-visual design work. The digital backdrops and animations that back the stage are packed with in-jokes, puns, and references, and are crucial to giving the action on stage an authentically “gamey” feel.
Letting the somewhat inherent silliness of video games contrast with the serious tone of the original dramatic work, H:TVG(TSS) succeeds because it makes its two disparate sources feel like a totally natural fit. Although it does feel like it leans towards the gamers with its quick-fire references and knowing winks at the audience, this show is an easy recommend to soliloquy and shoot-'em-up fans alike.
◆ Hamlet: The Video Game (The Stage Show) is playing at The Forge at The Court Theatre June 3–24, before heading to the Taranaki Arts Festival August 22–23, and then Auckland Live from October 4–7. On June 12 at The Forge there will be a forum with the show's cast and creative team following the 7pm performance.