Often compared to The Tempest, Samuel Beckett’s Endgame may have as much of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in it, though the author was unwilling to acknowledge the influence to Theodor Adorno. Beckett’s central character, the blind, aged Hamm, spends all of his time in a throne haranguing the other three, in a gloomy place, The New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson wrote, “somewhere between life and death.” Hamm might have been the Danish prince grown old and bitter, left with nothing but what Beckett called Shakespeare’s “fat greasy words.”
In any case, Hamlet has long been thought of as a prototype of the absurd, a play where little happens because its protagonist is too haunted to have relationships with the living or make decisions, a condition he complains about in scene after scene. Trauma, existential paralysis, crippling doubt punctuated by fits of rage and violence—these are the makings of the 20th century anti-hero. If the play has a classical hero, a man of action and resolve, it is, absurdly, a dead man, Hamlet’s father, who testily declares his purpose in his final speech, “to whet thy almost blunted purpose.”
Should Hamlet be turned into an immersive VR and augmented reality experience, allowing viewers to inhabit a character’s point of view, they might not opt to see things as the moody, depressive, speechifying prince. In Hamlet 360: Thy Father’s Spirit, we instead get to inhabit the ghost, who only appears in the play a handful of times but still fills every scene with his glowering presence. The 60-minute VR “modern adaptation” is a co-production of Boston’s Commonwealth Shakespeare Company and Google.
“Both extremely long by the standards of virtual reality and extremely short by the standards of Hamlet,” writes Elizabeth Harris at The New York Times, the film “can be watched in 3-D using a V.R. headset or in two dimensions on a desktop or mobile device” (see it above). On a vast, darkened set cluttered with fine but shabby furnishings in heaps, glowing lamps, a bathtub, and a car, actors perform condensed scenes while we, as ghost, freely roam about, viewing the action in three dimensions, a device intended to give the viewer “a sense of agency and urgency as an omniscient observer, guide and participant,” the production notes.
The film’s creators, Harris writes, “hope that beyond the fresh experience it provides, it will also serve as a tool to bring great theater to wider audiences—and bring bigger audiences to theater.” It may have that effect, though one might feel it privileges digital effects over the truly immersive, full experience of Shakespeare’s “fat greasy words.” It’s hard to think the “great Shakespearean” Beckett would approve, but he found little to his liking.
Younger, less cantankerous audiences might, however. “Many young people’s first experience of Shakespeare is not all that great,” says director Steven Maler. Hamlet 360 allows the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company to “scale up” their mission to “truly democratize Shakespeare and theater.” Experience it for yourself above or on YouTube and learn more at Boston’s WGBH, who recently premiered the film. The actors “deliver powerful performances,” the PBS station writes, “that bring the play forward to today, making it both current and timeless.”