Video may have killed the radio star, but so far theatre seems to be faring pretty well. Ed Day's debut touring show Super Hamlet 64 blends the best and brightest of video game culture with the great bard's most melodramatic tragedy — is this a level-up in the world of immersive theatre, or is the piece one blue shell short of a race? We sent Chris McLoughlin down to the National Writers' Studio to find out.
Have you ever wondered what Hamlet would be like if there were more Koopa Troopas, Mighty Pirates, and references to "Would You Kindly"? Ed Day sure has, and he’s here to show Shakespeare’s classic in a fresh new light. What started as ‘‘a geeky project to rewrite Shakespeare scenes using only videogame quotes’’ — as Ed describes it in his ‘Poetry Manual’ — has evolved into a full feature performance, using interactive projection, live music and enough quips that would make even Handsome Jack jealous.
Most people could give a pretty good recap of Hamlet — Boy’s father dies, Boy's uncle marries his mother, Boy gets super angry and ends up killing said uncle (and several other people in the process, you know how it is.). Super Hamlet 64 takes this story and tells it in an entirely new way. In a brilliant twist, the King and his brother are now Mario and Luigi, and a whole array of familiar faces breath new life into well-established characters (Does Ed’s recasting of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as Rose, Crash, Guile and Stan make him a modern genius of wordplay? Quite possibly, yes). Super Hamlet 64 doesn’t play exclusively for laughs, though the laughs sure are abundant. Ed has also created poignant scenes of tragedy and catharsis through the form of videogames, including a haunting sequence culminating in the death of Ophelia, using projection to really bring the audience into a sense of dread and foreboding.
Ed serves as both the titular protagonist and an external narrator in Super Hamlet 64, and it’s in the latter that some of the most powerful monologues of the play can be found. Modern day culture is explored, including insights and commentary on the way technology can be both inclusive and alienating. In fact, in certain places the line between Hamlet and Ed blurs, and it’s in these moments the audience most feels the raw emotional impact of Ed’s performance.
One of the stand out aspects of Super Hamlet 64 is the amount of thought that’s been put into bringing the audience into the play. Through audience participation, direct addresses and even just talking to people during the interval, from start to finish the audience feel part of the performance, not just witnesses. This only strengthens the aforementioned points of poignancy in Ed’s performance, as well as creating a wonderful connectivity in the hilarity onstage.
Visually, the design elements of Super Hamlet 64 are truly breath-taking. Along with a huge projection screen at the back of the stage, which Ed has blended seamlessly into his performance, there are also two smaller screens near the front used to create depth to his landscapes. These tools are used in increasingly imaginative and innovative ways; without wanting to give too much away, wait until you see how incredible his portrayal of portals are.
The audio landscape of the performance is just as interesting, and incredibly varied. Ed presents several sections through the use of song and ukulele (and yes, Zelda fans, there’s even an ocarina in there!). As well as the live musical component, many videogame songs are featured, and never fail to bring a smile to the audience’s face. This, alongside spot on choreography synced with sound effects, ensures the action always hits.
Super Hamlet 64 is an absolute triumph of a project, a full re-imagining of Shakespeare’s vision. When the performance strays from the source plot, it does so to great effect – to highlight modern difficulties with screen based interaction, the use of videogames as a way to grant control to those who feel powerless, and an excellent segment where Day dispels the pervading, though now fading, myth that videogames incite violence.
Occasionally, the jokes/references can seem a little implanted (though, is there a natural way to say ‘The cake is a lie’ in a Shakespearean text?). While this often still delivers in the combination of nostalgia and comic effect, it occasionally takes away from the raw, naturally emotive pull Day is masterful at portraying. For the most part, though, the references are excellent and elegantly written into the narrative, a prime example being the greatest insertion of the Konami Code on any platform, that has to be (or not to be?) seen to be believed.
Overall, Super Hamlet 64 is a brilliant piece of theatre, and Day is well on his way to proving himself one of the greatest Spoken Word performers of his generation.
If you’re a huge video game fan, a Shakespeare aficionado or anything and everything in between, you can catch Super Hamlet 64: 3rd Oct at Swindon Poetry Festival, 5th Oct AT Rondo Theatre, Bath, 13th Oct at Theatre Shop, Clevedon or 19th Oct at Heart Of Gaming, Croydon.