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If anyone ever complains to you that there’s nothing new under the sun in the world of cinema, please kindly point them to the documentary Grand Theft Hamlet. This experiment from British co-directors (and romantic partners) Pinny Grylls and Sam Crane covers the gamut of human emotion, from triumph to tragedy, in its 89 minutes of infectious fun.

The story behind Grand Theft Hamlet

We begin in the dark ages, January 2021. Britain has instituted a third mind-numbing lockdown to combat a recent surge of COVID infections. Two friends, Sam Crane and Mark Oosterveen (at the time, both out-of-work actors due to the lockdown) are chewing up countless hours on the couch by chatting online as they roam the virtual world of Grand Theft Auto Online

When the two men flee from the digital police after committing a bit of GTA ultra-violence on an unsuspecting NPC (non-player character), they come upon a bit of landscape that neither has ever seen. It’s an outdoor amphitheater, complete with seating for hundreds of audience members. 

All it takes is one stray remark about how cool it would be to stage a play in this piece of virtual reality for the two men (and Sam’s partner, Pinny, who had never played GTA) to embark on their quixotic mission. They decide want to stage a complete performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet entirely within the game.

But Sam and Mark get off to a rocky start. It quickly becomes clear that it will take much more than the two of them to bring the project to life. After Pinny gets comfortable with how the game works, she comes on board as a kind of technical adviser and camera operator. 

The team try to enlist others within the online game environment. This hilariously leads to their game avatars being killed by players who prefer to watch the world burn. (In the early going of the film, I couldn’t help but notice that there are plenty of people across the globe who delight in creating gun-fueled carnage in a game, yet the US is the only nation in the developed world that must endure catastrophic real-world gun violence.)

This project will definitely be trickier than the motley crew anticipated because, as one of the men notes, the overlap in the Venn diagram of people passionate about the works of Shakespeare and those who also love to play Grand Theft Auto appears to be incredibly small. 

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The Hamlet-GTA mashup you didn’t know you needed

Grand Theft Hamlet is ultimately much more emotionally resonant than you might expect from its top-line description. That becomes evident when Mark tells Pinny during an online chat that he recently attended a funeral (which, because of the ongoing pandemic, is a trial all its own) of his last living blood relative. One thing that Grylls and Crane’s picture captures well is the now receding sense of overwhelming isolation so many of us experienced during the unfolding global pandemic.

Things begin to turn around for the virtual production when a player named Dipo turns up in response to a video casting call that Sam and Mark set loose on the internet. Dipo initially agrees to take on the lead, the famous Prince of Denmark Hamlet. Eventually, the project even obtains a kind of guardian angel named DJ Phil, who takes out any online game players attempting to derail rehearsals.

It sometimes feels like the internet is simply an amplifier for the worst behavior known to the human species. (As I write this, I only hours ago attended the screening of The Truth vs. Alex Jones, a documentary premiering here at SXSW that details the defamation trial against the internet provocateur and his lies; if there’s anything that will make you hate the internet, it’s listening to Jones use the World Wide Web to defame the victims of one of the worst mass shootings in American history.) 

But Grand Theft Hamlet proves that the internet is also capable of facilitating wonderful, vibrant forms of community that would otherwise be impossible.

Sam and Mark’s ideas for the production eventually outgrow the original stage, and they begin creative scout locations within the online world to maximize the impact of the project. The top of a blimp that floats above the GTA skyline, complete with a magic hour sunset, eventually becomes the setting of one scene in their Hamlet.

The novelty of this wacky stage show helps cement the originality of the documentary itself. Every bit of footage we see, save for a few brief minutes at the tail end detailing the outcome of the project, is produced within Grand Theft Auto itself. It is, quite frankly, like no movie you’ve ever seen.

The emotional connection we feel for these people isn’t diminished in the slightest due to their virtual and ephemeral nature. At one point, we hear a conversation between Pinny and Sam, happening in two different rooms of the same house via the game. Pinny expresses frustration and anger at Sam for being so consumed by his lockdown project that he completely forgot her birthday.

It’s a personal and heartfelt moment happening against an artificial backdrop that draws the audience into these people’s lives more deeply, a goal of any documentary and storytelling in general. Earlier in the doc, there’s a moment in which Sam lays bare his grief that COVID has stopped his acting career dead in its tracks, and we can hear the earnest desperation in his voice, even if we can’t see his face.

Final thoughts on Grand Theft Hamlet now showing at SXSW

By the end of the movie, the sense of wanting these guys to pull off their dream, if for no other reason than to experience the catharsis that such a feat would produce, is palpable. The journey is full of plenty of ups and downs along the way, and Grand Theft Hamlet is proof that movies are a renewable resource of hope and inspiration, depicting humanity’s capability of limitless compassion and connection.

Catch a teaser for Grand Theft Hamlet on Vimeo via the official site for the film . For more information about this film and more showing at SXSW 2024, visit SXSW’s website. Do you play Grand Theft Auto? Are you a Shakespeare fan? Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus or The Cosmic Circus Discord.

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Josh Thayer

Josh Thayer has been writing as The Forgetful Film Critic since 2014 and is a member of the North Texas Film Critics Association as well as the Online Film Critics Society. Website:

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