Inside Hamlet, Staged by Odyssé, a participatory agency with experience in transmedia, digital storytelling, role playing, larp and co-creative participatory events. Kronborg Castle, Elsinore, Denmark, 6 March, 2015. www.insidehamlet.com
“The Actors Are Come Hither”: Hamlet as LARP
Reviewed by Kiki Lindell
‘Inside Hamlet it set in an alternate reality where the French revolution never happened and the great noble houses of Europe stayed in power. We are now somewhere in the 1930s and the revolution has finally come. Fortinbras and his Red Army are sweeping across Europe and have arrived at the final bastion of old nobility: King Claudius’ court in Elsinore.’
These lines are part of the extensive background material sent out to the participants in what sounds like the ultimate Hamlet experience at Kronborg Castle, Elsinore: Hamlet as live action role-play (LARP). While LARP in general (so I am told) tends to be goal-oriented, competitive and fairly violent (World of Warcraft but with ‘real’ guns), Nordic LARP is a very different beast: it can perhaps best be described as collective, immersive and interactive theatre. There is no audience, just players, labouring together to create a 360-degree illusion that lasts several days. In Inside Hamlet, the players are all involved in a three-day exploration of the universe of the play – a universe full of people who, like Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, blithely go on being the main characters in their own life, and have no idea, until it is too late, that they are also minor characters (and casualties) in somebody else’s tragedy.
This is Hamlet simultaneously abridged and extended: the story has been stripped back to the bare bones – a few soliloquies, some key scenes – and then expanded again in time, but this time without a script. It is like a play – only, instead of leaving the stage empty after their scenes, the main characters stay on it and merge into the crowd, leaving the play world for us to bustle in. The Fortinbras storyline is particularly useful here: it represents a recognisable political threat, and gives the rest of the players more to do (escape, profiteer, spy, negotiate, betray, or simply resign on the brink of extinction, and indulge in drink, dancing and debauchery) in addition to the essentially domestic tragedy playing itself out amongst us.
The main characters are cast weeks ahead (these are all experienced role-players, and some of them semi-professional actors). Whereas the rest of the players (about a hundred larpers from all around the world) are all free to improvise freely, within parameters established by the conceptual designers of the game, the main characters are (in LARP language) ‘fated’: they are expected to learn and speak some scenes and soliloquies from the actual play, and are also bound by the fate of the character they are playing and must do certain things (quarrel, soliloquize, fight, die) at certain points in the acts.
While the vast majority of the players will stay in Elsinore the whole weekend, eating, sleeping, living with the game, I opt to be an ordinary Citizen, a visitor to this universe, for just one night: a stranger with a passport which is both false and temporary. What I will get to see, and be part of, is the last part of the first ‘act’, where King Claudius and his court have taken refuge in a bunker beneath the castle, with the enemy outside the gates, and now they are putting an antic disposition on, partying like there is no tomorrow.
A few days before the event, I am assigned a character called Stronzo, a powerful member of the civil society outside the castle, accidentally trapped inside it by the air raid that drove the court into the bunker. The amount of back-story work has me in awe; if nothing else, it makes one see how richly woven a fabric is real life, and what a piece of work is man – the sum of so many choices, coincidences and ‘there-but-for-the-grace-of-God’:s. An utter LARP novice, I approach the whole thing with curiosity: will this be toe-curlingly embarrassing or utterly consuming? Will I be able to survive the evening without breaking the only rule – that of not breaking character? And the most important question: what makes a ‘good’ Hamlet? A riveting performance which enables you to lose yourself in what happens on stage? Yes, certainly; but can you also lose yourself by actually being inside the play?
On arrival, we ‘citizens’ are met beyond the castle moat by a torch-bearer, and guided into the game headquarters, where we receive a number of verbal instructions before we are sent into the ‘bunker’, and given white arm-bands; these mean that people cannot talk to us unless we talk to them first. Once inside the bunker, I immediately discover the exhilarating power that lies in remaining silent, knowing that everybody is dead keen to talk to us: we have something that they all want. In my pocket, I have a chess pawn, representing much-needed troops for the battle shortly and inevitably to come (if it be not now, yet it will come; the readiness is all). It is mine to bargain with, and may just save my life if I choose to use it.
The scene is breathtakingly beautiful: the subterranean room is vast, with a low vaulted ceiling dimly seen by candle-light, and has been divided up into different ‘rooms’, all dressed with sumptuous fabrics. There is a piano, an ancient record-player on a stand (hiding modern DJ equipment) and a dance-floor, a big bed, several groups of armchairs and sofas, a bar serving wine, beer and champagne (‘Queen Gertrude’s favourite brand – we were lucky to find a few cases of it down here when we took refuge in the bunker’ says the barman), and a banquet table with an opulent display of fruit, bread and sweets. The music is partly performed live on the piano, partly mixed by a very competent DJ, 30s swing morphing seamlessly into electro swing and back again.
As to my character, I struggle to get into the spirit, and finally decide to remain a silent spectator only. I spy on war strategies being drawn up over a candle-lit ancient-looking map; I briefly glimpse flirtations between interested parties and political parties. Hamlet suddenly appears in a Christmas-cracker crown; Claudius, infuriated, tears it off. Osric calls a race, with servants instead of horses – these are ridden or driven around the cavernous room, to the merry cracking of whips and the cheering of the crowd. The ‘servants’ pant and stumble; a couple of glasses fall to the floor and explode against the flagstones. That is real, as is the bubbly in our glasses; but the cocaine taken on the sofa in the corner is just plain powdered sugar – or so we are told at least. Both the snorting and the snogging seem very real (but we have all promised that what happens in Elsinore, stays in Elsinore; hence, the rest had better be silence).
The evening, which begins with Hamlet’s ‘To be, or not to be’, ends with the slaying of Polonius and Hamlet going off to England with his schoolfellows, there to have them hoist with their own petard. It is by no means badly acted; for a few hours, we really live the drunken revels of the Danish court – the bunker and the castle walls isolating us from war and rebellion, from the guns heard at a distance, but also from a sense of reality, normality: afflicted by a one-night Stockholm syndrome, our fear is of the outside.
But the most impressive actor is the castle itself. The strongest moment for me comes when I cross the courtyard on my way to pick up my coat in the HQ (where a Stormguard behind a control panel is talking through an ancient phone about an incident; apparently, the Polish Embassy has just been bombed), and stop for a second to look at the outline of the massive walls and towers surrounding me. Ghostly echoes of Tommy Dorsey’s ‘Opus One’ escaping from the bunker. A flash of silk, as a lady in an evening gown hurries past a lit-up window. A whiff of cigar smoke coming from two men, only faintly visible in the dark by the gleaming white of their shirt-fronts, cuffs and gloves. It is really 1940; it is really Elsinore castle, and it is really Hamlet’s hectic, morally bankrupt world.