NEW YORK — I’m inside dark, cavernous Elsinore Castle, involuntarily flinching as a sword flashes uncomfortably close to me.
That sword is wielded by none other than Hamlet, prince of Denmark, everyone’s favorite swashbuckling existentialist. Having evidently decided that ’tis better to be than not to be after all, Hamlet is fighting zealously to stay alive in a duel with valiant Laertes, who is seeking revenge for the tragic death of his sister, Ophelia.
Suddenly my attention is jerked away from the flickering blades by the agitated movements of Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. Having inadvertently quaffed the poison meant for her son, Gertrude staggers past me and out of my sight. I whirl around to follow her as she traverses a wide circle before collapsing, dead, on the floor.
All Shakespearean hell is breaking loose, and I’m right there in the middle of the action.
Except I’m not. I’m actually sitting on a swivel chair in a ninth-floor office on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I’ve got earphones on, and the top half of my face is encased in a headset that looks like a bulky scuba mask. Ready or not, this lifelong Luddite is being ushered into the disorienting, captivating world of virtual reality. With my senses sealed off from the outside world by the headset, I am watching “Hamlet 360: Thy Father’s Spirit,’’ a riveting new video, adapted and directed by Boston’s Steven Maler, with cinematography by Matthew Niederhauser and John Fitzgerald.
Best known for the “Free Shakespeare on the Common” series he presides over each summer on Boston Common as artistic director of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, Maler has taken a big, ambitious swing with “Hamlet 360.’’ He was wholly unfamiliar with VR before he filmed “Hamlet 360’’ with a 13-member cast in a dilapidated old vaudeville house on Staten Island — “I don’t think I’d ever even been inside a headset,’’ he says — but has now created a production that he believes is one of the longest VR narratives yet devised.
“The ability to take this great work of art and interpret it for a new medium, and the ability to get people inside this work, is incredibly exciting,’’ says Maler. “I hope people will see this as a way of democratizing these plays.’’
“It’s not theater, and it’s not film,’’ he adds. “It’s some hybrid of the two. And I can put every viewer in the best seat in the house.’’
Maler says the project ultimately cost “in the ballpark’’ of $500,000. Funding was provided by Google (where Maler is a consultant) as well as Commonwealth Shakespeare Company board member Christy Cashman and her husband, Jay, along with other sources. Google opted not to distribute the video itself. “Google doesn’t see itself as a distributor, fundamentally,’’ Maler said. “They encouraged us to seek a partner that could help get the content out into the world.’’
Maler found that partner in WGBH, the Boston-based public broadcasting powerhouse, whose president and CEO Jonathan C. Abbott says “Hamlet 360’’ dovetails with the station’s educational mission as well as its emphasis on arts and culture. WGBH will host “Hamlet 360’’ on its website (at www.wgbh.org/hamlet360), and Abbott says he envisions bringing the video into schools. “It’s a way to excite the kids about Shakespeare and ‘Hamlet’ in a way that lifts it off the page,’’ he says.
I watched highlights of “Hamlet 360’’ in the New York office of Sensorium, Niederhauser and Fitzgerald’s “experiential studio,’’ which specializes in virtual and augmented reality projects. Later, I watched “Hamlet 360’’ in its 61-minute entirety. But as devotees of VR know, the word “watching’’ is not quite adequate to convey this particular experience. It felt more as if I’d been catapulted into a movie or a play, or as if I was seeing it in my mind’s eye, to borrow a phrase. Stage artists like to speak of “immersive theater’’ that obliterates that imaginary “fourth wall” between performers and audience. Well, VR is about as immersive as it gets.
Sometimes literally. Take Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be’’ soliloquy. When the prince, played by Harvard graduate Jack Cutmore-Scott, prepares to deliver those lines in “Hamlet 360,’’ the actor is in a claw-footed tub filled with water while fully clothed in a black suit and tie. Hamlet has plunged underwater, exploring the possibility of drowning himself, and I am underwater with him. When Hamlet surges up to the surface to say a few lines, I pull back to avoid being splashed, even though the water is only virtual. Then back underwater Hamlet and I go, then back up.
Among other things, “Hamlet’’ is about the torments of consciousness. Because VR telescopes the usual distance between audience and actor, I felt the prince’s psychological suffering in “Hamlet 360’’ in a way that was more immediate, visceral, and inescapable than if I’d been watching a movie, or even a live production if I had a bad seat.
In the view of cinematographer Niederhauser, the visual richness and spatial depth made possible by VR make it “a technique that could be the future of entertainment, quite frankly.’’
He expands on that statement by starting with a line from another Shakespeare play: “It’s a brave new world. And it’s driven in a lot of ways by an audience that wants to be more involved and wants the stakes to be higher.’’
In addition to Cutmore-Scott, “Hamlet 360’’ stars film and stage actress Brooke Adams as Gertrude; Desean Kevin Terry as Laertes; Flora Diaz (who starred in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s “Death and the Maiden’’ last year) as Ophelia; Faran Tahir (who played the title role in CSC’s production of “Richard III’’ on Boston Common last summer), as Claudius, the charismatic villain of the piece; and Jay O. Sanders as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, who makes a supernatural appearance to demand that
his son avenge his murder at the hands of his brother, Claudius.
“Hamlet 360’’ and other VR videos can be experienced several different ways. The “optimal’’ way, Maler says, is to watch it on a Wi-Fi-connected headset. Such headsets are pricey, however. A much less costly approach — the one likely to be taken by schools looking to equip a classroom full of students — is to purchase a VR viewing device that works with a smartphone such as Google Cardboard, available for around $15. A third way, Maler says, is to simply watch it on your laptop or desktop by clicking on the YouTube link, then moving the image around so you can follow it in 360 degrees. But that lacks the full-immersion quality of VR.
As for my own headset-wearing immersion in the technology, I discovered a curious ripple effect that was, in a way, akin to the feeling I’ve often had in the immediate aftermath of a Shakespeare production.
When you’ve been listening to actors speak his impossibly rich language, the return to ordinary human discourse, with its “likes’’ and “ums,’’ falls jarringly on the ear at first. Similarly, after being transfixed by the virtual reality of “Hamlet 360,’’ plain old reality was a bit of a letdown. Ah, well. Such are the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.