Perchance to Dream: LARPing Hamlet at Castle Elsinore

This weekend, 100 participant-actors will role-play the tale of the Danish prince.

The real Castle Elsinore—usually known as Kronborg (klmircea/Flickr)

Imagine that it’s 1935, in a world where the French Revolution never happened. The economic collapse of the late 1920s has festered for years, and the oppressed classes of Europe have embraced Marxism as a result. Across the continent, destitute workers have risen up and overthrown the great houses of Europe. One by one, these houses have fallen. Now, the only powerful family left is the House of Hamlet, in the Court of King Claudius.

You are a member of Claudius’s court. And you are stowed away, like everyone else in the house, in the castle fortress Elsinore. You are hiding from the upstart Prince Fortinbras, who has allied himself with the Reds.

This is the concept of Inside Hamlet, an interactive performance that takes place this weekend and next in the real Elsinore, at Denmark’s Kronborg Castle. Over the course of three five-hour acts, 100 actors will assume the roles of royals and servants of the House of Hamlet—and other related houses who have taken refuge at the fortress—and imagine the action that follows.

They will be imagining because … there is no script. There are general guidelines: Polonius will be murdered, Ophelia will kill herself, and toward the end Fortinbras will make his grand entrance. But nearly everything else will be conceived by the participant-actors, explored and acted out as they go along. The actors will react to each other, plot against each other, and fall in love with each other.

The ambitious production is a form of LARP—or live action role playing—a pastime that brings role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft to life. Stereotypically, LARP includes dressing up like an elf and running around a local college green, hitting others with foam swords.

From a planning session of Inside Hamlet in Castle Elsinore (Odyssé)

Nordic LARP takes a more artistic, less competitive approach. It chooses stories beyond traditional fantasy fare, and its participants spend significant amounts of time making sure their (often assigned) backstories and costumes are accurate. The craft is unique, say the editors of The Foundation Stone of Nordic LARP:

It spends more time telling stories that emphasize naturalistic emotion, it emphasizes collective, rather than competitive storytelling, and it takes its stories fairly seriously much of the time.

One famous Nordic LARP, for instance, examined what it was like to live with AIDS in the 1980s. Over the course of three days, the event placed its characters at three successful July 4 parties held in 1982, 1983, and 1984. Participants began the LARP not knowing whether their characters would be infected with HIV. By its end, many of the people they were playing had died.

Nordic LARP has spawned conferences and books, and it’s now played around the world. (Its advocates are quick to note that other kinds of LARP are played in the Nordic countries, too.) Inside Hamlet isn’t without precedent, in other words. There have been other interactive productions of Shakespeare’s play, and more traditional productions of Hamlet have been performed at Elsinore, too, by actors including Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, and Jude Law. But this is the first Nordic LARP interpretation of the story performed at the castle.

The event has been organized by Odyssé, a company that designs and holds participatory events. “We call it LARP tourism—the chance to travel to worlds that don’t exist,” its creative director, Bjarke Pedersen, told me. “[Kronborg] is the best place to do Hamlet. That is why we wanted to do it at Elsinore.”

Pedersen and his team have had to refashion Hamlet into something that could be performed as in this particular way. Many scholars traditionally understand the play to be about the hazards of indecision: Hamlet wavers until it’s too late to avenge his father’s murder. But that interpretation doesn’t work as well in a LARP, as participants have to take decisive action to drive the story forward. So the Odyssé team looked for other possibilities. “We fell over what is called the Marxist reading of Hamlet—that Hamlet was a brilliant mastermind who corrupts the court from the inside. It turns Hamlet into a man of action,” said Pedersen.

Writing a LARP is hard because writing as such isn’t really possible. Odyssé can design characters so that they’re likely to come into conflict with one another, and can structure the major events of the story so that they create crisis. It can also use stage tools such as lighting to initiate certain events. But it can’t order characters to talk or fight. The task that Pedersen’s team faced was how to turn Hamlet, a five-act story with forward action, into a participatory experience.

Inside Hamlet is set in a parallel version of the 1930s where the French Revolution never happened. (Odyssé)

Inside Hamlet preserves the major characters—Hamlet, Ophelia, Claudius, Polonius—and the great events of the play. But it has only three acts, each more than four hours long, performed on Friday night, Saturday morning, and Saturday evening. Each act has a theme and a setting. “Decadence,” the first, takes place at a late-night dinner party as the fortress’s gates are closed. (Far away, at Denmark’s borders, Fortinbras and his army have just invaded.) “Deception” is set a few months later, as Fortinbras draws closer and alliances crumble. (“When you live in a place not designed [for it],” said Pedersen, “everything goes to hell.”) And “Death,” the final act, happens as the army prepares to charge the gates.

The characters all belong to various factions, including the intelligence service, the Danish bureaucracy, and the press. But others are from the few great houses that have taken refuge at Castle Kronborg. Here, Odyssé has turned again to other interpretations or versions of Hamlet. “There are so many other stories—the Lion King or Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion or the Lannisters from Game of Thrones,” Pedersen told me. “We took the different houses and based them on an interpretation.”

There’s a house called Belar, based on the American television show Sons of Anarchy. It’s a “militant version of Hamlet’s fate, set after Hamlet has killed his father,” says Inside Hamlet’s character manual. Pedersen said they would have designed a house around The Lion King had the rest of the game not been so aimed at adults.

Odyssé has also incorporated ways to let characters ramp the intensity of their interactions up or down. “Sometimes you would like an intense experience but your character is afraid,” said Pedersen. “You have to build in-game mechanics for how to explore that ... Everyone knows 'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,' so in our version, rotten means 'more intensity.'"

If one character says rotten to another, he or she is suggesting that they want a more intense, active dialogue or activity. “But then,” said Pedersen, “the other character has to want it too, so there’s always a dialogue going on.”

Parts of the event will be recorded, so those not directly participating can witness it as well. Inside Hamlet has an official court photographer, who doubles as one of the characters in the press, actually. Other participants will review their experiences afterward, creating critical testaments of experiences that they were the sole audience to. Odyssé may also review the game afterward.

But mostly it will just end.

“The LARP is ephemeral,” Pedersen told me. “There’s some residue—pictures, film, costumes. But the thing itself doesn’t exist anymore.”

In some ways, every theatrical production shares the same fate. Pedersen and his team see themselves as part of a long tradition of Hamlet interpreters. “We take it very seriously, and we see this as part of an ongoing discussion about Hamlet," he said. "And every time you perform Hamlet, you participate in it."

Inside Hamlet will conclude as so many other productions have. No matter what happens in the story, the third act will end with Fortinbras and members of the public charging into the room. His army will gather the participants, and prepare to fire upon them.

At which point the game will pause. A representative of the game will ask performers questions like: Have you been innocent the entire game? If you have maintained your moral purity, you won’t killed by these bullets.

Then the army will act as if they are firing. Will anyone still be standing?

Pedersen, at least, thinks not.