Denmark, 4 a.m. The early morning sky still boasts the magnificent blue and green of the northern lights while a crisp chill in the air renders your breath visible as it floats beyond the gazebo where you stand.
This is Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 1, as you’ve never experienced it before. Transported virtually to Helsingør, Denmark, you become Bernardo, a castle guard. Together with Francisco, Marcellus, and Horatio, you encounter the ghost of the king, Hamlet’s dead father, who seeps in and out of your line of sight as you follow his trail. In a flash, he disappears. But you remain, entranced by this modern revisiting of classic literature where 21st-century technology meets 17th-century Shakespeare.
Hamlet may be a play centred on death, but the birth of this virtual reality project from Dr. Peter Kuling, professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies in the College of Arts, is keeping the story alive for a contemporary audience.
If, as Shakespeare wrote, “brevity is the soul of wit,” is technology the future of theatre?
Virtual learning opens the door to a modern Shakespeare
Kuling, a director more familiar with the stage, co-designed the Hamlet VR Experience with SimWave, using a grant from eCampusOntario’s Central Virtual Learning Platform, now called Ontario Exchange. The idea of taking a more virtual approach to theatre was born of the pandemic when many aspects of education were upended and forced to shape-shift digitally.
VR elevates learning by “creating this atmosphere where you literally become part of the story,” said Kuling, who speaks with fervor when discussing this version of Hamlet that enabled his team to incorporate details impossible to convey on the stage.
The Hamlet VR Experience uses the garden where the king is killed in the shadow of Kronborg Castle as its setting for the story. The nearly-neon glow of the sky is echoed in the green that surrounds the ghost — a floating apparition in VR and no longer a human actor — and that turns the eyes of the garden’s statues a similar chartreuse when the phantasmic presence approaches.
Paying homage to U of G and the mythical gryphon
“All the ’80s and ’90s video games I played as a kid have inspired this version of Hamlet,” Kuling said, explaining that the project borrowed a limited colour palette, simple designs and a few characters to avoid overwhelming users.
VR can be disorienting, he acknowledged, so below your feet is a compass reminding you that the castle stands to the south and the statues to the north, each a purposeful design element to keep the user immersed.
The gazebo where the user stands consists of stone, allowing Kuling to pay homage to U of G with carvings of two gryphons facing one another. The beasts help bring the user into the realm of fantasy, he explained, with the creature a “wonderful paradox” as a combination of animals and mythical symbolism.
“Maybe that’s what is going on here,” Kuling said. “Hamlet is a combination of a revenge story paired with a human tragedy with a ghost that may or may not be real.”
The characters are voiced by U of G theatre grads, all recorded by Kuling, whose PhD focused on Canadian adaptations of Shakespeare and who now teaches theatre history and performance theory.
“I really love theatre that is driven by new technology and new ways of experiencing performances,” he said.
Virtual reality uses technology to lift Shakespeare from the page
Reading Shakespeare on the page doesn’t always resonate with students and the theatre is generally an experience for hundreds, if not thousands, at a time. As a solo experience, Hamlet VR Experience allows high school students to become part of the story, in a take that refreshes the historical tale while maintaining its accuracy and compelling nature.
Take, for instance, the way the blue and green of the northern lights shift to soft orange and pink as the sun rises just before the end of the scene. “On stage, they wouldn’t have been able to make the sun come up like we can in VR,” Kuling said. “Here, we can show people a beautiful, slow, Nordic sunrise.
“It’s these small details that we hope will make you want to go back and experience Hamlet again and again. For me, it’s about harnessing an atmosphere.”
Hamlet VR Experience is currently in beta testing but will be available in its final form as an educational tool online this fall.
“We recognize that it’s hard for students at many levels to visualize and understand,” Kuling said. “Having a fully virtual immersive experience might be one way to really kick off their interest in Shakespeare.”
Even in film adaptations, audiences don’t always fully comprehend the story given its use of early modern English, Kuling said. “To me it’s about giving students the opportunity to really help them visualize Hamlet. It will let them overcome the language barrier and encounter the immersive and experiential environment of this play.”
A future with Macbeth’s witches rooted in theatre of the past
Kuling, who has already secured a second eCampusOntario grant to bring the witches of Macbeth to the world of VR in 2023, continues to look to the future with a passion for theatre firmly rooted in the past. “The technology is only going to get better,” he said of visual learning.
“I can’t believe my mind dreamt this up. I can’t imagine that I’ve got to this place where I can be creating Hamlet in virtual reality for students at this stage of my career, with contributions from incredible VR artists, performers and musicians.
“It’s beyond my imagination, but in some ways, this is how I’ve always seen Shakespeare in my head. Now I finally get to share my vision with the world.”
Interested in the Hamlet VR Experience? Sign up here to immerse yourself this fall at the University of Guelph.
Dr. Peter Kuling
Watch this report from CityNews Toronto on the Hamlet VR Experience: