Back in the day at his Christchurch high school, Gregory Cooper sat through English classes where the teacher valiantly tried to teach Shakespeare.

Cooper, now 43, says it was horrible.

"We would all sit in the classroom with the text and people would be forced to read aloud different sections," he recalls. "We didn't know anything about iambic pentameter [the rhythm of Shakespeare's language] but I'm not sure it would have made a difference because we were just struggling to say the words correctly and in the right order... there was no sense as to what it was all about, no drama to the delivery."

But Cooper became an actor and writer so learning Shakespeare and iambic pentameter became his stock-in-trade. While he's appeared in more home-grown comedies - The Complete History of New Zealand and Le Sud among them - than Shakespeare plays, when it came to creating a family show for the 2015 Christchurch Arts Festival, he choose to reboot the Bard.


Now HAMLET: The Video Game (The Stage Show) comes north. Forget Pop-up Globe and authenticity, this show is for gamers and Shakespeare buffs alike as it re-imagines Hamlet as an interactive video game and throws every gaming trope you can think of into the mix: the Prince of Denmark's soliloquies with mortal combat, zombies and a final boss battle.

It's even written by one of the best in the video game business, Kiwi Simon Peacock who left Christchurch to move to Montreal, Canada and become a voice director for some of the biggest games in the industry including Assassin's Creed, Far Cry, Prince of Persia and Deus Ex.

Ophelia, reimagined as a robot, waxes lyrical about how female characters are dressed (or not) in video games; alas, poor Yorick is a zombie. Cooper, who co-wrote the hit musical That Bloody Woman, says the set includes a huge LED screen which makes a digital backdrop complete with playful animations and video game reward screens.

Audiences can watch on as characters are customised on screen; AV designer Andrew Todd has created video game graphics, right down to the perfect fonts, while screen musical composer Hamish Oliver provides a live backing track.

The cast includes members of the popular Christchurch improv troupe The Court Jesters: Dan Bain, Kathleen Burns and Jared Corbin

Because it's interactive, there's a high level of audience engagement expected. The audience chooses Hamlet's costume; for battle scenes, they're armed with Nerf guns. Everything gets a score and no one leaves until every level has been conquered and Hamlet's dad's death has been avenged (about an hour and 15 minutes with no intermission).

"We've performed it at the Taranaki Arts Festival, too, and we would like to take it elsewhere so we really shouldn't have made a show with a huge video screen and lots of costumes and props to lug around," says Cooper.

But the pay-off is seeing youngsters - the play is recommended for those 10 years and older - excited about Shakespeare. Not surprisingly, Cooper says he wishes he could have seen a show like HAMLET: The Video Game (The Stage Show) when, back in high school, he was struggling with The Merchant of Venice and Othello.

"We do take liberties but the basic plot is all there and maybe, as a first taste of Shakespeare, it's a great way to see that the stories are really exciting with ghosts and backstabbing relatives... you just have to get past the scary language. It's great to watch young people who are so actively engaged."

Meanwhile, the October school holidays brings another NZ first in theatre for young people. Toro Pikopiko Puppets are touring the world's first Maori Rock-Art Puppet Musical in collaboration with Te Ana Māori Rock Art Centre in Timaru.

Made by Jeffrey Addison (Ngai Tahu) and Whaitaima Te Whare (Ngati Tuwharetoa),
Te Rerenga - The Flight is an acoustic rock musical, featuring 80 Flatso puppets inspired from ancient cave drawings on Limestone cliffs and caves around Timaru.

The show retells a Ngai Tahu legend about Pourangahua and her epic flight to Aotearoa, with the aid of Matariki stars and migrating whales. She flies from cave to cave, meeting a host of colourful characters including bats, creepy crawlies, moa, pouakai eagles and human bird hunters - intent on making Pourangahua their next meal.

Once again, the audience is expected to assist, helping out with animating rock art characters.

What: HAMLET: The Video Game (The Stage Show)
Where & when: Herald Theatre, October 4 - 7

What: Te Rerenga - The Flight
Where & when: Mangere Arts Centre, October 3 - 5