Shakespeare is always being reinvented. Whether it is a World War 2 version of Richard III or Macbeth set in the kitchen of a high-end restaurant, the stories and the characters that the Bard gave us endure. In The Death I Gave Him, Em X. Lui transposes and strips down Hamlet – delivering the tale of murder and revenge in a futuristic mode complete with AI, experimental drugs and surveillance cameras.
Hayden Lichfield finds his scientist father Graham dead in one of the rooms of Elsinore Labs. He uses the time before anyone else finds out to secure his father’s ground-breaking research called Sisyphus. Hayden then pretends to find the body later so that he has time to hide the disk containing the research. Hayden is helped in this endeavour by the Lab’s Artificial Intelligence Operating System known as Horatio. The Lab is put in lockdown by Hayden’s uncle Charles and he is stuck in there with head of security Paul Xia, Paul’s daughter (and Hayden’s ex-girlfriend) Felicia and another researcher called Gabriel Rasmsussen. Hayden uses his wonder drug, which promotes healing, to revive his dead father for just long enough to learn that the killer was his brother Charles and vows to take revenge. From then on Hayden plays a cat and mouse game with his uncle, who is keen to secure the secret formula, with Felicia in the middle.
While no previous knowledge is required, for those who know Hamlet there is plenty to enjoy and consider in this version. Lui keeps many of the beats of the original play – Hamlet’s father’s ghost, his accidental killing of side characters, a ‘play’ to confirm Charles’ guilt, Hamlet’s contemplation of suicide, the way in which Ophelia/Felicia is used to draw him out. But Lui also makes significant changes, some necessary to the context and some for her own storytelling purposes. For example, while many commentators have written about a potential relationship between Hamlet and Horatio, Lui makes that subtext text, and she gives Felicia much more agency than Ophelia had in the original play. Several key characters from the play who are not locked in the facility (Felicia’s brother and Hayden’s mother) are given critical but offstage rolls.
The Death I Gave Him is told in the form of an academic paper, of an almost legendary time far removed from the telling. And that telling itself is a mix of recounting of the ‘historical record’, reconstruction, memoir and data feeds from Horatio. This framing allows Lui to both set the scene and interpose her sometimes epistolary style with comments and explanations.
Hamlet itself is an adaptation of any earlier story (retold again recently in the film The Northman), but given more psychological and dramatic heft. But what The Death I Gave Him demonstrates once again is the infinite malleability of Shakespeare’s plays. His themes and the characters have a timeless quality which give the original plays continued relevance but also allow them to be adapted to new contexts and environments. Lui takes these ideas and characters and runs with them, delivering something at once familiar but also at times startlingly new.