A Document of Madness (The Borrowers That Lend, 2016)

One thing I’ve found about Literary-Inspired Web Series is that it will often take a few episodes for me to get truly invested: it’s pretty rare for me to start watching a series and have it go straight into my ‘favourites’ list. But A Document of Madness was one of the few that had me incredibly excited, right from the beginning. I mentioned in my recent review of RSC’s 2016 Hamlet  (spoiler alert: it was amazing, do try to see it if you can!) that, of all Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet is probably the one of which I have seen the most adaptations, although few had any lasting impression. A Document of Madness stood out to me as a solid adaptation which remains faithful to the tone of the source material whilst raising some very relevant issues about grief and mental health.

A Document of Madness tells the story of Hamlet Holm who, on returning to Wittenberg College two months after the death of his brother, is having to balance his grief, his suspicion of his brother’s best friend, his friends’ well-meaning (but at times unhelpful) interference, and his studies. Above everything, the aspect of the series which immediately engaged me in Hamlet’s story was the strength of the characters. Hamlet is always a hard character to adapt, and I think A Document of Madness strikes the difficult balance between making Hamlet a sympathetic but frustrating character: Xavier Pacheco is fantastic in portraying both Hamlet’s likeable and unlikeable qualities. The rest of the characters are equally engaging: Horatio is great as Hamlet’s supportive best friend who isn’t afraid to call him out, whilst Rose and Jill are a great Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (and luckily get a happier ending than the original).

It was the characters which first engaged me in the series, but subsequent re-watches have had me noticing more the portrayal of Hamlet’s grief and the struggle his friends find in knowing how to best support him. It is clear from the beginning of the series, even from the video Hamlet’s friends make to show their support for him, that they feel out of their depth in knowing how to help. There is a marked difference in the first few episodes between the videos Hamlet makes on his own and the videos his friends make: Horatio, Rose, Jill, and Ophelia keep the videos light-hearted, looking to distract Hamlet from his grief. As the series develops, and Hamlet’s grief manifests in unhealthy and isolating behavior, his friends employ a variety of different tactics to try and fix the situation; but grief cannot be fixed, and they soon discover that listening to Hamlet is worth much more than their attempts to distract or ‘fix’ him. This is such an important theme for The Borrowers That Lend to bring out, and I admire that they showed both the helpful and unhelpful sides of friendly support.

Given the title and the source material, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise that the series also tackles the issue of mental health. Hamlet is a play which doesn’t shy away from discussions of mental health, from Hamlet’s perceived ‘madness’ to Ophelia’s breakdown; The Borrowers That Lend adapt the source material in a way which brings to light the issues of mental health faced in universities and colleges in the present-day. There are no easy answers or resolutions to be found on this topic, but from Hamlet’s friends’ concern that he has become depressed, to Ophelia’s suicide attempt, the series is clearly looking to further the conversation about awareness of mental health and the support available.

There is much more that could be said about this series that I haven’t mentioned. It is so cleverly adapted, with one of my particular highlights being the group gathering in which they watch The Lion King (the group minus Claud, who ‘hates The Lion King’); for all that this is a series which deals with some serious themes, it doesn’t take itself too seriously in its adaptation choices, and I will always enjoy those little moments that verge on meta-narrative. Overall, this is an engaging series with a cast of great characters, and it is one I would definitely recommend. The Borrowers That Lend recently announced a sequel to A Document of Madness, this time based on Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and I am looking forward to seeing what they have in store in The Better Strangers.

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5 thoughts on “A Document of Madness (The Borrowers That Lend, 2016)

  1. I had to watch so many adaptations of Hamlet for my English Lit A-Level that I had sworn to never watch another one (I think I finally broke after witnessing Mel Gibson as Hamlet), but I think you may have convinced me to give it another go!

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    1. Yep, that was my exact feeling after First Year! We watched one a week for… just so many weeks. I don’t even remember any of them – they’ve just blurred together. And we only spent one week looking at the actual text?
      But somehow this year has been great for Hamlet adaptations! This web series was really enjoyable, and I went to the Dukes to see the RSC one – and it was amazing! I think both were a little stronger on the comedic aspects of the play and that made them much more watchable than so many of the other adaptations I’d seen.

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