Not all of the production’s choices pay off, but Hamnet is a fascinating, one-of-a-kind play that strikes at a universal sense of longing.
Hamnet by Bush Moukarzel, Ben Kidd, and William Shakespeare. Directed by Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd. Staged by Dead Centre and presented by Arts Emerson at the Emerson Paramount Center, Robert J. Orchard Stage, through October 7.
By Erik Nikander
Not much is known about the life of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, apart from the fact that he didn’t have much of it to live. The boy died at the age of 11 while his father was away making a living in the theater, and thus Hamnet was never able to form a bond with the man who gave him life — the man who just so happens to be revered as the greatest dramatist in the English language. Hamnet, presented by ArtsEmerson and starring Ollie West in the title role (until September 30, after which newcomer Aran Murphy will take over for him), explores the loneliness and familial disconnectedness of Shakespeare’s son with an experimental verve. Not all of its staging choices pay off, but the result is a fascinating, one-of-a-kind play that strikes at a universal sense of longing.
We are first introduced to Hamnet as a figure out of time, one who can’t help but be jealous of the fame enjoyed by his fictional near-namesake. There’s nothing he can do except bounce a ball against the wall, pore over the works of his legendary father, and wonder what it might be like to really know the man. It feels like he is in a Purgatory of sorts, an eternal post-death waiting room. Hamnet can pluck phrases and ideas from contemporary culture (for example, he dresses in a hoodie and consults Google when presented with a conundrum), but he’s not able to take part in life as it flows and changes around him. One question above all persists in his mind: What does it mean to be a great man?
Though video projections and various methods of visual trickery augment the play as it progresses, the script depends on Ollie West to engage us. The young actor does a remarkable job making the existential situation feel believable; he has nothing to assist him but a few basic props and his own resolve. Hamnet is timid and uncomfortable at first, but this awkwardness feels more like a creative choice than stage fright; after all, a boy who’s been alone for so long would naturally be pushed off-balance by a room full of eager spectators. Hamnet’s deep, resounding loneliness may be, in many ways, at the center of his existence. But West balances crushing isolation with a genuine sense of curiosity. His inquisitiveness fuels our own as the play progresses.
Hamnet does not remain alone for the entirety of the play, however. He’s joined by an ethereal version of his father, played by one of the show’s writer/directors, Bush Moukarzel (the other being Ben Kidd, who remains behind the scenes). But Shakespeare is not present in the flesh, per se, at least not yet. He appears on a giant screen positioned behind Hamnet, which offers a live projection of what’s happening on stage. We are presented with two visual tableaus to take in at the same time: the stage, in which Hamnet is alone, reacting against the invisible presence of his father; and the screen, in which the two play off each other directly.
The video work, designed by José Miguel Jiménez and engineered by Eavan Aiken, supplies plenty of brilliant technical how’d-they-do-that moments. But it works to supplement the show’s powerful acting as well. Some uses of the screen feel hokey, such as when a clearly computer-generated stream of vomit issues from Shakespeare’s mouth, but most of the time the device works well. The symbolic visuals are highly striking, notably a projected figure of the Bard that towers, as his reputation does, over his son’s small frame. West’s ability to pull off the challenge of acting against nobody and somebody simultaneously is astounding. Actions as basic as ensuring that Hamnet’s eyes meet those of the Shakespeare-projection no doubt took massive coordination between the directors, the performers, and choreographer Liv O’Donoghue. Throughout the visual trickery, the compelling presence of the show’s young lead never falters for a moment.
Less consistent than the show’s visual presentation is the text, which goes in a determinedly experiment direction, albeit in a way that sometimes feels half-baked. There are heartfelt, tender moments, such as when father and son sit back to back and discuss mundane details of their lives. The duet between Hamnet and Will, in which they sing Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue,” works, even if it approaches enjoyably corny territory. Less successful are a half-hearted bit about Donald Trump that lands with a thud and a nude scene later in the piece that, while tastefully done, feels like a superfluous stab at artsiness. The action of the play might need some refining going forward, but it moves so briskly that even the parts that don’t quite work are left behind soon enough.
Hamnet runs for about 60 minutes with no intermission, and that feels just about right. The show is long enough to contain some substantial ruminations on grief and family; it is short enough so that its technical flourishes remain eye-catching. The script could benefit from revisions: it has a tendency to go off on tangents, leaving the drama’s core father-son tension a tad underexplored. Despite this, West’s performance is a marvel. He’s honest, understated, and compelling — and unfazed by the role’s technical obligations. While some of Hamnet’s flights of fancy are more distracting than they are moving, the production’s technical excellence and emotional power help it overcome the slings and arrows of awkward innovation.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.