Hamnet – Project Arts Centre – Review
Dead Centre presents – Hamnet
Dates: 20 Feb – 23 Feb
Hamnet is not a typo. Not a mistake or a slip of the tongue. Hamnet is in fact the only son of William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway. He was born in 1585 and died 11 years later. Hamlet, possibly Shakespeare’s most famous work, was written 3 years after his death in (approximately) 1599. Many scholars have speculated on the connection between the two, but nothing is clear. This is Hamnet’s tale, of sorts.
This play is produced by Dead Centre theatre company, who previously brought us LIPPY and Chekhov’s First Play. Hamnet was originally performed in the Peacock Theatre during the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2017 and is billed as a “solo work for an eleven year old boy” which is not strictly true. Those seeing the warning of nudity outside the venue will know there has to be more than one cast member, and so it proves. The first production of this work featured Ollie West in the title role. This production features a new ’11 year old boy”, with the considerable talents of Aran Murphy on display. He radiates the duplicity of innocence while showing a mischievous and scampish nature that is perfect for the part. The production has a brief run in Dublin before touring to China as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival.
During Hamnet’s life, William Shakespeare was away from home for considerable periods, some saying he effectively abandoned his child in his infancy. Shakespeare was establishing himself as a playwright and was constantly touring. This fact was taken as the starting point for this production about a young boy that never knew his father. At one point he asks ‘if I can’t talk to strangers, how will I ever meet my Dad?’.
Hamnet appears as a very modern boy, complete with contemporary dress, backpack and a mobile phone. He is on an all white stage and projections are used onto the back wall of the set, taken from a live feed camera on the back wall. This device is used to deliver much multimedia trickery as the play progresses (with video design by José Miguel Jiménez) which to say the least is extremely inventive.
It is surprising that even in the two years since it was first staged that some elements have aged. The phrase ‘grab them by the pussy’ seemed like it would become the most famous remark uttered by Donald Trump but it has long since been lost in amongst the many other unpardonable sound bites he has delivered since.
The use of “A Boy Named Sue”, the song written by Shel Silverstein and made popular by Johnny Cash perfectly fits this work, with young Hamnet performing it during the piece. It is a comparatively modern pop song about a deadbeat Dad, a song about a father who would abandoned their child at birth. Hamnet sings the song to his Dad without realising the hammer blow he is delivering.
“But ya ought to thank me, before I die,
For the gravel in ya guts and the spit in ya eye
Cause I’m the son of a bitch that named you ‘Sue’.”
The scale of this production is vastly reduced from Dead Centre’s previous spectacles such as Lippy and Checkov’s Last Play. This play focuses on the solitude of a boy trapped in an unknown time and place. The child muses on many topics, trying to figure out his place in the world. The play asks questions about the nature and cost of success, with the constantly repeated phrase of ‘being a great man’. While William Shakespeare was undoubtedly a great man, it came at an obvious price for his family.
The danger with work such as this is that it is simply dismissed as being ‘clever’, but really it is so much more. There is a warmth in the piece and also much humour. As with much of Dead Centre’s work, there are many levels on which one can view it. There is a degree of technical wizardly that is rarely seen on Irish stages along with an emotional vulnerability, a raw nerve exposed. The loneliness and isolation of this lost boy is palpable.
Dramaturg – Michael West
Produced by Rachel Murray and Matthew Smyth
Direction – Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd