Ghosts. Fathers. Sons.
Waiting. Nothing changes. A tiny skull. Alas, poor Yorick. Sword play. Death. A ruff. A tiny Casio (?) keyboard.
Well this is not your pop’s Hamlet. It’s, in fact, not Hamlet at all. Dead Centre’s Hamnet is however a close family relation.
At one hour, it’s a self-aware meditation on Hamlet-y themes (grief and death mostly) that is more of our world than Elizabethan England.
Hamnet was Shakespeare’s son who died at age 11. Hamnet (the exceptional Aran Murphy) arrives like a specter through the audience and in a flash he is made flesh on stage. Decked out in Converse sneakers, a hoodie, and a backpack, he’s asking Google questions about physics. He’s an inquisitive boy who is looking for his father. He wants to be a great man like him. But he cannot seem to do anything, least of all grow into a man. He’s been 11 for a while. He doesn’t know why.
Dead Centre is an Irish-British a company which favors dynamic sonic and visual landscapes experimenting with narrative and form. Their last New York production, 2014’s Lippy, still haunts me–it was a story of a group of sisters who died by suicide but it was about the unwinding and impossibility of knowing their story.
The primary set piece in Hamnet is a massive white wall where the live image of the audience is often projected. Layered onto the live image is an apparition (played by the show’s co-writer/co-director, Bush Moukarzel) of a Shakespeare of sorts. He finds himself in conversation with Hamnet.
Hamnet uses maybe more “trickery” than it needs and some of which feels unnecessary (they can make a video ghost vomit real vomit on stage but why).
The physics of this space are unstable. As Hamnet tosses his ball at the back wall, a loud booming sound and vibration shakes the projection. Shakespeare’s video image can look wavy against the live feed. Sometimes Murphy is confronted by his own time-frozen image on the screen.
In this conversation, Shakespeare is struggling more than Hamnet. Dad knows more perhaps. “Nothing goes on forever,” he warns. There is a fluidity to this netherspace. They both have cell phones and rely upon Google. They sing and dance to Johnny Cash. But Shakespeare is in period dress and breeches. They discuss Hamlet’s soliloquy.
“To be or not to be” hangs over them and us. Do they exist? Do we? Are we trapped in this purgatory with him? Who is getting in, who is getting out?
With every word, father seems to see the darkness on the horizon. “Children on stage are a sacrifice,” he notes. For all this foreboding and talk of death, there is hope here too, mostly from Hamnet (perhaps all the more heartbreaking).
Hamnet frames much of the show through a child’s point of view. His perspective distills it to a softened simplicity. Dad left before he was born and his longing for his father has never abated. A parent losing a child must also hold onto that lifelong pain. So the two of them in confrontation are navigating these personal griefs. In some ways it’s that simple. Maybe a little too much so.
It functions like a kind of companion to Will Eno’s play, Wakey Wakey. Both are kind of communing with Beckett in spirit and have a warmth that softens the blow of their subject matter. Though Hamnet gets much gooier with Moukarzel’s morosity which gets laid on thick.
The show depends greatly on Aran Murphy to carry it. His performance is remarkable (this is his first professional role) and unsentimental. He can be innocent and vulnerable, or authoritative and in control. He’s charmingly cajoling. Sometimes he dominates with the power of an adult, and in other moments he looks just so small in the face of the world or death. I’m not easily swayed by children (or puppies) but Murphy got to me. Without him, the piece would have felt much thinner.
I wasn’t sure what Hamnet was saying about the “performative.” I could not quite add up the intentions of a late in the show confession about playing a role, a child’s sense of play, recitations of Hamlet, and our frequent presence (plus Hamlet’s idea of the play within a play).
So while the show’s substance wavers, Murphy’s unadorned performance charms.