Dublin Theatre Festival 2017: Hamnet
A Son By Any Other Name
In 1585 William Shakespeare had a son named Hamnet. Over the centuries there’s been endless speculation about Shakespeare’s relationship to his son, and of his sons relationship to his father’s work, especially his most famous creation, Hamlet. Adding to that considerable body of speculation is “Hamnet,” with text by Bush Moukarzel and Brian Kidd, with just a little help from a certain bard. A co-production by Dead Centre and the Abbey Theatre, “Hamnet” really doesn’t tell you all that much about the historic Hamnet. He didn’t do much, wasn’t a great man, or even live all that long, dying at only eleven years of age. Dead before his father could get away from London and return to Stratford-Upon-Avon.
How Hamnet and his early death impacted on Shakespeare’s future works is somewhat secondary in “Hamnet.” For it has bigger questions it also wants to ask. Questions about the nature of the relationship between fathers and sons, about the ability or inability to deal with grief, about death and what, if anything, follows. Addressing such questions “Hamnet” delivers an incredible theatrical achievement, one in which its superb staging is only surpassed by an unforgettable central performance.
“Hamnet’s” excellent design team, as much as its convoluted text and outstanding performance, are crucial in informing the “Hamnet” experience. Andrew Clancy’s set, Grace O’Hara’s costumes and special effects, Stephen Dodd’s lighting and José Miguel Jiménez's astonishingly clever video design, place “Hamnet” in a meta-theatrical, liminal place between two reflected spaces. Here and the afterlife? Two parallel dimensions which the physics of quantum tunneling might make possible to travel between? Who knows. What is known is that an eleven year old boy, looking for himself and his father, is determined to break on through to the other side to find him. To ask him all the questions he needs to ask. A son loving, hating, and wrestling with a great man he barely knew and a father he needs to know. A son who also needs his father to know him. Throughout, the complexities of their relationship are further compounded by loss. A loss felt deeper by the fact that the father was already gone long before the son ever was. But why did he go? Hamnet wants answers from his father. And he will not rest until he has them. Even if it takes infinity to do so.
Playing “Hamnet,” Ollie West turns in an extraordinary performance. Indeed, it is impossible to commend young Ollie West enough. Playing the eleven year-old Hamnet, performing what is essentially a one-boy show for an hour, West shows nerves of reinforced steel. Sure, there’s the inevitable cute factor. But West proves to be a wonderfully engaging presence, one that exudes a quite confidence and perfectly pitched sense of vulnerability. Whether interacting with the audience, applying his own make-up, negotiating complex text, or singing Johnny Cash, West is always in the moment. Exploring a son's complicated relationship with his famous father, West ensures "Hamnet" never topples into either over sentimentality or unemotional distance. Indeed, given “Hamnet’s” tendency to ramble off into literary referencing and discussions on physics, West becomes the emotional focus, one negotiating not just an intricate text, but also the demands of an extremely complex and detailed design. Projections serving to conjure ghosts, parallel worlds, and that space in between the spaces, require West to engage with both live and pre-recorded images, something West negotiates with consummate ease. If there are some clunky moments visually, with some scenes looking like they were designed on early computer software, most notably the bard himself, none of this falls on West. Yet occasional moments of poor CGI are a small price to pay for what is an extraordinary design that shows traces of genius, breaking down barriers between media and stage, suggesting exciting possibilities for the future.
Perhaps the loss of his son did inform Shakespeare’s later tragedies. Perhaps it had no bearing at all as the work-away Dad may not have known his son all that well. An awful lot of perhaps. What is clear in “Hamnet” is that the relationship between a father and son is a primal transaction, a need and a connection whose pull can be so strong it might even transcend both time and space, perhaps even death itself. It endures forgetfulness, absence, longing, and regret. Father and son may need to let go in the end, or they may move on together, either way they will need to meet face-to-face, or back-to-back, to see each other first. A touching, thoughtful, and thought provoking production, “Hamnet” is theatrical gold.
“Hamnet” with text by Bush Moukarzel, Brian Kidd, and William Shakespeare, in a co production by Dead Centre and the Abbey Theatre, runs as part of The Dublin Theatre Festival 2017 at The Peacock stage of The Abbey Theatre until October 7th.