“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers,” states Hamnet, an alert 11-year-old boy stuck in limbo, “but how else am I going to find my Dad”? He drops his backpack and begins his story as estranged son to a famous playwright.
Dead Centre’s touching new monologue, co-produced by the Abbey Theatre, reflects on the unknown life of Hamnet Shakespeare. In the role, Ollie West sharply goes through the rehearsals of a boy anxious to impress his father, while fearlessly addressing the audience head on. Using modern dress, directors Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd suggest the absence of a sage-like father, with Hamnet turning instead to Google to decipher a line from one of William’s tragedies. “It means people confess their crimes at the theatre,” it explains.
Andrew Clancy’s sparse set, insistently showing the audience its reflection, could make you feel culpable. This is a youth’s cynical outlook on adulthood, a stage in life which – to be fair – he never lives to see. “You look guilty,” he observes.
Just when you think this lacks the edgy pastiche of the company’s past work, Hamnet stages a scene from Hamlet showing the tragic hero meeting his father. Trudging through dense lines leaves no one better informed but trust Moukarzel and Kidd to lean into the emotional disconnection of a boy failing to understand his father’s work. Words, words, words.
A more personal meeting between father and son does occur, through the smoke and mirrors of José Miguel Jiménez’s detailed video design. This William clearly chooses work over family and doesn’t have the best parental advice (“It’s okay to talk to strangers”). He even compares Hamnet with Hamlet, which doesn’t do much for the former’s confidence.
But William, painted as something of a deadbeat dad, is also seen unravelling with grief. Dead Centre’s production doesn’t claim to be biography (“Aren’t child characters unreliable?” says Hamnet) but succeeds instead as a meditation on loss. By imagining perspectives of both father and son, it discourages from passing judgement on the dead. We’re all going to go sometime.
Hamnet is on at the Abbey Theatre until 7 October 2017. Click here for more details.