Written and Directed by Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel
Produced by Dead Centre in association with Irish Arts Center
Part of BAM's Next Wave Festival
Off Broadway, Multimedia Play
Played 10.30.19 - 11.3.19
BAM's Fishman Space, 321 Ashland Place
by Heather Violanti on 11.2.19
Bush Moukarzel and Aran Murphy in Hamnet. Photo by Ed Lefkowicz.
BOTTOM LINE: Deft performances and startling video design give heart to this exploration of the afterlife of Shakespeare's only son, but a meandering script leaves its soul wandering in limbo.
Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, died at age 11. While the cause of his death remains unknown, it was not unusual. In the 1590s, nearly one third of English children died by the age of ten. Shakespeare never wrote directly about Hamnet’s death. Perhaps, as some scholars theorize, he did not grieve at all. Or perhaps, as others postulate, he channeled heartbreak into his plays, which often feature distraught parents mourning the untimely death of children. And of course, there is always the...coincidence?...that the title of his most famous play, Hamlet, is one letter removed from his son's name.
Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel’s Hamnet grapples with ghosts and echoes: the ghost of a dead boy, the specter of a playwright in search of his deceased son, the cultural memory of Hamlet, and the transient apparitions of an ever-changing audience. From the moment the audience enters BAM's Fishman Space, it is clear this play will "play" with images. A live video feed (which continues for most of the performance) projects the audience's image in real time on a larger-than-life screen. You can see abashed theatregoers shuffling to their seats or shrugging off winter coats, while others point to their image and take selfies with their projected selves. Suddenly, the screen shows a young boy in a blue hoodie trundling down the steps toward the stage—only a quick look at the lighted aisles reveals he’s not actually there in the theatre. He exists only on the screen. He’s a ghost, a digital echo…until, abruptly, he appears onstage. He's still on screen, but now also there in the flesh.
The boy asks “Who’s there?”—the same question that begins Hamlet. He tells us he is Hamnet. At first, Hamnet (played with preternatural grace by Aran Murphy) seems like an earnest, nerdy, somewhat lonely kid. He misses his dad. He plays with his phone. He bounces a ball against the wall and boasts that, according to Google, if you bounce it long enough, one day the ball will go through the wall. He pulls out an electronic keyboard from his backpack. He sings along to Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue.” Maybe this isn’t Shakespeare’s Hamnet, you think. Maybe this is just some kid who happens to have the same name. Then Hamnet pulls someone out of the audience to play the Ghost in a re-staging of Hamlet excerpts. When Hamnet joyously enacts Hamlet’s death and falls to the ground, he can’t get back up. He remains stuck while his projected self—the boy on the screen—pulls himself up and walks away.
Things get weirder when the Bard himself shows up (played with understated feeling by co-writer Bush Moukarzel). At first, he is only a ghost—an image on the screen. Through theatrical wizardry, the “real” onstage Hamnet interacts with the “ghost” Shakespeare in real time. When ghost Shakespeare pushes a ball toward Hamnet, the onstage ball rolls by itself. When ghost Shakespeare vomits, vomit suddenly appears on the stage floor. Then, just as Hamnet broke through from image to reality, Shakespeare walks through the screen and onto the stage. As he and Hamnet burst into another scene from Hamlet, the play becomes less about a boy missing his father than about a parent missing his dead child. To drive the point home, Shakespeare quotes the soliloquy about the “absent child” from King John.
All in all, Hamnet is a winsome, if somewhat clinical, exploration of the afterlife of Shakespeare’s lost son. Deft performances from Murphy and Moukarzel, and startling video design from José Miguel Jiménez, lend the play its heart. But its soul—a strangely detached script by Kidd and Moukarzel—remains somewhere in limbo. For all its talk of longing and grief, and its quotes from Shakespeare, the script fails to find an essential, unifying dramatic action. Is Hamnet here to find himself? To find his dad? Is Shakespeare here to mourn his son? To tell his story to future generations? Without a clear focus, Hamnet loses emotional power. Still, it's a fascinating project and makes you wonder how much Hamnet haunted Shakespeare’s work.
(Hamnet played at BAM's Fishman Space, 321 Ashland Place, October 30 through November 3, 2019. The running time was 1 hour with no intermission. Performances were Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30, and Sunday at 3. Tickets were $25. For more information, visit bam.org or call 718-636-4100.)
Hamnet is written and directed by Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel. Dramaturgy by Michael West. Set Design by Andrew Clancy. Costume Design by Grace O'Hara. Lighting Design by Stephen Dodd. Sound Design by Kevin Gleeson. Video Design by Jose Miguel Jimenez. Choreography by Liv O'Donoghue. Onstage Effects and Costume Supervisor is Eugenia Genunchi. Stage Manager is Harriet Stewart. Producer is Aisling Ormonde.
The cast is Aran Murphy and Bush Moukarzel.