I went into Hamnet expecting a straightforward, one-man play about Shakespeare’s son. I figured it’d play around with Shakespeare’s family life or twist the meaning of Hamlet quotes similar to my senior year literature class. But the play shattered my expectations.
ArtsEmerson’s latest show follows Hamnet, a boy searching for his father, William Shakespeare—a man never involved in his son’s life due to his success. Hamnet aspires to become great like his dad, though he doesn’t know how to become “great” or what greatness even looks like.
Throughout the play, the character of Shakespeare appears to disrupt Hamnet’s, his own, and the audience’s perception of reality. Although the play grapples with dark themes, including elements from multiple time periods and brief nudity, I found myself laughing and cheering at the incredible experience Hamnet provides.
I highly recommend reading ArtsEmerson’s blog post on Hamnet’s history before seeing the show and brushing up on famous Hamlet lines. Although the dialogue reveals Hamnet’s historical context, such as his young death, it isn’t provided until the later half of the production. The playwright strategically placed lines from Hamlet and while missing out on them won’t diminish the experience, it’s a waste of some impressive writing.
Hamnet begins as soon as the audience sees the set, which features a large screen that films a squared-off portion of the stage and the audience. I grew accustomed to the audience’s reflection until they eerily combined it with computer imagery. The screen acts as a magnifying glass as Hamnet—played by and written for actor Ollie West—acts like an existential 11-year-old trapped in a box.
Dead Centre, Hamnet’s production company, advertises Hamnet as a one-man production. Nonetheless, they project an unnamed, previously-filmed actor playing Shakespeare onto the screen, who appears as Hamnet’s “stage partner” for the majority of the show. Instead of a distraction, the screen effects felt woven into the text. Hamnet stood next to the camera appearing large when dressing like Hamlet, a character he perceived as great, and stood away from the camera appearing small when he felt confused.
The projection of Shakespeare felt unearthly but never forced—even when he dances and sings to Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue.” The timing of effects felt natural and smart, and I gasped several times as objects came to life seemingly on their own—the projection kicks a ball that moves in real life, and a light flash pierces the screen’s footage.
Bush Moukarzel, one of Dead Centre’s creators, wrote Hamnet for West to perform after he could not cast him in a different show, and one can easily see why. West’s eyes follow the trail of Shakespeare on stage so realistically I often found myself glancing down, expecting someone to appear in front of me when I tore my eyes from the screen. I can’t imagine retaining object permanence of a moving human for one hour, but he does it effortlessly.
Shakespeare’s actor, unnamed by Dead Centre, complemented West well, highlighting the historical figure in an unusual and authentic light. The actor portrayed Shakespeare’s transition from audience member to grief-stricken father spellbindingly.
The playwright infuses Shakespeare’s lines brilliantly without seeming stereotypical. Hamnet questions and reiterates Hamlet’s “words words words,” trying to become the tragic character. A randomly chosen audience member even wears a bedsheet ghost costume and recites the lines of Ghost, Hamlet’s father, onstage. Although the moment was hilarious—the audience member messed up several lines—it served as a brilliant foreshadow to Shakespeare’s later emergence from the audience.
One must see Hamnet more than once to grasp everything, but I have few complaints. Shakespeare’s nudity may prevent some from seeing the show—it’s brief and full-on, but nevertheless unnecessary. My only complaint with the computer graphics was an extremely fake and off-putting depiction of vomit.
Regardless, the play ensures we will not forget Hamnet. He shows nothing can result in greatness, but nothing has a price to pay. The production stars Aran Murphy as Hamnet for the rest of its Boston run at the Paramount Theatre and runs until Oct. 7. Emerson students, staff, and faculty can receive one free rush-ticket two hours before each performance at the box office.