BWW Review: HAMNET Explores the Complexities of a Famous Father Through the Eyes of a Child at Next Wave 2019
Fathers and sons can have complicated relationships. This strain can be exacerbated if the father is not there, or if the father is famous. Worse still if the father is famous and not there. But certainly, the complications could become rather egregious if the father is celebrated, absent and the child dies young. The parent rises to global acclaim ceaselessly for centuries, achieving a sort of immortality; while the child, a product of the man as much or arguably more than any of his other lauded creative achievements, fades into oblivion. Children of powerful or accomplished parents have a hard enough time as it is stepping into the massive shoes laid out before them or being able to be seen for who they are unobscured by the huge, formidable shadow cast by someone who has been called a "great man", but what of a child who never got the chance in the first place? These are some of the questions that arose from Hamnet, written and directed by Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel of Ireland's Dead Centre theatre company as part of BAM's Next Wave 2019, the first to be curated by David Binder in his inaugural year as the new Artistic Director.
That's not a typo. Hamnet is one letter away from greatness, from being associated with one of the Bard's best plays and most epic, fascinating, complex, dynamic, tragic and layered characters -- a great man and heroic human being, a role that actors have coveted since it was penned over 400 years ago. The name feels a bit sad, a bit off, like someone who has taken a well-known name and bastardized the spelling to make it 'interesting'. It evokes a sense of incompleteness, not quite hitting the mark, being in close proximity to greatness but not great by one's own merit (I can't help but think of names such as actor/movie star Michael B. Jordan or musical theatre writer/composer Michael R. Jackson who had to insert a letter between their names to separate themselves from the legendary men who share their name, but not their blood). But what's in a name? A lot, especially if you are the son of Shakespeare.
As is noted in the program and on Wikipedia -- "Little is known about Hamnet Shakespeare. He lived and then died at age 11." Shakespeare's works often, if not almost always, deal with complex relationships with parents and their children. They also are often quite grim and a lot of people die -- children are not spared (Macbeth, Titus Andronicus, King Lear and Hamlet just to prattle off a few). This is pretty extreme in contrast to other renowned playwrights and writers in general -- is there any other with a body count of children equally as high? Shakespeare's plays and their characters might have an elevated mortality rate (it would be a nightmare trying to apply for insurance as one of his tragic roles, they'd be sure to be rejected outright under the absolute certainty of an early death) but that also coincides with an equally unusually excessive amount of ghosts and otherworldly beings who haunt and berate the living. Can one imagine an Arthur Miller or Anton Chekhov play with spectres or supernatural beings running amok and wreaking havoc amongst the living and commanding space equal to the characters who are human -- flesh and blood? Something must have been haunting the man to inspire such dimensional phantasms.
Perhaps that phantasm was Hamnet, his son who died at the tender age of eleven and would have been all but forgotten, until the duo behind Dead Centre decided that this lad needed to take center stage in the form of a living eleven-year-old, and not a famous child star, but an authentic boy who loves the craft but isn't a show pony. The role requires someone who can understand, relate to and portray the nuances of a pre-teen, still a child, full of innocence and opportunity, who could naturally and authentically enter the world of both. He embodies Hamnet, Hamlet, and a contemporary latchkey child. He addresses the audience directly, transforms himself through makeup and costume, and interacts with an avatar of an adult actor (company co-founder and co-writer/director Bush Moukarzel) projected on pre-recorded and live video compilation (seamlessly executed by Jose Miguel Jimenez) who interacts with the live child actor in ways that feel both compelling and frustrating as the viewer sides with the youth who is trying to connect to something and someone who is not really there.
The monologues from the boy and his exchanges with the audience and video-projected man are simple (other than the Shakespearean text) and honest, possessing a natural flow and ease peppered with the kind of humor and innocence that only a kid could portray sincerely. He even sings the Johnny Cash tune "A Boy Named Sue" -- an appropriate wink to being both cursed and strangely blessed by one's name. But the themes and questions provoked are anything but child's play. Matters of greatness, hard choices, abandonment, resentment, blame, and the cycle of life and death are explored openly, with these heavy burdens and existential questions placed squarely on the shoulders of an eleven-year-old, especially one who's not yet old enough to read the source material.
That is a tall order for most actors to carry off, let alone a child, let alone an amateur who'd not been subjected to or broken by the business. "How could one morally or legally put a kid through this?" questioned the creators as they developed the piece. They found their answer and actor first in Ollie West, who originated the role three or four years ago and was very well received. But Ollie aged out. There's a big leap between a child and a true teenager that changes on a dime in a matter of years when inches are added, voices drop and their persona and appearance are altered forever. What to do without their star when there was demand for the potent, meaningful, resonant and relevant show? How does one even audition for that? Enter the Irish ten-year-old who'd actually seen the not-quite-kid-friendly play and adored it -- Aran Murphy. The family (who are friends and supporters of the company) were approached and Aran -- who enjoyed performing in school plays -- begged for the opportunity. His parents acquiesced and his professional debut was in New York City at Brooklyn Academy Of Music (BAM) as part of David Binder's first Next Wave festival offerings. In some ways, Binder himself, with a diverse lineup of exceptional offerings from around the world by companies all new to BAM, is claiming his own space under the shadow of the former Artistic Directors as "father figures" before him.
Put children or animals on stage and you will have heartstrings tugged so much so that their shortcomings might go unnoticed or not be interpreted as a bother. But put a child onstage who is as subtle, natural, engrossing and utterly charming as Aran Murphy and you've got something else entirely. The boy has star quality -- limpid blue eyes that hold secrets, vulnerability and wisdom that delves far deeper than his years on earth -- merged with a naturalness, ease of being and confidence that makes an audience utterly transfixed on his every move and word. This is very helpful to the viewer because he is (other than the father/ghost only on the video screen except for a few moments in person) in essence the entirety of the show. He is fearless, captivating, understated and an absolute pleasure to watch. Even in his most naughty stage escapades (he, rather loudly, quotes Donald Trump's infamous line about grabbing women by their nether regions), there is something wholesome and lovable about this lost child. My prediction is that if his parents allow and his interests remain, he may become one to watch with a long and prosperous career as an actor -- as long as his studies are completed and his affection for football (he supports Liverpool) doesn't get in the way.
Offstage, during the talkback, it becomes obvious that Aran Murphy is pretty much like any other eleven-year-old. He's clever, witty and equally as charming but he's an ordinary boy too, who jokes, fumbles his words when thinking and admits to his jet lag. After such a performance there's something incredibly endearing about seeing a precocious child act his age. In contrast, as an actor, he locks into the character and demonstrated articulation and oceans of depth with confidence and realism despite the difficult source material. Bush Moukarzel called him "preternatural" and commented, "He has an instinct for it. Aran was easy to work with. The tech side, on the other hand, was a bit more tricky but Jose wrangled that." The two have an adorable comfort and rapport with each other that is less like father and son and more akin to playground buddies, perhaps with Aran being the cooler kid because, given the way Moukarzel beams at him, he is in silent awe of his co-star's ability and essence. The writers wanted to capture an authentic voice of an eleven-year-old and part of that process was through getting to know Ollie (whose father Michael West is the dramaturge) and Aran personally. Adults can get lofty and lose track of the sweet guilelessness that makes children so utterly charismatic, but by really spending time with and observing the youths, Kidd and Moukarzel succeeded in honoring their truths as best they could. And though he's not yet of age to read and comprehend the Bard's works he discusses, Aran explained his technique for being able to memorize such massive amounts of text (often in monologue form) which he spoke effortlessly. "I learned the lines three or four pages at a time when we were on holiday in France. Then after I was sure I had those down, I'd tackle the next three or four, and so on."
But beyond his rather extraordinary ability and ease onstage, especially for his age, Aran has another interesting point of relation to his character -- a famous father. Though not nearly as omnipresent, significant or applauded as Shakespeare, Aran's dad could be considered a pretty great man himself -- the award-winning Irish actor of stage and screens both large and small (currently starring in the BBC drama Peaky Blinders), Cillian Murphy. Outside of the obligatory press junkets, Murphy is known for being a private person; he and his family (his long-time girlfriend turned wife, the artist Yvonne McGuinness, Aran and his brother Malachy) live in Ireland, a far cry from Hollywood, where clearly their outings include enriching activities such as going to shows by Irish theatre companies at the local playhouse, rather than dodging the paparazzi. Being in the business himself, he is understandably protective of Aran and his precious, untainted innocence, yet clearly the apple didn't fall too far from the tree and Aran's folks indulged his interests.
There's something fascinatingly full circle at work in Hamnet -- particularly in terms of the serendipity of finding not one, but two exceptional young actors who could so seamlessly slip into such a demanding role -- that gives a sense of closure and perhaps even, purely symbolically, peace to the restless soul of the child of Shakespeare lost to history. Like Hamnet, both Ollie and Aran have fathers who also work in the theatre (and film and television too in Cillian Murphy's case), but unlike him they have the true fortune of knowing love from caring, present and devoted dads. Maybe some of that affection, attention and support those lads received has rubbed off on the ghost who was conjured forth to speak his speech on the stage for the first time and, though he will never get the chance to be immortalized as his father is, a few more people will know his name. Perchance there is a larger lesson for fathers and sons here; a great man can also be a great dad.