Sunday 21 January 2018

Hamnet: dead son or moral shadow?

  • Hamnet, Peacock Theatre
  • The Suppliant Women, Gaiety Theatre
The Suppliant Women at the Gaiety
The Suppliant Women at the Gaiety
Ollie West in 'Hamnet'

Emer O'Kelly

The Dublin Theatre Festival is off to a good start.

Hamnet knows what's real in the real world. From his place somewhere in time and space, he can use every contemporary kid's preoccupation with the internet. Everything can be checked with Mr Google. Even himself.

But Hamnet, the barely-existing shadow boy who is a reality (except perhaps to himself) can slip out of existence with the transposition of a single letter. It's Hamlet people remember. Who wasn't real. And with a slip of the finger on a keyboard, Hamnet - Shakespeare's real son - is replaced by him.

Somewhere in infinity, it puzzles Hamnet; it puzzles him nearly as much as the shadow of his father puzzles him. His father left him when he was three years old, something about the irresistible pull of art. That was before the father achieved immortality…or was it eternity? Is death the problem or the solution?

Ollie West in 'Hamnet'
Ollie West in 'Hamnet'

Quite early on in Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd's play Hamnet, his father, William Shakespeare, engaging in the metaphysics of creative power, tries to explain it all to his 11-year-old son. Shakespeare, from the omnipotence of the creative process which has given him a world overview to span the centuries, tries to bridge the gap with his boy by a display of his omniscience. "I'm a great man," he tells him; "ask me anything, that will prove it". "Why did you leave me?" Hamnet asks. And the greatest playwright the world has known has no reply. Except to point the 11-year -old to Hamlet for answers. "To be or not to be…" muses Hamnet. But goes no further…he doesn't understand the rest. He does understand death: they all die in Hamlet. Seventy-four people die in his father's plays, altogether. Even his father isn't sure of that; but an application to Mr Google provides the answer.

For the father, with his legacy cast in the stone of his reputation, the youngster must know everything because he existed once, while he, the "Great Man" now exists fractured into every reader's and player's personal vision. Hamnet, a shadow in history, the loved son who was abandoned for fame and died without the mark of experiencing manhood, "understands", Will believes. But all Hamnet understands is that he wants to be real… and yet symbolically, it's the breaking of his treble voice that breaks him. Because it never happened, he can't understand.

Not since Tom Stoppard re-invented Shakespearean metaphysical exploration with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead can there have been such an extraordinarily fascinating and moving disposition on the meaning of life and particularly of death. That Hamnet is played by Ollie West, an 11-year-old actor of extraordinary natural talent and an irresistible combination of innocence and intellectual curiosity, makes it even more impressive, indeed almost frightening. (The dramaturgy is by his playwright father Michael West, but that does not take from the powerful experience, any more than does the staging, with a video version of himself playing against co-author Moukarzel as Shakespeare.)

That impressive video design is by Jose Miguel Jiminez in a set design by Andrew Clancy, superbly lit by Stephen Dodd.

Co-directed by co-author Ben Kidd, Hamnet is at the Peacock in a co-production between Dead Centre and the Abbey.

*******

Having respect for the founders of the world's theatre, I hesitate to say anybody has got Greek tragedy exactly right, but there is a sense in Ramin Gray's production of David Greig's version of Aeschylus's The Suppliant Women, that this is how a Greek audience might have felt watching it around 450BC. For a start, it is played almost entirely in chorus, emphasising the Greek convention of the action taking place off stage. And the force is overwhelming, the sense of a society driven by primal urges and blind force startling.

The presentation at the Dublin Theatre Festival is a co-production between the Actors Touring Company and the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh. It is designed to be toured with a ''local chorus'', so the Dublin chorus has been trained by Mairead Duffy with their movement by Sarah Johnston. Perhaps it is their amateur enthusiasm, or the rawness of their presence allied to costumes to be found daily in the checkout queue in Lidl; but this has the reality of desperation, as the daughters of Danaos flee their Egyptian homeland to avoid forced marriage under its laws, and land in neighbouring Argos seeking asylum.

There, King Pelasgos, invoking his country's new and dangerously novel system of ''democracy" has the people take a vote to give the women sanctuary, which implies a vow to go to war to protect them if necessary.

But things change when the thwarted Egyptians arrive at the head of an army, and it becomes a question of "life being too short to stick to a principle''. The play as Aeschylus wrote it ends inconclusively, and the sequel is lost, but the moral is clear.

So clear, in fact, that David Greig's text is perhaps a little too heavy-handed. But that's a small fault in this stylishly convincing, engulfing morality tale.

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