It’s a limbo play. A set that could even be a miniature of Francis O’Connor’s design for Waiting for Godot in Druid’s production solidifies the ‘nowhere’ aesthetic in Hamnet. Thinking about the trope, staging a ‘limbo play’ seems to be an act of creativity within restriction. A middle ground for the living and the dead to meet. With that in mind I’ve been thinking about what creative restrictions Dead Centre were playing with in this new production. Undoubtedly in making the play Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel would identify myriad others but I chose these four:
Restriction 1: A Child Actor
Ollie West is thirteen. His face on the posters is instantly appealing, and all of the publicity has pushed the ‘but how do you make an hour long show with a kid alone on stage?' button. There are obvious restrictions; you can’t work the standard long hours in rehearsal or tech, there has to be a chaperone or parent around, you have to consider what material is appropriate to expose a kid to, there might be things that don’t connect at a thematic level because the kid might not have had time to live through those kinds of experiences. None of those restrictions really translate into the production though and, aside from one or two moments of understandable nervousness, Ollie’s authentic self and intuitive performance is kinetic and magnetic. There’s honesty in his translation of this character not just because he’s young, but because we trust his belief in what he’s performing.
Restriction 2: Limbo
Plays about waiting beg the question: what are you waiting for? What do you do to pass the time? In Hamnet’s case, the refrain of becoming a 'great man' repeats as a tragic riff, a desire to cross some impossible experiential boundary that would allow Hamnet to understand the greatness of his father, William Shakespeare. But he will always be eleven. His time is filled with small distractions that point back towards his ultimate goal of meeting his father. He throws a ball at the metal wall that serves as a projection screen. Its metallic echo is really satisfying. With his time he has committed to a process of quantum tunnelling and will continue to throw the ball through infinity until he succeeds. He plays a preset on a Casio keyboard and sings Johnny Cash's A Boy Named Sue. He casts a stranger from the audience to perform as King Hamlet’s ghost and acts out the moment Hamlet meets his father. These exercises get us closer to Hamnet and under Ollie’s skin. Michael West’s deft dramaturgy knits together the original text with ad lib and contemporary reference. So here the restriction beats itself by expanding time outwards, allowing for the past, present and future all together. A reference to Aylan Kurdi at one point sticks out in my mind as feeling a little bit too specifically charged. But then, I’m still thinking about it, so…
Restriction 3: Technical Landscape
Dead Centre translates the idea of limbo using audio visual technology. Here the restriction feels a little less creative and more like compromise in the commitment. The conceit of having a technical landscape that marries live and ‘dead’ (terrible pun) video is really clever, but it means the playing space has really strict guidelines it can work within. Objects must hit their mark. With a static camera position and fixed boundary markers the image of the piece can feel a little flat. The payoff has to keep evolving. The moment of close up as Hamnet applies white stage makeup is a relief within this, as are the short beats where the stage is thrown into darkness. Maybe something of the darker ideas in the play feel a little muted aesthetically because of the projector’s constant light and a reflective depth of field.
Restriction 4: Ghosts
There are two ghosts here who never meet. It’s unresolved in every aspect of the staging and that simple idea of want, love and absence are what drive the heart of Hamnet. That restriction supplied a playful idea of trying in moments to have them connect through the technical landscape. We see a ball kicked on the screen by no body on the stage, and the ball rolls. We see Hamnet’s leg massaged by Shakespeare on screen but no body on stage. These moments work best when they root into the resonance of the moment but at times can feel a little predictable because they seem to serve the fun of the technology more than theme or tone.
It’s a technical and heart-ful play, best balanced when the young West has control of the reins.
Maeve for DRAFF
Hamnet by Dead Centre runs at the Peacock Theatre as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival until October 7th. Image: Ste Murray.
Posted: 04 October 2017