Hamnet Review: Shakespeare’s Forgotten Son at BAM. Also: He Did What?

William Shakespeare’s only son, named Hamnet, died when he was 11 years old; a few years later, the playwright wrote “Hamlet.”  The Irish theater troupe Dead Centre conjures up the Bard’s boy in the hour-long “Hamnet,” a whimsical, tender, technically innovative avant-garde play that features an extraordinary performance by a 12-year-old named Aran Murphy.  “Hamnet” is running at the Brooklyn Academy of Music only through Sunday.

When Hamnet comes out on stage, he tells us that he is not supposed to talk to strangers, but he does so anyway —  in hopes, he says, of meeting his father. He says he’s learning the most famous speech in the world, and then opens a book of the complete works of William Shakespeare. “To be, or not to be: that is the question. I can’t say the rest so I don’t know the answer.” He wants to learn the role, we eventually learn, in hopes of winning  his father’s admiration or at least attention.

Hamnet bounces a ball against the wall; tries to sing Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” but complains that his voice is too high,; takes out his smart phone looking for answers from Google. He also enlists a member of the audience to help him perform the ghost scene from “Hamlet,” instructing him: “Basically, you’re my dad, and you’re dead – sorry about that – and you come to tell me how sad you are.”

Throughout his performance, the actual actor has been projected in a stage-wide screen behind him, which also projects video of the audience (us) in real time. Suddenly, Shakespeare appears on the screen – but not on the stage — as if an apparition. Hamnet looks at him, but says nothing. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” says Shakespeare (portrayed by Bush Moukarzel, who is also one of the writers and directors) Shakespeare asks his son for a hug. Hamnet shakes his head.

“Why did you come here?” the boy eventually asks.

“To say goodbye…You have to stop haunting me, Hamnet. “

“But you’re haunting me,” the boy replies.

There are many layers to this exchange, which is ironic, playful, but also resonant, informed: Shakespeare is presumed to have neglected his child growing up in Stratford-on-Avon while the playwright was busy working in London.

Not long afterwards, Shakespeare recites the speech by Constance in “King John,” which begins

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me..

Shakespeare says the speech as if he’s speaking from his own heart, and it rings true: The Bard is believed to have finished writing “King John” in 1596, the year that Hamnet died.

There are other exchanges that tell us something about Shakespeare – the boy asks him “how many people die in your plays?”
“74, I think,” his father replies. “Ask Google.” (The search confirms the number.) Then the son

“How many of those are children?” Both Google and Shakespeare are silent.

Such factual tidbits and oblique meditations on grief exist beneath a surface more focused on theatrical noodling. “Hamnet” is replete with the conventions of avant-garde theater — non-linear, with ominous cacophonous underscoring, adult nudity, realistic vomiting, obscure intellectual allusions (“quantum tunneling”) and especially the elaborate use of video: The actors pop up on screen and disappear on stage, and vice-versa; we’re never completely sure which projections are in real time and which pre-recorded.

None of this takes away from Murphy’s performance, which is professionally self-assured without being bratty or losing the sense of natural innocence.  Where, you might find yourself wondering, did this kid come from?

The show’s publicity boasts that Arun Murphy has no prior professional acting experience. What it omits is that he is the son of Cillian Murphy, the Irish actor probably best known as the star of Peaky Blinders. In more ways than one, “Hamnet” is about fathers and sons.

“He Did What?” Review

After leaving “Hamnet” at the BAM Fisher building, I stumbled upon “He Did What?” a ten-minute animated opera which is being projected for free onto the wall of BAM’s Peter Jay Sharp building nightly from 7 to 10 p.m. only through Saturday. It is free and it is terrific.  You’re given headphones to hear the opera singers depict the three elderly characters that you see lined up on the wall, all of them using walkers. As her words are projected, one of the women sings to her friend about how furious she is that her husband two-timed her with another woman.  “Gonna shoot the fecker in the pecker,” she sings. The show is hilarious, but it might momentarily give some viewers pause – are we laughing at the elderly here?  That moment passes, though, when the score winds up scoring a poignant, political point:  If she does kill him, and goes to prison, then she’ll have the health care, food and a place to live that she can’t afford on the outside.

BAM Fisher
Text by Bush Moukarzel, Ben Kidd, and William Shakespeare
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
Cast: Aran Murphy, Bush Moukarzel
Running time: One hour, no intermission
Tickets: $25
Hamnet is on stage through November 3, 2019

He Did What?
BAM’s Peter Jay Sharp Building    
Conceived and created by Brian Irvine and John McIlduff
Music composed by Brian Irvine
Written and directed by John McIlduff
Orchestra conducted by Fergus Shiel
Costume design by Clodagh Deegan
Performed by Doreen Curran, Sylvia O’Brien, Dan Reardon
10 minutes, no intermission
He Did What? Is on the wall from 7 to 10 p.m. nightly through Saturday, November 2

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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