Alas, poor Hamnet.
There may be an engrossing play to be drawn from the tragically short life of Shakespeare’s son, who died at 11 and whose name was a mere one letter away from the most famous character the Bard ever created. But “Hamnet’’ isn’t it.
Empirically verifiable facts are famously scarce when it comes to Shakespeare and his family. He seldom saw them while he pursued his theatrical career in London, achieving immortality in the process. So one can’t necessarily blame “Hamnet’’ cowriters and codirectors Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd for steering clear of bio-drama.
But what they have devised instead in the hourlong “Hamnet,’’ now making its US premiere at the Paramount Center, is a frustratingly murky, solemn, and pretentious foray into metaphysical abstraction.
The relationship between an absent father and a bereft, longing son is a potentially rich lode of exploration, and, to be fair, Moukarzel and Kidd do make stabs at exploring those fraught dynamics. Matters of abandonment and forgiveness and grief and the price paid by a family headed by a “great man’’: All do receive at least a partial airing in “Hamnet.’’ But the production’s emotional impact is circumscribed by its affectless, cryptic nature; “Hamnet’’ mutters when you want it to shout, and when the play does turn up the volume, it seems an arbitrary theatrical gesture, arriving out of left field.
The real-life Hamnet, who had a twin sister named Judith and an older sister named Susanna, died in 1596 of unknown causes. A few years later Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet,’’ which is still unrivaled for the depth of its dive into questions of being and nothingness.
Similar questions undergird “Hamnet,’’ or at least that seems to be the general idea. The title figure is played by 14-year-old Ollie West, attired in sneakers and sweater and wearing a backpack as Hamnet speaks to us from what is apparently some timeless, spaceless place beyond the grave. (West’s final performance in “Hamnet’’ was scheduled to be Sept. 30. After playing the role throughout Europe for a year and a half, he was slated to hand it off to 11-year-old Aran Murphy for the remainder of the Boston run.) It’s undeniably impressive how adeptly West shoulders the multiple demands of a (too) multimedia production that requires him not just to perform live but also to interact with projected images of himself onscreen and filmed action featuring another performer.
Hamnet is memorizing the “To be or not to be’’ speech, in anticipation of meeting his famous dad. In the meantime, the boy throws a rubber ball against an upstage wall, intent on testing the theory of quantum tunneling (“If you throw a ball against a wall infinity number of times, then, one time, it’ll go through’’). He uses Google to look up the meaning of “malefaction’’ (a word used in “Hamlet’’), describes his violent response to a classmate who dissed his dad (smashing him in the face oh-so-symbolically with a copy of Shakespeare’s collected works), and brings an audience member onstage to enact the famous scene between the Danish prince and the ghost of the slain king, his father.
He also, in a gesture that is too cute by half, sings snatches of Shel Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue,’’ a comic classic about a son wronged by an absent father that was popularized in the late 1960s by Johnny Cash.
Eventually, and inevitably, Shakespeare himself shows up, on film, played by Moukarzel. Their exchanges are. . . . Well, here’s a taste. Hamnet: “If I cost so much, why did you have me?’’ Shakespeare: “So you could meet me.’’ Or, Hamnet: “To be or not to be? Which is it?” Shakespeare: “You have to make a choice. It’s one or the other.’’ It would require a Samuel Beckett to pull off this kind of laconic profundity. Moukarzel and Kidd are not him.
At one point in “Hamnet,’’ Shakespeare counsels his son not to assume that the behavior of quantum particles can be used as evidence of infinity. “You see, there’s a problem when you try to understand big things by looking at small things,’’ he says. “You get lost.’’
Cowritten and codirected by Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd
Production by Dead Centre. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Robert J. Orchard Stage, Paramount Center, Boston. Through Oct. 7. Tickets $20-$80, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.