The first show of the new ArtsEmerson season is called “Hamnet,” and no, it’s not a typo.
While the production is haunted by Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy “Hamlet,” this show, co-written and directed by Dead Centre theater’s Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd, centers on the Bard’s veritable footnote-of-a-son Hamnet, who died at age 11.
“I was quite intrigued by the idea that people would think we’d made a mistake with the title, maybe even feel sorry for us, and then realize on a second look that actually there was someone called Hamnet and indeed he’s the one to feel sorry for,” says Moukarzel, over the phone from Dublin. “Because he lived just 11 short years, and we have little information on him, and of course he’s overshadowed by his famous father.”
Moukarzel is in the midst of rehearsing “Hamnet,” which runs from Sept. 20-Oct. 7 at the Paramount Center’s Robert J. Orchard Stage, with his two young stars, Ollie West and Aran Murphy. West, who was nominated for an Irish Times Theatre award, has performed the role at theaters around Europe during the past year and a half. In Boston, West, who is now 14, will officially hand off the role to his replacement, 11-year-old Aran Murphy.
Shakespeare’s biography is full of so many missing pieces, speculations, and caveats. So when it comes to his son, it’s a bare-fact existence. Scholars speculate that the child probably rarely (if ever) saw his father, as Shakespeare left his family behind in Stratford-upon-Avon to make his fame and fortune as a playwright and theater impresario in London. “[Hamnet] was born, and he died 11 years later, and that’s it,” Moukarzel says. “The lack of information, that scarcity of life was the intriguing thing.”
The play channels Shakespeare’s famed existential soliloquy about being or not being. Moukarzel and his collaborators employ video and sound design and some visual magic to create a metaphysical meditation on mortality, loss, childhood, the father-son bond, and ambition vs. family responsibility, with a quietly devastating performance at its center. Echoing Beckett, the play takes place in an out-of-time netherworld between the living and dead. The character wears jeans and a hood, with a backpack slung over his shoulders. He tosses a ball against the back wall of the stage, where a live video projection of his image is reflected back, like a mirror, at the audience. He has a mobile phone and uses Google. But he’s been 11 years old for a very long time and doesn’t understand why he’s not aging.
Wandering onto the stage, Hamnet reveals that he’s been waiting to meet his father, and he has a sense that the people sitting in the theater can connect them in some way. “He’s aware that we have more knowledge of Shakespeare as a Great Man, and he’s relying on the audience and our familiarity with his dad to provide clues or insight into him in this liminal moment between life and death,” says David Dower, ArtsEmerson’s artistic director.
Hamnet muses on being “one letter away from greatness.” “The goal is to try and pick up on the atmosphere and feelings of living in the shadow of somebody so famous, who’s in one sense immortal,” Moukarzel says. He wanted to contrast Hamnet dying at such a young age and “having such a limited, curtailed life, compared to one that seems to never end or be infinite and expansive, i.e. the life of William Shakespeare.”
When Dower first saw the show at a theater festival in the Netherlands, he was moved by “the really unusual level of risk and vulnerability in this 11-year-old boy taking the stage by himself,” he says. “The whole world of hope and sorrow and confusion of being a boy whose father is absent just landed right on top of me.”
Hamnet died in 1596, and Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet” between 1599 and 1601. Moukarzel says it’s only natural to assume an emotional and psychological connection between Shakespeare’s grief over his son and the origins of his greatest work. “It would be resonating in the man’s mind as he sat by the desk and wrote this name Hamlet, Hamlet, Hamlet over and over again throughout the play,” he says. “He’d have to be made of stone for it not to be evoking his recently deceased son.”
West says he’s “kind of relieved” to be wrapping up the role. “My voice has gotten a lot deeper since I first started it. So I feel a bit weird playing an 11-year-old,” he says with a laugh.
He’s happily shared his knowledge and tricks for performing the role with Murphy, who says he loves the “adrenaline rush” of acting in live theater. Both were initially hesitant about doing a scene in which Hamnet must interact with an audience member who’s brought up onstage. The boys feared something could go awry, but Moukarzel assured them that the uncertainty is part of the show’s DNA.
“By having such a young performer onstage, the reality is that the whole thing is fraught with unpredictability,” he says. “Ollie hadn’t and Aran has never done a professional show before. That uncanniness and freshness is where somebody’s soul comes out.”
Ultimately, Dower believes that the play’s explorations of fatherhood and raising children will resonate with the questions currently percolating in the cultural conversation about “male fragility, toxic masculinity, how do we raise our boys, absent fathers, and broken families,” he says. “This piece, for me, lives right there.”
Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Robert J. Orchard Stage, Paramount Center, Sept. 20-Oct. 7. Tickets $20-$80, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.