Given the choice of to be or not to be, Hamnet Shakespeare can’t fathom why anyone would ever choose not to be. And being that he’s had over 400 years to think about it, I guess you could say the boy’s given the matter some thought.
Hamnet, only son of William, has been 11 years old for the last four centuries and seems stuck in a kind of limbo, a place that—at least for now—has found a home on stage at the Emerson Paramount Center where ArtsEmerson is presenting the Dead Centre production of Hamnet, Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd’s innovative and odd playlet about one young boy who has never met his famous dad.
Not much is known about Hamnet, who died at the age of 11 while his father was out of town earning a living as an actor, and there is still much scholarly debate over how the loss of his son appeared in Shakespeare’s plays.
But what Hamnet seeks to explore is less how Hamnet may have influenced Shakespeare but rather how Shakespeare’s absence has influenced his son. Even though Hamnet has been dead all this time, he knows exactly who is father is and he’s been looking for him for hundreds of years.
Ollie West is giving a sweet, tender, playful performance as the young boy (he’s been with Hamnet since the beginning) and Hamnet works best when he’s the focus of the play. Passing the time by asking Google questions he doesn’t know the answer to, rehearsing Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue,” and bouncing a ball against the wall—he’s convinced that it will break through to the other side eventually—this boy may not have a father but he certainly has an audience.
But when his father materializes, Hamnet derails and instead becomes insufferably confusing and dull. There is pure magic in the visual effects and West is completely magnetic, but when co-director and co-writer Bush Moukarzel takes the stage as Shakespeare (who at one point removes all of his clothes for no apparent reason), it feels like he wants the play to become about him rather than Hamnet.
For all of the things that Hamnet could have been—and, indeed, comes halfway close to being—a vanity project shouldn’t have been one of them.
HAMNET. THROUGH 10.7 AT ARTSEMERSON, 559 WASHINGTON ST., BOSTON. ARTSEMERSON.ORG