How brutal. My initial reaction, upon leaving the theatre. My companions and I, shell-shocked. Well done to the team from Dead Centre (Ireland). You nailed the brief.
This was a deeply moving play about fathers and sons and grief and need. Shakespeare had a son. His name was Hamnet. He died when he was eleven. Three years later, Shakespeare wrote the seminal play, Hamlet. In this performance, the lost son is brought to life, come to ask his father some personal truths, come to lay the ghost of the absent parent to rest, once and for all.
It is a simple premise. But it was better than that too. It was, quite frankly, riveting viewing. Performed in its entirety by Aran Murphy, who is, in fact, eleven years old.
In and of itself that is a talking point, a cute little tidbit that whets the appetite. What kind of a show is this going to be? A play about Shakespeare, by a kid? It is far more terrifying than one can anticipate.
We enter, to a lit up room with a white screen, and a camera viewing us and projecting ourselves, mirror like, back onto the screen.
The play starts cheerful enough, the young actor finding his feet, jokes about kids and adults, asking Google nonsensical things. The audience were laughing early, and I had a feeling of apprehension. Don’t laugh now. They are lulling you into a sense of false security.
The theatre lights stay on at all times, only dimming a touch. It is unnerving. The Cremorne is a small theatre, intimate, and the stage is very close and on our eye level.
There is something weird and unsettling about a child actor, particularly in a role that is not twee, or comedic. When we see children on the street we make eye contact with them in a way that we wouldn’t with other adults, it would be rude. We stare at babies, and they, unblinkingly stare back. Small children swing between unbelievably shy and blatantly rude. And we are happy to look at them, often and always. But now that there is a live child on the stage, a place designed for us to be watchers, there is something… not quite okay about the experience. Particularly as the mood darkens and the undercurrents of the play start to well to the surface.
Children. You cannot trust them. You cannot trust them to know the appropriate etiquette. They might ask you anything.
The play is a masterful re-imaging of Shakespeare’s life and times. It is not really a Shakespearean play, although the old master is present. Although, it still plays true to the themes of the playwright from yesteryear, family life rended, regrets aplenty, pressures building, hauntings and horrors and ghosts that won’t lie. The prodigal son. Throwaway jokes for the cheap seats. Universal themes lie closely up against the lives of the common people. It is easy for us to understand, easy to access; the absent father is a narrative that many of us have experienced, or seen. It is not hard to empathise. It is masterful. This is now my second favourite contemporary Shakespeare re-imagining, chasing the absolutely superb, Hamlet Apocalypse by the Danger Ensemble.
The use of modern technology to augment the show is flawless. There is a tendency these days for people to chuck tech into a show just because it is there. In this case, the reflected audience, placing us into the action, fills the room. It gives the performance an immediacy. The camera, constantly watching and recording, Hamnet wandering back and forward into the line of its sight, the ghost of his father, magically, ominously, present. The watchers, the other, reflected back across the stage.
All the elements, so simple, so complex, the old and the new married so delightfully in a theatrical experience that will linger in my mind for a very long time.
Hamnet is on September 8-12 at QPAC as part of Brisbane Festival 2018.