Hamnet, as the play’s programme informs us, is just one letter away from greatness. It’s a predicament that haunts the play’s central character, Hamnet Shakespeare, who is based on the real-life son of William Shakespeare. In the play, Hamnet is close to great things – his father, literary fame, knowledge, life, death – but is tragically trapped on their margins. In one hour and with just two actors, Hamnet plucks its titular hero from the side-lines and makes him the centre of attention to tell his story.
From his opening lines as the eleven-year old Hamnet, Ollie West arrests the audience’s attention and never lets go. As a ghost and in asking the audience “Who’s there?”, before telling us “I’m not allowed to talk to strangers”, Hamnet recalls the opening of Hamlet and indicates that fourth-wall breaking will be par for the course. The audience will be both spectators to and participants in Hamnet’s working through of some big and very personal questions – What makes a man great? Why do we suffer? Why do we make art? Why would you choose “not to be”? Are some people born bad? When they’ve never really lived, why do children die? Does his father prefer him or Hamlet? Why did they see so little of one another? It is remarkable that in spite of the gravity of these questions and of Hamnet’s situation, the play is packed with comedy. For instance, Hamnet’s youth is highlighted as he energetically knocks out a Johnny Cash tune on his keyboard, gives a new friend tips on how best to play dead (the key is to stay still and not breathe – wannabe actors take note!), and stuck for answers he pulls out his phone to ask Google. As the play’s authors have crafted a fine balance between tragedy and comedy, West has plenty to work with and he ably shifts between the tones and the media (stage and film) of this production – no small feat for any actor, never mind a pre-teen boy.
Exploring the performative and critical history of Hamlet, David Bevington observes that the play “has now evolved into a cultural expression of what we as a society have become today” (Murder Most Foul, 2011: vii). Like its more famous ancestor then, Hamnet tackles not only existential questions, it seeks in part to express and examine the state of contemporary society (“to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature” [Hamlet, 3.2]). Hamnet and his father Will are trotted out for our entertainment, but the play frequently forces the audience’s gaze back on itself. This is achieved both literally through the backdrop of a live video that shows the theatre and metaphorically as the play pokes at the suppurating wounds in modern life. Hamnet’s targets are near universal and many hit close to home; the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, Donald Trump’s presidency, celebrity culture, the double-edge sword that is technology, and child-rearing practices (including the Work/Life balance which is an ideal but more often another source of guilt for the working parent), all fall within the bounds of the characters’ discussions.
Throughout, Hamnet offers several opportunities to play “spot the reference”. Hamnet’s speeches are peppered with Shakespearean quotations and allusions and at other times the play lifts wholesale from the canon. Hamlet is the key source, but we also hear most of Constance’s “Grief fills the room up of my absent child” speech from King John; as Hamnet misses his sister there are echoes of the separated twins of Twelfth Night and Comedy of Errors; Falstaff and Hal’s play acting in Henry IV Part 1 springs to mind when Hamnet plays at being Hamlet meeting Old Hamlet; and there are touches of Act 5 of Antony and Cleopatra when Hamnet worries whether in the future some actor will play him on stage, but botch the job.
The play is more than a tapestry of Shakespearean references though, and even as it draws on Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, it is something fresh, original, and striking. In the days since I have seen Hamnet, I’ve thought about it again and again – it is a prismatic work, turning the play over in my mind I keep seeing new facets, questions, and ideas – and I’m only certain of one thing: I want to see it again.
Hamnet runs as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival until 7th October – tickets here – before touring to Europe and Asia. There will be a Post-Show Discussion on Thursday 5th October, with members of the company.
[A repost of this guest post by our own Dr Edel Semple for The River-side blog of UCC Library’s Special Collections, Archives, and Repository Services.]
The River-side welcomes this guest post from Dr Edel Semple, School of English on her experience using items from Special Collections’ early modern books collections in her Culture Night talk ‘Shakespeare’s Sources and Boole Library’s Resources.’ Shakespeare’s Sources and Boole … Continue reading [see link below] →
Guest post by Emer Murphy
As the most celebrated playwright ever to put ink to paper, it remains astonishing that so little is known about William Shakespeare’s personal life. However, in an imaginative and intriguing one-act play, as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival, Ger FitzGibbon, former head of Drama and Theatre Studies in UCC, delves into the sparse facts of Shakespeare’s private life, a life in Stratford-Upon-Avon. The Bed, a one-woman play co-directed by FitzGibbon and Jack Healy, gives the stage to Shakespeare’s widow, Anne Hathaway, as she reflects on the life of her late husband, and reacts to the contents of his will in the aftermath of his death.
Starring Paula McGlinchey (who has featured in previous Shakespeare productions as well as in BBC’s Line of Duty), the play is set in April 1616, and takes place in the bedchamber Shakespeare once shared with his wife. This setting helps to separate the private man from the celebrated playwright who wrote for the London theatres and the court. The play serves as a platform for the wife and the life Shakespeare left at home in the country and it is Hathaway’s subjectivity which maintains the focus. Performed in Cork’s Unitarian Church, the unique, limited capacity space offers a more intimate scene for Hathaway’s reminiscing as the audience forms an L-shape in close proximity to the stage, allowing us to intrude on the private thoughts of the protagonist, thereby creating a bond between the subject and the audience and placing us firmly on Hathaway’s side.
Having bequeathed most of his belongings to his eldest daughter Susanna, Shakespeare leaves Hathaway with his “second best bed”, an object which dominates the stage. The playing space itself takes on the shape of a large-four poster bed as single wooden shafts stand at the four corners, anchoring a cloth canopy above the stage, effectively mirroring a bed. The action of the play, therefore, whether intended or not, takes place on a bed, firmly confining it to the private sphere between a husband and wife. Within this domestic space, Hathaway frequently addresses her dead spouse and remembers their more intimate moments together, along with the challenges their marriage faced.
Issues of widowhood and the social alterations and ambiguities that accompany it are addressed in the play, raising concerns about the reality of a widow’s legal rights. McGlinchey’s powerful performance combines light and dark, despair and humour, and sees both laughter and tears as she commands the stage, displaying a range of emotions as she tries to adjust to the reality of her husband’s death and her changed situation, where “widows [are] shoved off into corners”. Now relegated to a lesser room in the house, she is left eating cold mutton and barley with no spoon!
She portrays moments of deep, silent contemplation along with occasions of loud, emotional outbursts as she recounts the death of their son, Hamnet, along with an array of both turbulent and blissful episodes in their marriage. Challenges such as his mother’s belief that Anne had “snared her innocent [son]” shadowed their union. Other personal insights into their relationship make Shakespeare all the more human for the audience as Anne recalls how it infuriated her when he would write down her words when she was “trying to have a fight with [him]” after his long periodical absences from home.
Despite their differences, however, their marriage was not completely clouded in darkness and pain, as she remembers fondly their more affectionate moments picking blackberries, and “playing and making lewd verses”. Her discovery that he kept her apple-wood whistle brings a shadowy smile to her lips and softens her resolve as she realises that he brought mementos of her to London, adding to the dynamic of her grief. Her tenderness, however, is short-lived and replaced with a knowing scoff as she acknowledges how it has “dried out from lack of use”. Such contrasting emotions heighten the already poignant atmosphere as other such personal memories pour out as she remembers the intricacies of their marriage.
The raw emotional scenes of the play are complimented by Irene Buckley’s original music scores, which alter the atmosphere dramatically. The music heralds a shift in mood for Hathaway, seeing her transported to a distant memory from the past. At one point in the production, soft, tranquil music begins to echo as her eyes glisten with oncoming tears while she recalls the summer they married. The music cuts unexpectedly and anger replaces grief as she shouts “get out of my head”; she is a woman in mourning and McGlinchey’s performance depicts this in a moving manner.
One of the more notable features of the play, however, is the repeated references to some of Shakespeare’s most famed work. Hathaway accounts for aspects of their lives that inspired the plot of plays, including Twelfth Night. The appropriation of this comedy serves to make Shakespeare’s grief for his dead son all the more real as he determines to provide a happy ending for his family who “all teared up” when the twins are reunited. Hathaway details how the play held a special significance for their daughter, Judith, who was driven to near madness after her twin’s death. Noting that many of her husband’s plays were characterised by loss and confusion, Anne provides a glimpse into the personal motivation that influenced him. The Merchant of Venice is echoed loudly in the play with the discovery of a chest that Shakespeare left under the bed, containing an assortment of treasures and keepsakes, amongst which hides a lost play. Naturally, Hamlet also earns a reference when a mask recalling Yorick’s skull is found. Numerous other plays are woven into the plot and quoted from throughout, including Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like It and King Lear, reminding us of the renowned playwright who has inspired Anne’s tears and anger.
The 65 minute production effectively portrayed the multi-faceted journey of grief and the range of emotions that accompany it.
Guest post by Emer Murphy, postgraduate student on the MA Texts and Contexts: Medieval to Renaissance at University College Cork.