Arts theater review

Two rooms and a sea of troubles

Short, thought-provoking play on the nature of death, child-parent relationships, and enduring impact

8689 ham image option 1 portrait sm
Ollie West plays Hamnet, Shakespeare's mysterious son.
Gianmarco Bresadola

Directed by Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd
Emerson Paramount Center
Sept. 20 – Oct. 7

Hamnet is a raw, intimate portrait of William Shakespeare’s only son who died at the age of 11 and has ever since been shrouded in mist. We don’t know much about him, and it’s likely he didn’t have a chance to interact much with his father. Yet, his existence is like a prism through which people have, for centuries, tried to glean further hints about the Bard’s internal musings. Tune the index of refraction, and we see the child himself, with his own dreams, his own foibles, his own demons — this is who appears on stage in Hamnet.

“I want to be Hamlet,” proclaims Hamnet (Ollie West) to the audience. Indeed, in the 16th century, those two names would have been completely interchangeable. Throughout the play, Hamnet demonstrates that he’s been practicing his lines as he runs through familiar scenes from Hamlet. With these touching, coltish efforts, West underscores Hamnet’s desperation for his father’s approval, the vulnerability of childhood, and bemusement at the adult world. Amongst these hefty themes, West demonstrates his versatility as an actor by sprinkling in welcome doses of humor.

Shakespeare makes an appearance in an...unusual fashion. The play is a kaleidoscope of visual effects, the primary one being that Hamnet is interacting with a green-screened version of his father. As a result, West is actually on stage alone almost the entire time, but his unwavering delivery makes it easy to forget the fact as West talks, plays ball, and dances alongside his incorporeal father. Although the technology is not new, I have not seen it leveraged to such an extent in a theatrical production. At first, it seemed a bit ungainly and superfluous, but when Shakespeare is explaining to Hamnet what it means “to be” or “not to be” and tells him to imagine two rooms, it clicks into place: Hamnet is already dead and he’s in the “not to be” room.

As for the question of what Hamnet actually meant to Shakespeare, the play skirts around this point, coming close, poking it with a stick, but never taking it head on. Hamnet asks his father how many people die in his plays: 74. “How many of those are children?” Hamnet consults his smartphone for this question, too — no signal. Shakespeare swings from angry to gentle, from morose to jolly, finally entreating Hamnet to stop haunting him. At the end of the play, Shakespeare quotes a moving passage from King John on the grief of losing a child.

In spite of such moments, the play holds back from the viewer the satisfaction of sinking one’s teeth into explicit connections and strident conjectures; rather, it paints in broader, metaphysical strokes. Cruder aspects of the play, including vulgar language, on-stage vomiting, and nudity, distract from the deeper meaning that the play aspires to. The performance packs a lot into 60 minutes, and while it leaves more questions than it answers, it is full of a passionate intensity that has the potential to “make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres.”