Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 21st November, 2018
No, you read it correctly. This is not Hamlet, the great tragedy, but it concerns another production of Shakespeare’s: his only son, the ill-fated Hamnet who died at the tender age of 11 while his father was working away from home.
11-year-old Aran Murphy commands the stage in a beguiling, captivating performance as Hamnet questions the nature of existence. His refrain is “I haven’t done anything” – referring to the injustice of his untimely end, and the whole of his brief life’s experience. West embodies innocence and schoolboy curiosity, charming an audience member out of his seat to join him in a scene in which Prince Hamlet is confronted by the ghost of his father. Hamnet, the boy, is haunted by his absentee father. “If I don’t talk to strangers, I’ll never meet my dad.”
A perky lad, he has his father’s aptitude for performance. When his dad finally appears, manifesting on the huge screen that reflects the audience back at itself, the on-stage boy and the reflected boy interact with the figure in perfect unison. Objects moved by the on-screen Shakespeare move as if by themselves on the stage. It’s a dazzling piece of stage trickery: they have to pre-record these moments anew at each venue. Or perhaps it’s some kind of Pepper’s Ghost set-up, brought into the 21st century…
It dawns on us that rather than the son being haunted by his father, the man is haunted by the child he left behind and then lost forever. A quote from King John is like a punch in the feels. “Grief fills the room up of my absent child…”
Written by Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel, this is a moving meditation on the nature of life and death, a pint-sized Hamlet, I suppose. Deceptively simple, this is a powerful production by Irish company, Dead Centre. Funny, enchanting and poignant, it’s the kind of stuff that stays with you. Very little is known about the actual boy in question, but I will be haunted for a long time by this breath-taking performance from Aran Murphy (pictured)