About two years ago, Bush Moukarzel, the writer and co-director of Dead Centre, went to meet Ollie West, an 11-year-old boy from a theatrical family, to pitch him an alternative theatre project.
It was, for everybody, a leap in the dark: how do you explain Shakespeare to a kid – or, for that matter, life and death? Moukarzel had an idea for a solo show featuring Shakespeare's son Hamnet, who died in 1596 at the age of 11, a footnote in history, with a name vastly overshadowed by the play Shakespeare wrote three years later, Hamlet.
In Moukarzel’s version, the boy would speak about his relationship with his absent father, his father’s famous creation, about being or not being. For the meeting, though, Moukarzel decided to keep things light.
That didn't require him to be disingenuous. Like every production staged by the adventurous and now internationally well-regarded company so far – from Souvenir, a one-man riff on Proust that found room for myriad enlivening devices, to the playful recapitulations of Chekhov's First Play, which gave its audience headphones, a demolished set and the possibility of playing the lead role – the new show would balance its literary inspirations with spry and playful staging techniques.
I want to do it for three reasons:.Number one, there's a dog in it. Number two, there's a bird in it. And number three, I'm in it
West, whose parents are Annie Ryan and Michael West, the director and writer behind Corn Exchange, and who had performed in a work in development of Chekhov's First Play, was instantly enthusiastic. Moukarzel urged caution: "Remember Ollie, theatre is boring."
West took a break to consider and returned to the table. “I want to do it for three reasons,” he said. “Number one, there’s a dog in it.” (The dog was cut in development.) “Number two, there’s a bird in it.” (The bird, a crow trained to speak, was also cut in development.) “And number three,” West added, “I’m in it.” (Mercifully, this has remained the case, following the Abbey Theatre’s co-production test-run in the Peacock, and a hugely successful visit to Berlin’s Schaubühne.)
In truth, it isn't clear how Hamnet could exist without him, a show about the accidental nature of existence itself.
Aware that asking an 11-year-old to hold a stage alone for an hour was a daunting prospect, Moukarzel and Ben Kidd, Dead Centre's co-founder and co-director, sought ways to alleviate the pressure, building in breaks for video. "You want the technology to have a kinetic quality,"says Moukarzel, "to do something. It has to work like a character."
With video designer José Miguel Jiménez, they explored the possibilities of using live video mixing, allowing West’s Hamnet to perform against a recording of another actor – in this case Moukarzel playing Shakespeare, projected on the back wall – allowing the performance to exist between times, between worlds, between life and death. “I don’t want to be nothing,” Hamnet tells us, an apparently contemporary kid, frozen in limbo, hoping to be a great man like his elusive father – or his characters. “I want to be Hamlet,” he tells us. “Maybe I’m too small for the part.”
Moukarzel was initially spurred by the seeming accident of a name, that Hamnet and Hamlet could be so easily confused. (In conversation, the team enunciate the words with almost comic precision.) “You imagine it’s a mistake,” says Moukarzel. “So that suggests a character who thinks of himself as a mistake: ‘I shouldn’t be here. I’m a footnote, or I’m offstage from my father’s affections’.”
Shakespeare wrote a work suffused with mortality and rife with restless spirits
As with most of Shakespeare’s life, we can only speculate about the emotional complexities of his attachment and bereavement, but we know that the playwright had left his family behind in Stratford-Upon-Avon to pursue his career, and he was not present for the death of his only son, from plague. His father, John Shakespeare, died not long after in 1601.
Between those events, Shakespeare wrote a work suffused with mortality – “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns” – and rife with restless spirits.
"We jammed a lot about the idea of ghosts," says Kidd. "The prevalence of that kind of thinking in Hamlet, and Shakespeare, and theatre generally. Attacks on the issue of "to be or not to be" became quite a useful thing to follow. That seems to haunt the play: what is death and where should death live in our consciousness? The idea of seeing an 11-year-old boy work through that has a enormous pathos."
“This boy’s father is, as a cultural figure, our father too: We’re all the children of Shakespeare,” adds Moukarzel. “And what are we supposed to be learning from theatre, if anything? Theatre doesn’t give you lessons in how to live, it’s about how to die.”
In Dead Centre’s productions, Moukarzel and Kidd are drawn to a smart, involving, playfulness; in conversation about the work they often gravitate towards hard theory. (An interview with them will often result in a reading list.)
Their discussion on Hamnet, for instance, includes references to Peter Ackroyd's biography of Shakespeare, cultural theories on childhood by Philippe Ariès and Neil Postman, and – just at the point when Ollie and Michael West dropped in to the meeting – the working methods of the abstract painter Bram van Velde. Ollie, now a teenager, relaxed in his T-shirt and a beanie, began eating a fruit cup, seeming heroically unimpressed. "Fascinating, huh?" asked Moukarzel.
If you're well versed in the elastic logic of cartoons, why shouldn't a play be weird?
Working with both Wests – Michael has served as chaperone and dramaturg – has by all accounts been good for the company, which is now partnering with the National Theatre in London and the Royal Court on potential projects, with a new production at the Schaubühne scheduled for next year. Limited to four hours’ rehearsal with Ollie a day, which in practice boils down to two and a half hours, Dead Centre sharpened their methods and thus the show: people close to the company speak of it as their best work.
Asked to play opposite a video projection, interact with the audience, sing Johnny Cash or dance with a ghost, Ollie has been unfazed by the anarchic demands of a contemporary performance. If you’re well versed in the elastic logic of cartoons, why shouldn’t a play be weird? He was more hesitant to deliver one dialogue, which, informed by the public rhetoric of Donald Trump, would concern any parent. Michael West suggested that Ollie’s misgivings arose because the scene was unclear, ushering its makers towards greater clarity; a sensitive act of parenting and dramaturgy.
Moukarzel and Kidd now marvel at Ollie’s confident, unselfconscious style, somewhere between the naivety of a child and the precociousness of a teenager. Recently explaining the sensation of watching a play to a friend new to the theatre, Ollie told him: “It’s kind of like PE, when it’s not your turn.” Spoken like a professional actor.
For them, it has been a practical lesson in good parenting and trusting directing. In a performance in Berlin, when Ollie began engaging with an audience member who proved un-cooperative, Kidd moved to step in, before Michael West stopped him: “He’ll be ok.”
“It was really fatherly,” Kidd remembers. “I just felt that your dad was my dad as well. I have so much to learn.”
Ollie for his part, has learned from the experience, gaining a much better understanding of what his parents do for a living, while remaining breezily insouciant about the depths of his own show. "I still don't know what it means," he says, as his directors crumple, which seems like a frank assessment. His directors ask if the show has at least given him a clearer understanding of Hamlet. Did he know what it was about? Ollie thinks for a moment. "Kind of," he says. "I don't know. He's, like, a prince, right?"
- Hamnet by William Shakespeare, Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd with dramaturgy by Michael West previews at the Abbey Theatre on the Peacock Stage tonight and runs until October 7th