FIND 17 Hamnet and the Theatre of »Unnaturalism«. Dead Centre Return to the Schaubühne
by Joseph Pearson
4 April 2017
FIND17 is now well underway – you can tell when the Schaubühne café is abuzz with voices speaking French, Italian, and Greek, as well as German. And I am sitting across from two very articulate young men from Dublin who are familiar faces: Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel. The duo brought »LIPPY« and »Chekhov’s First Play« to the festival last year, and now they are premiering their work »Hamnet«. No, I did not just misspell the name of the piece. Over our conversation, it becomes clear just how important a single letter can be. The piece explores the story of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, who died at the age of 11 in the year 1596 while his father was absent with work. Three years later, presumably in his grief, the Bard wrote the play »Hamlet«.
Joseph Pearson: What made you two write and direct a play about the (dead) 11-year old son of Shakespeare?
Bush Moukarzel: The name. We were just one letter away from something recognisable. We knew it would seem like a typo in a lot of brochures, and thought it lovely that the audience would be drawn into why there is an »n« as opposed to an »l«. The play starts with the misreading. It’s a good way to start. Of course, there is almost nothing known about Hamnet Shakespeare, only that he was born and eleven years later died. It was attractive to have to conjure up material, out of the virtue that there was none.
How has it been working with Ollie West, your 12-year old actor playing the 11-year old?
Ben Kidd: I wouldn’t say it was a surprise, but we had no experience of working professionally with kids. We had no conception of how it would be. I still feel like it was just a singular experience: of walking into a consciousness that is so different from ours. He interacts so differently with the idea of a theatre event. For him, it’s a learned event he is going to perform, as the carrier of the energy of the show. We are so used to working with adults; we realised there is a lot that we just take for granted. I don’t mean this negatively; it was remarkable to be with someone without an ego, without anxiety, and – being young and not having performed before – without any expectations for himself. It was extraordinary and intriguing. I still don’t know what he understands of the content of the show. He’s really bright, we love him to bits, but you don’t have with him the conversations you normally have with actors. It would be fascinating to know what goes on in his head.
Bush: I still don’t think I know how to direct a 12-year old. But Ollie has really set us up for working with adults: he’s taught us patience and clarity. But not how to work with children.
Ben: And kids bring a sensibility to the room that a lot of adults have learned to bury.
What are these sentiments that adults have learned to bury?
Bush: Adults pretend to listen. To directors’ notes for example! But Ollie doesn’t pretend to listen. In fact, he pretends not to listen. He pretends he is not interested in the adult world. While adults pretend they are interested in the adult world, but they are not.
How did you find him, choose him?
Bush: His parents are theatre people, his mother Annie Ryan performed in »Chekhov’s First Play« and her husband, Michael West, is a playwright. They are both the artistic directors of the Corn Exchange in Ireland. I knew them socially and professionally. And their kid Ollie acted in a development version of »Chekhov’s First Play«. It was only one showing, with an audience of 40 people. He didn’t have a lot to do, but what he did, he did precisely. He only had one line, but he had choreography, and he nailed it. That gave us the confidence and courage to conceive the show around him. It was ambitious though: can you get a young performer to hold the stage for one hour on his own?
Ben: He seemed to have the necessary poise and –
Bush: and the necessary vanity –
Ben: a godsend, really, we found out later. I am amazed by how comfortable some people are with people looking at them. I find that deeply anxiety-inducing when it happens. A lot of people are like me. But you can’t be that way if you want to perform. Ollie could have been like me.
Bush: Not all children have vanity and self-awareness. But as a young performer, Ollie has it, but in a way he –
Ben: he hasn’t learned to ration it, harness it, yet. Directors make actors use their vanity as a craft, and Ollie’s quite brilliant. For example, we had a rehearsal with some invited audience members, and they laughed a bit, and Ollie knew how to ride that laughter in a remarkable way that you can’t teach. He had a poise and quality to him that was perfect.
Bush: He’s always checking his hair [to make sure it’s neat]. And I said: come on, Ollie, you’re playing a dead boy. And when you’re dead you don’t care what your hair looks like. He took that note.
Ben: It’s odd, really. He’s never once raised any queries about why he’s playing a dead boy.
Bush: That is because he lives in a cartoon universe where things are both themselves and their opposite, and he’s comfortable with that. He’s versed in the worlds of SpongeBob SquarePants and Adventure Time. They’re malleable universes. Surrealism comes naturally to him. He’s not versed in realism. Naturalism is alien. »Unnaturalism« and surrealism is his Jesus. It was self-evident to him that you would tell a strange story strangely.
I imagine getting a kid to remember fifty minutes of lines was a challenge?
Ben: It was »the« challenge.
Bush: We needed to assess intelligently at intervals to understand where he was at, with enough turnaround time in case he couldn’t do it. He really took us to the line on that. He didn’t go home to learn lines. He went to school and did homework, but not homework on the play. So we needed to encourage him to speak the lines and perform when we had him. But he managed. You have to remember; he’s never had a hangover. His brain welcomes reality into it. Lines go in, and they don’t go out. He has a receptive brain and body.
»LIPPY« and »Chekhov’s First Play« have both toured for years now, but your 12-year old protagonist won’t stay 12 forever. Does this mean people should see »Hamnet« while they can?
Ben: It has a puberty, an ending to it. »LIPPY« and »Chekhov’s First Play« mind you have been recast a number of times. But recasting a child actor would be onerous in a many ways.
Bush: If he gets old enough to play Hamlet, then we are done. There is, though, something quite attractive to it having a short life span. Potentially, it will be as short as Hamnet’s short life.
Ben: Hamnet was a short historical fact. A little typo. Forgotten by the culture. But the show won’t be!
Could you tell us about the connection between Hamnet’s short life and »Hamlet« the play? How do you imagine the connection?
Ben: Harold Bloom, the critic, wrote an essay on »Hamlet« called »Poem Unlimited«. The phrase appears in the play itself, in »Hamlet«. The idea is that the universe of »Hamlet« is a poem unlimited.
Bush: No performance can capture the expanse of the play, no interpretation of the character can catch up with its magnitude. And so that’s why Bloom conceives it as the limits of representation and consciousness. The subtitle of our piece is »Poem Limited«. It’s all too knowable, unfortunately.
Ben: Although that doesn’t preclude the idea that you shouldn’t try.
There is almost nothing known about Hamnet’s life. How, then, did you do your research?
Bush: We had two methods for research. We looked to Shakespeare biographies, and to the experiences of children in the time – how they lived and how they died, and how that world was presaging this one. But we also had an eclectic method, which was that I read all the Shakespeare plays and extracted any moments when a parent spoke to a child. With them, I made a document. We imagined that Hamnet’s problem of not knowing his father, who was away, could be helped by an indirect self-help book, of all the fathers and mothers of Shakespeare’s plays telling him how to live. The problem is that he doesn’t understand them, they are cryptic codes he cannot crack. He can’t change an »n« to an »l«.
Ben: But organising a script around this idea was too complicated. It meant including a large amount of Shakespeare’s text, and it was brutal on the ear for the audience. So what we did became a little more conceptual, a little arch.
Bush: But the original plan informs the backbone of how Hamnet navigates the universe, how Hamnet would turn that »n« into an »l«, and he casts the audience as children of Shakespeare. They join Hamnet in the cultural decoding of a canon. Hamnet’s problem becomes the audience’s.
And might you tease us a little with your style? The plays you brought to the Schaubühne last year were strange and surreal, also somewhat Beckettian. What can we expect this week?
Bush: One thing I am keen to mention is that one of the things we wanted to pursue with this image of Hamnet, as a dead boy, was »unnaturalism«. Something so self-evident as death is experienced in grief as unacceptable. Its experience is unnatural. So, in fact, Hamnet’s scenario, which is so inevitable – that he lived and died – wants to become sort of a cry of this »Poem Limited«, as the world shouldn’t be as it is. He doesn’t want to let it. Tonally and emotionally, I thought it would be quite joyous to imagine a type of theatre called »unnaturalism«.
by Dead Centre
Direction: Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd (Dublin)
Premiered on 5 April 2017