Hamnet deconstructs Shakespeare's status (4 stars)

Hamnet

A beautiful meditation on youth, truth and theatre

Written and directed by Bush Mourkazel and Ben Kidd (with some help from The Bard) this anti-play sets out its stall early, with a camera trained on the audience. Ollie West, the eleven-year-old performer, is Hamnet, learning speeches from his near namesake Hamlet with some assistance from a 'guilty-looking' audience member (tonight, it's playwright Alan McKendrick) and looking up Elizabethan word definitions on Google.

West is a wonderfully deadpan presence, affecting adult traits and dishing out sardonic asides. Jose Miguel Jimenez' video design integrates live filming with superimposed images to startling effect, bringing a virtual ghostly figure to the screen, brilliantly wrong-footing any expectations about the format of the performance. What seems a knockabout, almost stand-up show soon becomes a far richer study in the ephemeral nature of youth, the vulnerability of the lone actor onstage seeking affirmation in applause, and a riposte to the father who has abandoned his son (Hamnet was the real son of William Shakespeare, who died aged 11). Death itself is a constant presence – a child's skull is used in the famous 'infinite jest' scene.

There is much to savour here, from the use of technology, the deconstruction of a Shakespeare classic, to West's mature performance. It may lose its footing towards the end – the references to Trump feel crass and inappropriate, and the Johnny Cash line-dancing grates – but in the main, it's a life-affirming, complex piece asking the audience to reconsider the Bard's status as national treasure, and how child actors can be rendered as disposable as props.

Take Me Somewhere runs until Mon 4 Jun.

Take Me Somewhere

The spirit of The Arches lives on in this festival of contemporary international performance.

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