‘Hamnet,’ Shakespeare’s Lost Boy, at ArtsEmerson

Shakespeare stands as one the world’s most famous writers, yet much of his personal life lies blurred in mystery. The Bard had only one son, Hamnet, born in 1585 and named for a local friend. The playwright reportedly spent little time with his family in Stratford-upon-Avon, abandoning them to further his career in London. In 1596 he received word that Hamnet, then 11-years-old, was seriously ill. By the time he returned to Stratford, the boy was gone, never having had the opportunity to know his father.

ArtsEmerson is kicking off its 9th season with the Dead Centre theater production of “Hamnet,” co-directed and co-written by Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd. Performances run from Sept. 20 to Oct. 7 at Emerson’s Paramount Center. This marks the only US engagement of the critically acclaimed play.

Set in a contemporary flash of iPhones and backpacks, we meet a boy frozen in limbo. He’s doomed to living in the shadow of greatness, exploring life, loss, and a father to whom he has little connection. The Irish Times called the multimedia experience “uncanny” and “mesmerizing,” noting the play’s “striking considerations of mortality and meaning . . . the halting and flowing relationship between an abandoned son and his remorseful father.”

Only a very special actor can carry such an emotionally complex show. The first two weeks of the run will star Ollie West, praised for his meticulous portrayal of Hamnet in Europe. The final week of performances will introduce young Aran Murphy to the role.

Dead Centre was founded in Dublin in 2012 by Moukarzel and Kidd. The company has built a solid reputation while earning multiple industry honors, including The Irish Times Theatre Award for Best Production, a Fringe First, a Herald Angel, a Total Theatre Award, and two OBI Awards.
As an actor, director, and author, Bush Moukarzel has worked with Painted Filly Theatre, Rough Magic Theatre, and Druid Theatre Company, among others. The Dead Centre co-founder also holds a master of philosophy in psychoanalytic studies from Trinity College Dublin.
We spoke about “Hamnet” by phone before Bush left home for Boston. Here’s an edited look at our conversation.

Q. This is a challenging show for a young actor. How did you find your stars?
A. In both instances, it’s just been organic . . . In the case of Ollie, we didn’t go looking . . . We didn’t really want to go through the process of a casting call for a load of kids we didn’t know. When you don’t really know what the show’s going to be yourself, you can’t so confidently say it’s going to be this or that. It’s an unknown . . . I knew his parents well. The great thing about his having parents in the theater was that he adjusted to all the rhythms of what it means to make a show . . . Already the anxiety level is low.

Q. And Aran?
A. We were running the show at the Dublin Theater Festival and Ollie was being a bad ass, nailing it. It was so great. The whole audience was basically grownups . . . And yet there was one little guy in the audience. That had been Aran. His parents had brought Aran and his brother to the show . . . . He was really digging it and asking about the show. How did you do this, and how did you do that that trick, and how that’s so cool . . . The demographic of people who saw the show, who were eligible to be cast in it, was one – and that was Aran Murphy . . . We reached out to the parents, chatted, it just felt right.

Q. Can such a young actor fully understand the demands of carrying a show?
A. You have to go through the careful stretch of how you ask them if they want to do it, because the answer is yes, straightaway. So can’t take yes for an answer . . . What it is mostly, is that you ask them over a period of time. Just ‘til they really know, to the best of their knowledge . . . what they’re getting themselves into – their instinct, in both cases.

Q. Do audiences need to be fluent in Shakespeare to understand the show.
A. Certainly not. I make shows that my Mum would like . . . With all our projects, of course, we try to do our homework. We assume that if you have a working knowledge of the stuff, it’s made richer or more touching, but no. The event itself has to . . . possess all its questions and then its answers within the evening It’s a sort of little Rubik’s Cube. Everything is contained in the night.

Q. The show employs multimedia technology. What went into that choice?
A. Simply out, you always want to try to – and this can be humbly said because it’s an ambition, it’s up to the audience to judge – you always want to try to make something people have never seen before, you know? You want, with every piece of theater, to broaden the possibilities of what tools we have at our disposal to tell our stories.

Q. ArtsEmerson has been integral in bringing “Hamnet” to the states.
A. It only has had a couple of runs in Europe. We were on in London, Glasgow, Dublin and Berlin. It’s been seen by European programmers and we’ve had talks. But in the states, I think David (Dower, AE’s Artistic Director) is the only person who’s seen it. And he was a big advocate . . . (With a young performer) we can’t exactly build a big tour and be on the road for months . . . So what we said to David is that, look, we’ll do a run. He’s going to try to get the right people in the room and we’ll see if it has a life . . . We’ll take it one Bostonian step at a time.

R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com.
Dead Centre’s “Hamnet,” ArtsEmerson’s Paramount Center, 559 Washington St., Boston. Info: 617-824-8400, or ArtsEmerson.org.