“The time is out of joint.”
I always thought of time as akin to a train chugging along on a railway line. The train only went in one direction, never stopping, never looking back, as it puffed along around the circumference of the earth. As it chugged along, an observer sitting on the cattle catcher would observe the fields, forests, cities, rivers and marshes, as they changed from season to season, never looking back. The train would always arrive back at its departing stop but would never falter and keep chugging along and that little creature, sitting on the cattle catcher, would see all the same things again with the knowledge of what he was going to see and when.
There would be many trains of course, and many different lines but before I never thought that they could collide.
But they did of course.
Tradition is the expectation that every journey on that train will inevitably throw up the same visions, the same challenges. Tradition’s authority stems from this knowledge, that there were those that have travelled this journey before and have the information, to pass down to the next traveller on the journey of time.
In Dead Centre’s Hamnet, a young boy of eleven stands on a stage in front of a large screen. Alone. He has lost his father and he is stuck at the age of eleven. He can’t grow any older and his father, the authority figure that has travelled along these train tracks before is absent. In the absence of the father, Hamnet peers at the audience and looks for another to re-enact his father’s presence. Using of course, the text that his ‘father’ wrote on ghosts, lost fathers, and time unravelling. Hamlet.
Hamlet is a play about a ghost, about a father who in his absence, dictates Hamlet’s present.
Hamnet is also a play about a ghost, about absence. But here it’s Hamnet who is the ghost, a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s only son, who died at the age of eleven. And it is this familial loss, the inverse of the natural order that Dead Centre are concerned with. The trace of absence that not only shapes our words, but our emotions.
When we walk into the Peacock and take our seats, we are faced with a screen that reflects the audience back unto themselves. The screen is not a mirror though it initially acts like one. As we wait, we reflect on ourselves, our digitised selves living beyond the breach in a landscape that can be forever be replayed, long after our absence. We are contemplating our very selves as ghosts.
A small camera lay hidden behind the canvas on the stage, pointing at the audience, at the front of the stage. The camera separates the living from the dead, but it opens up communication between them. In one’s presence in front of the camera, in one moment of time, one’s absence can be assuaged in another moment.
In Ghost Dance, Derrida states of the moving image that it is the terrain of ghosts.
“Cinema is the art of ghosts, a battle of phantoms… It’s the art of allowing ghosts to come back… I believe that ghosts are part of the future and that the modern technology of images like cinematography and telecommunication enhances the power of ghosts and their ability to haunt us.”
The radiance of Enlightenment’s rationalism brought to light the different mechanisms of the world’s working, banishing the ghosts to stories, irrationalism and history. Yet technology keeps progressing and, the mechanisms of the world, that we once thought we understood have been blitzkrieged. So much of our interaction with the world now takes places through an LCD screen where we replicate our selves, skew temporality and engage in communication with images that are no longer living nor dead.
As the world becomes a conglometure of digital representation and real life, the barriers between the two dissolve, the static nature of online time, its temporal askew-ness seeps into our conception of time in real life and we become haunted, our minds become the hosts to the images of others, their selfies, thoughts, desires. Our present becomes mediated by the screen, where ghosts have their communion and we can join them.
Tradition has lost its authority here. No one knows the way any longer. We are all lost souls of the underworld.
In the absence of his father, Hamnet invites an audience member on stage, to play the Ghost of Hamlet Snr. Hamnet hands over the text, throws a white sheet over the audience member and for a moment he can playact the return of the authoritative figure. There is a fleeting hope here, that in the text, Hamnet can find some guidance, some escape from his existence in no-time, that his absent father can be conjured through his script, that he can somehow navigate this world. The audience laughs at the comical ghost hidden under a white sheet.
Cleverly, Dead Centre completely flip the script on the above idea.
Rather than there being an absent father, and the suffering child who has to make his own way in the world, we are confronted with a very potent image. The vitality of a ghost. Its living and breathing existence. That the child we are observing on stage is actually the absent one, it is his absence that is haunting his father, the writer Shakespeare.
“To be, or not to be, that is the question.”
Whether we “be” or “not be” we still are an active agent. Although non-beings may seem to be bereft of a body, they act too as an agent on the human mind. To not be is to become a ghost, to haunt life as a shade, as a spectre, as a memory. An internalised voice in another’s conscious. Their non-being the objective, outside other that invests meaning in the chaoticism of subjectivity.
Few shows use technology I have seen have used technology as seamlessly as ‘Hamnet’. It is a mediation on absence and presence. The manipulative power of the screen is harvested to astounding effect in the dialogue between the ‘Hamnet’ as ghost in his physical presence on stage, and ‘Shakespeare’ alive on the screen. A representation of all our dialogues with our ghosts.
But the screen poses another question. Since it has become all our closest companion, since it is it that to which transcribe our desires, our queries, our images. Since it stores it becomes something like a collective depository of us. Do our diverse subjectivities become the bedrock of a future objectivity, hinted at in the voice of Google’s Siri that has supplanted the authority of the father for Hamnet?
Who told Hamnet that when he hit the ball against the screen infinity times that it would shatter? When that occurs the screen that separates being and non being crumbles. I’m trying to think about what happens then.