Neil Dowden in the West End
24 October 2023
Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s best-selling 2020 novel Hamnet opened the newly refurbished Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in April. It’s the second RSC show to transfer to London following hot on the heels of The Empress at the Lyric Hammersmith. In an extraordinary coincidence, it’s also the second show to open in the capital in the last week that revolves around the death of a twin boy. Marina Carr’s gruelling tragedy Portia Coughlan at the Almeida Theatre focuses on the downward spiral of the surviving sister. A very different play, Hamnet shows how bereavement can have a corrosive impact on the parents’ relationship but can also lead to healing commemoration in art.
Liza Sadovy and Peter Wight.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
The parents in question here are William and Agnes/Anne Shakespeare (née Hathaway). The first part of Hamnet outlines their youthful first meeting – when she works as a natural healer and he is a Latin tutor – and their quickly burgeoning love in late 16th-century Stratford. Her ensuing pregnancy creates ructions within and between their respective families but their hasty marriage serves not just as romantic union but also as business arrangement since Will’s father is a glove maker and Agnes’s brother is a sheep farmer.
Two years after the birth of their daughter Susanna, Agnes delivers twins Judith and Hamnet. While Agnes takes responsibility for the family when living with her in-laws, Will is making a name for himself as a playwright in London. But separation becomes estrangement after Hamnet, who has closely tended to Judith as she overcomes the plague, succumbs himself and passes away aged just 11. Agnes is bereft, while Will buries his feelings in work back in London. However, his grief finds expression in his plays which unexpectedly acts as a form of reconciliation.
Chakrabarti (who also wrote the award-winning stage version of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi) has flattened out O’Farrell’s poetic convoluted style into a more prosaic chronological narrative. This may be a portrait of Shakespeare as a young artist but the emotional heart of the story is very much with Agnes who is shown as a force of nature who puts her family first. It’s an engaging story with an alternative perspective to the usual literary history in which she is a background figure. The scenes in rural Stratford come to life in a way that those in theatrical London don’t. At their most entertaining, the latter resemble the witty pastiche of Shakespeare in Love, while sometimes descending into the hackneyed dumbing-down of Upstart Crow.
Madeleine Mantock, Tom Varey and Ajani Cabey.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
Moreover, the speculative linking of Hamnet to Shakespeare’s plays (separation of twins in The Comedy of Errors and especially Hamlet) is unconvincing. The re-creation of Will playing the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father at the Globe Theatre, which forms the dramatic finale, falls flat because of course that play is about the grief of a son for his father not the other way around. Poetic licence is fine, but this asks for a bit too much suspension of disbelief.
Erica Whyman’s entertaining production moves fluidly through the shifts in time and place. Tom Piper’s two-tiered, rustic timber-structured design cleverly morphs by the end into an approximation of the “wooden O” where rehearsals and performances are enacted.
Madeleine Mantock is a free-spirited visionary Agnes, who chooses her own path and is unafraid to confront her censorious stepmother, though her headstrong youth is later subsumed by sorrow. Tom Varey’s Will moves from dreamy storytelling teenager to successful court playwright at the cost of domestic happiness. Their children are persuasively played by adults but not particularly defined, though the special bond between Alex Jarrett’s Hamnet and Ajani Cabey’s Judith is established. Peter Wight is the drunken bullying father John who mocks Will’s bookishness but is later overwhelmed with gratitude when Will arranges to have him awarded a coat of arms, while Liza Sadovy is more sympathetic as his shrewd mother Mary. And Will Brown makes a charismatic Richard Burbage, the original Hamlet.