Saturday 27 May 2023

Theatre review: Hamnet

After lockdown, the RSC decided to keep the Swan theatre closed for refurbishment, so this is my first trip back there for over three years. As it turns out, "refurbishment" here means more standing room, fewer and less comfortable seats, and somehow the sightlines seem to have got worse as well. Paying for all this probably needed a decent-sized hit, so Erica Whyman directs an adaptation of a recent bestselling novel - and one that keeps the action largely locally in Stratford-upon-Avon, and with its most famous son. Lolita Chakrabarti adapts Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet, focusing on the women around William Shakespeare and especially his wife Anne Hathaway - here known as Agnes, with a silent G. I haven't read the book but the title, and the trigger warnings about themes of death and grief, gave me a good idea what part of their lives the story would focus on.

So I was quite surprised by how early in their relationship we join them: At the start, with a teenage William (Tom Varey) tutoring a wealthy local family's children in Latin, and wooing the initially reluctant Agnes (Madeleine Mantock,) who works at the house.

His bullying father (Peter Wight) and her wicked stepmother (Sarah Belcher) disapprove, but as she's soon pregnant they're promptly married so that Susanna (Harmony Rose-Bremner) can be born in wedlock. By the interval she's been joined by the title character, William and Agnes' son Hamnet (Ajani Caney,) and his surprise twin sister Judith (Alex Jarrett.)

So this feels like quite a brisk run through the Shakespeares' lives and love, which I found entertaining enough but a bit too speedy to really get emotionally invested in. The second act, where we do actually get to the personal tragedy that defines the story, I found stronger: I can see the need for us to get to know the characters before the rug gets pulled out from under them, but dedicating half the runtime to it is a bit too much.

The title is a clue that the central conceit will be one I'm not particularly sold on, that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in part as a tribute to his similarly-named son. I'm willing to concede the name might have consciously or unconsciously drawn him to look into the story, but the legend it's based on is about a character called Amleth, and there seems to have been at least one other Hamlet play about it before his, so it seems a big stretch to say he built the story around his own grief (it also implies he had a lot of final say in what would probably have been decisions made by the whole company.)

I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the way O'Farrell presents that conceit, because it's a nice misdirect: The world in Stratford-upon-Avon is a very female one, with Agnes' support group also including Shakespeare's mother Mary (Elizabeth Rider) and sister Eliza (Frankie Hastings,) and local midwife Jude (Hannah McPake.) William's life rehearsing with Burbage (Will Brown) and Kemp (Wight) seems more frivolous, and like he's avoiding confronting his loss.

So it's pleasing to see the story bring the couple back together through the writing that Agnes thought was tearing them apart; plus Tom Piper's design for the Globe looking like the actual modern Globe is a nice little in-joke - a reconstruction of a reconstruction. Hamnet does feel like it's dealt with compressing a whole novel onto the stage by skimming over a lot of it - a theme of Agnes as a sort of witchy wise-woman certainly has the air of an afterthought. But a strong cast and production help fill in some of the gaps.

Hamnet by Lolita Chakrabarti, based on the novel by Maggie O'Farrell, is booking until the 17th of June at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon; them from the 30th of September to the 6th of January at the Garrick Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

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