Hamnet

Lolita Chakrabarti after Maggie O'Farrell
Royal Shakespeare Company
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

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The death of Hamnet: Madeleine Mantock (Agnes) and Ajani Cabey (Hamnet) with Hannah McPake, Frankie Hastings and Elizabeth Rider in background (Jude, Eliza and Mary) Credit: Manuel Harlan (c) RSC
Love in the apple store: Madeleine Mantock (Agnes) and Tom Varey (Will) Credit: Manuel Harlan (c) RSC
Making medicine: Rose Riley (Tilly), Frankie Hastings (Eliza) and Madeleine Mantock (Agnes) Credit: Manuel Harlan (c) RSC
Lesson in glove-making: Peter Wight (John) and Karl Haynes (apprentice Ned) Credit: Manuel Harlan (c) RSC
Confrontation: Sarah Belcher (Joan), Obioma Ugoala (Bartholomew) and Madeleine Mantock (Agnes) Credit: Manuel Harlan (c) RSC
Parent talk: Elizabeth Rider (Mary) and Peter Wight (John) Credit: Manuel Harlan (c) RSC
Sick bed: Ajani Cabey (Hamnet) comforts Alex Jarrett (Judith) Credit: Manuel Harlan (c) RSC

There hasn’t been such anticipation at the RSC since David Tennant returned to play Hamlet 15 years ago. And many in the audience who had already read Maggie O’Farrell’s magnificent novel may have wondered whether Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation would live up to similar expectations.

Aye, that is the question, to which the answer is a qualified Yes, provided one accepts the necessary divergence between what appears on the printed page and on the stage.

Chakrabarti irons out the book’s chronology, necessarily interpolating some beginners-start-here background, and losing in the process of concision some of the richness of O’Farrell’s description of larger set pieces. And as a result, Hamnet and his twin Judith do not appear until the very end of the first half, and the separation of Shakespeare from his family, which creates tension through most of the novel, occurs too late to have the same impact.

Where the play is most effective is precisely where the book is least convincing, in the final scene where Agnes (Anne Hathaway as we know her) watches a performance of Hamlet and recognises in it her husband’s memorial to their dead son.

It is the ghost of Hamnet here who plays the prince, not his father, with Will appearing as Hamlet senior. “What a piece of work is man... how like an angel... the quintessence of dust,” she hears the boy say and forgives the father she has accused of not shedding a tear over his loss. And it is the boy not the king who departs with the phrase, “Remember me.”

Erica Whyman’s production is atmospheric, furnished with medicinal herbs and flowers of the field. The action opens in the apple store where Will and Agnes first make love, sending a few ripe fruits rolling in sympathy, with a background set cleverly designed by Tom Piper that gradually builds to become the A-frame of Will’s parents’ home, his grander 26-room house, and the architecture of a London theatre.

Madeleine Mantock carries the day as Agnes, confident yet having to yield precedence to mother-in-law Mary. Her powers of healing and prophesy are represented by the voices and knockings heard all around, but none can help when Hamnet dies. Language breaks down and Mantock trembles in every part of her body and voice as devastation takes over. The effect is stunning.

Tom Varey gives substance to the character of Will, who is given more space than in the novel, talking, as O’Farrell did not let him do, about himself delivering plays like “a clumsy midwife,” rehearsing Romeo and Juliet and The Comedy of Errors, gossiping about familiar incidents from Shakespeare’s life in London.

Peter Wright plays Shakespeare’s father John with the resentful violence of a Caliban, while Elizabeth Rider as Mary moves from hostility to compassion as her daughter-in-law endures absence and suffers loss. Ajani Cabey and Alex Jarrett bring youthful charm to the roles of Hamnet and Judith, Sarah Belcher is fierce as a ferret as Agnes’s mother Joan, and Obioma Uguala as protective as a bear as brother Bartholomew.

The show is the first in the renovated Swan Theatre, where the seats are comfortable at last.

Hamnet transfers to the Garrick Theatre, London from 30 September to 6 January 2024.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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