The Swan Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon
18th April 2023
It’s a joy to be back in The Swan Theatre, following its year-long refurbishment post-covid.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s “other” theatre specialises in producing the works of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Restoration writers and new work. So, what better text to open the new season with, than Hamnet?
Maggie O’Farrell’s searingly beautiful novel is adapted by Lolita Chakrabati for the Stratford stage, and in the words of the RSC is “a love letter to passion, birth, grief and the magic of nature.”
Arguably the draw of the original novel, which tells an expanded and fictionalised account of young Hamnet’s life and death, is in O’Farrell’s lyrical writing, and consequently a challenge to transpose to the stage. However, this production, directed by Erica Whyman, is a charming, engaging and emotional version of the story of the short life of Hamnet (Ajani Cabey) framed within the love story of Agnes Hathaway (Madeleine Mantock) and William Shakespeare (Tom Varey.)
Shakespeare is not the central character here, which seems appropriate for this venue which also champions the world that Shakespeare inhabits rather than Shakespeare himself; instead it is Agnes (with a silent G) who is the focus, as we follow the story from her first meeting with “the Latin tutor,” to the final anguish of losing her son.
The play follows a chronological time pathway, in contrast to O’Farrell’s time-hopping narrative, which makes the story flow well for the stage, and both the text and the play itself are littered with references to Shakespeare’s work, such as the five-act structure of the script, and the phrases peppered throughout the dialogue, which are versions of lines from Shakespeare’s plays including “death surrounds a single room,” possibly alluding to the “grief fills the room up of my absent child” speech from King John, a play which was written in the same year of the real-life Hamnet’s death. The inclusion of these tropes ensures the play never feels far away from Stratford’s Shakespeare, but equally and effortlessly, providing a slick, unique and graceful new piece of work, supported by Tom Piper’s stunning stage set, and Oğuz Kaplangı’s achingly beautiful wood blocks and fiddles-based sound score.
Hamnet’s death and the grief which surrounds it, is shocking, sad and powerful and Mantock’s Agnes is the absolute beating heart of this play, with Varey’s Shakespeare, an honest, powerless and horrified Father, who finds playwriting a tool to express his grief. The entire cast is stellar, including Hamnet’s twin, Judith, played by Alex Jarrett with raw and wrenching emotion
Lighter relief is provided in the characterisation of Susanna (Harmony Rose-Bremner) within her eye-rolling, put-upon big sister role, and in the (very enjoyable) scenes featuring Shakespeare’s acting contemporaries, Will Kempe (Peter Wright) Richard Burbage (Will Brown) and Henry Condell (Karl Haynes)
At times in the latter half, there are elements that feel a little romanticised and sentimental, and the overt link to Hamlet the play feels a little ‘Hollywood” which is unnecessary in a play which has all the emotional content we need. However, this is a minor note in an otherwise touching, evocative and atmospheric play.
This production is a well-crafted, sensitively directed and beautifully performed piece of work, which lifts Ann Hathaway from a few lines in the history books, to a richly-deserved central presence in the performance world of Shakespeare.
Reviewer: Rebecca Morris