A reviews round-up of the RSC’s world-premiere production of Hamnet, which has opened at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Madeleine Mantock (Blithe Spirit – West End) stars as Agnes Hathaway in Hamnet, alongside Tom Varey (Ackley Bridge) as William Shakespeare, Peter Wight (Vera Drake) as John/Will Kempe, Sarah Belcher as Joan, Will Brown as Burbage/Father John, Ajani Cabey as Hamnet/Thomas Day, Frankie Hastings as Eliza, Karl Haynes as Ned, Alex Jarrett as Judith, Hannah McPake as Jude, Rose Riley as Tilly/Caterina, Elizabeth Rider as Mary, Harmony Rose-Bremner as Susanna, Obioma Ugoala as Bartholomew, and Haydn Burke and Faye Campbell in the Ensemble.
Based on Maggie O’Farrell’s acclaimed novel, Hamnet is adapted for the stage by Lolita Chakrabarti, and directed by RSC Acting Artistic Director Erica Whyman.
The play is the first production in the RSC’s newly renovated Swan Theatre, joining shows including The Empress and Falkland Sound, and run from 1 April to 17 June 2023 in Stratford.
The Swan Theatre run is already sold out. Following its run in Stratford, Hamnet will transfer to London’s West End, playing at the Garrick Theatre from 30 September 2023 to 6 January 2024.
Read reviews from the Telegraph and more, with further reviews to follow.
Book tickets to Hamnet at the Garrick Theatre in London
"A palpable hit? Almost"
"The RSC adaptation of Maggie O'Farrell's novel about Shakespeare's son is a searing take on grief"
"At the epicentre of Shakespearean performance, yards from where this family lived and breathed, how does O’Farrell’s finely researched domestic drama land on stage? Pretty forcefully, I’d say, though it could do more forcefully still."
"In the book, the vitality of the little scamp gets rather smothered by the precise prose. Here, though beautifully animated by a wide-eyed Ajani Cabey (making his debut)... I’d love to know more about him, his friends, his life; overall, the bustle of Elizabethan England feels at one remove."
"The strength of Erica Whyman’s spare, fleet, gently atmospheric production lies in its principals..."
" In the mesmerising final scene, when Cabey rematerialises as the “sapling” actor charged with playing Hamlet, we finally get undiluted Shakespearean verse and an expression of grief distilled (“I have of late… lost all my mirth”). At that point the evening soars, and sears."
"An atmospheric and intimate adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s mega-hit novel."
"Erica Whyman’s production, now playing at the newly – and beautifully – renovated Swan Theatre, never rests on easy tropes, and manages to pull off a simplicity and innocence that defies that cynicism, evoking – and even harnessing – the strong sense of place at the heart of O’Farrell’s novel."
"The stage adaptation, by playwright Lolita Chakrabarti, is particularly linear compared to O’Farrell’s time-jumping novel, which makes sense in practice, but sometimes robs the play of the drama and intrigue you feel in the book."
"The adaptation does succeed in giving a clear voice and agency to the character of Agnes, played with gentle skill and, during the scenes of childbirth, grief and loss, roaring intensity by Madeleine Mantock."
"Alas, poor Hamnet, you struggle to make tears flow"
"... Lolita Chakrabarti’s largely adroitly condensed adaptation captures much of the spirit of the book. Erica Whyman’s evocative and beautifully acted production is often touching and witty too. Yet somehow my tear ducts remained dry. This is a good night at the theatre, but not the great one we might have dreamt of from such moving source material."
"Chakrabarti keeps the key moments and exchanges but rejigs the story strictly chronologically. She puts into dialogue moments that the book sees through the thoughts of its protagonists. The result is more pacy but less heady."
"Hamnet, when he arrives at the start of Act Two, is played adorably by the adult Anjani Cabey... Without Hamnet’s presence from the off, though, he plays little more than a cameo role. So his death, the pivotal event, is sad, but the feelings don’t have room to run deep."
"Madeleine Mantock is a gloriously sensual Agnes"
"Adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s Shakespearean novel has a lush loveliness that will win hearts"
"... directed with lush loveliness by Erica Whyman, it is as snug and supple a fit for the RSC as a bespoke kid glove."
"Madeleine Mantock is a gloriously vital, sensual Agnes, her gaze bright and direct, while Tom Varey’s William combines swagger with tenderness and ingenuity."
"Something of the texture and particularity of O’Farrell’s writing eludes this soft-focus version: the plotting is careful and linear, the characterisation somewhat flattened. But Whyman’s production is otherwise beautifully done – a historical-biographical fantasia sure to win plenty of hearts."
"Slick adaptation captures Shakespeare’s horrified unravelling"
"Lolita Chakrabarti’s staging of Maggie O’Farrell’s moving novel about the death of the playwright’s son – and his resurrection in Hamlet – is powerfully played, with the occasional cheesy line"
"Agnes, charmingly played by Madeleine Mantock, is the focus of Lolita Chakrabarti’s light but slick adaptation in the handsomely refurbished Swan theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon."
"Directed by Erica Whyman, it is a story of parental loss but looks more like Shakespeare in Love at first – sweet, easy on the eye, with heavy helpings of romance... Chakrabarti’s adaptation gives O’Farrell’s narrative a clear linear chronology, although the interiority of grief feels flattened, there are a few cheesy lines and cornily whispered voiceovers."
" It is a rather broad-brush portrait of the Shakespeares’ grief, but knows just how to pull at our heartstrings all the same."
"This adaptation lacks the boldness and riches of Maggie O’Farrell’s novel"
"The Women’s Prize-winning bestseller about Shakespeare’s family life – and the death of his 11-year-old son – is at last on stage in Stratford-upon-Avon. It’s slick, but far too slight"
"If any other venue had snaffled the rights to this book, Shakespeare surely would have turned uneasily in his grave in Holy Trinity Church, which lies a few minutes beyond the comfortably refurbished Swan Theatre."
"A little of the richness of the book is undoubtedly lost in the constant churn of short scenes with which Chakrabarti fills her five-act structure"
"Erica Whyman’s production moves confidently and fluidly over Tom Piper’s simple wooden set, with the 14-strong ensemble constantly hard at work. The show is anchored by a luminous performance from Madeleine Mantock"
"Plays inspired by the family life of Warwickshire’s most famous son will never not captivate audiences, but this, unlike its source material, is not a hit."
"Tender take on Maggie O’Farrell’s novel"
"The relationship and tragic parenthood of Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway reaches the stage"
"Adapter Lolita Chakrabarti has crafted a quieter show for the Royal Shakespeare Company, without the intellectual dazzle of her celebrated take on Life of Pi."
"In Erica Whyman’s bare-boards production, the bee-keeping, animal-feeding daily grind of rural life sweatily conjured up in the novel is here confined to sound effects."
"It’s a quiet, thoughtful entertainment — screaming birth-scenes excepted — that builds to a fine intensity. The book still packs the greater emotional punch."
"Hamnet — to see or not to see?"
"The bestselling novel about Shakespeare’s lost son gets the RSC treatment"
"Period costumes have not been much seen at the Royal Shakespeare Company in its recent unhappy years, but Hamnet proves a watchable, ultimately rather touching doublet-and-hose account of William Shakespeare’s domestic set-up."
"The strong-minded Agnes has mystic gifts that connect her to the dead “through the walls of the room of life”. She must have good hearing, because the voices whispering to her were pretty fuzzy to my cloth ears. Mind you, I caught the show at an early preview and any audibility problems may by now have been fixed."
"The old man’s dyspepsia is overdone and the production misses a trick by casting adults as the youngsters. Child actors might have increased the emotional force."
"Shakespeare’s wife moves centre stage in Lolita Chakrabarti’s pivotal adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet"
"Not since Matilda has there been such a female-centred production at the RSC."
"This is not the best play ever seen at Stratford – that might after all be Hamlet. Yet though not always fully charged with power, Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s 2020 novel is pivotal"
"A bewitching soundscape by Xana supplies the sense of an inner life permeated by untamed and spectral noises: birdsong, whispers, the flap of wings, rhythmic tappings that could be the pecking of beaks or knocks from more mysterious sources."
"As Agnes, Madeleine Mantock has a commanding serenity, which is savaged by her son’s death."
"The riskiest moments provide the finest touches: when Chakrabarti interpolates some Globe rehearsal episodes; when Agnes gives birth, her babies delivered from a shroud-like gown like magic gifts. Shot through with promises, the production can tauten."
Garrick Theatre, London