Hamnet Review – Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon ★★★★

An atmospheric and intimate adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s mega-hit novel.

Expectations are high for the RSC’s new stage adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet, and they are largely met by a simple but textured production that makes the story more linear, and relies on solid performances to succeed. 

Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet came out in March 2020, just as the UK had its first Covid lockdown, and for many, myself included, it became one of a few things that helped get through those strange times. 

Her mystical, magical book, steeped in the details of Elizabethan daily life and the rural tranquility of Stratford-upon-Avon, transported us to another world; and the threat of disease hanging over their lives, and taking their loved ones, brought us sharply back to the realities of what our world was going through. 

Adapting Hamnet for the stage, a story centred on William Shakespeare’s family life in Stratford-upon-Avon, is clearly a no-brainer for the Royal Shakespeare Company, but not without its dangers: the production could easily become a Shakespeare Show, in a town that is already perilously close to“Elizabethan Theme Park” status.

But 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 story centres on the love between a young Shakespeare and farm girl Agnes; they are attracted to each other in a visceral way, and when she becomes pregnant out of wedlock, a hasty wedding is planned, with Shakespeare’s father clearing his debts with Agnes’ family in exchange for the young couple taking possession of an annexe next to the family home. 

The annexe dominates Tom Piper’s set – a big wooden A made of ladders and a mezzanine, perhaps a counterpoint to Shakespeare’s big wooden O in London. 

For after their first born, and with another on the way, Shakespeare’s restlessness with life in Stratford prompts Agnes to selflessly suggest that he tries his luck in London, selling the gloves that his family business produces.

The rest, as far as world literature is concerned, is history, but for Agnes at home, now with Susanna and twins – Judith and Hamnet, life starts to unravel when the plague descends, and Hamnet dies aged only 11. 

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 production does find ways to play with time, using ghosts and voices from both past and future to add to the mysticism of Agnes’ world. 

Use of music – there is a full band, and sound, by Xana, could have gone even further to help evoke Stratford and London, and the inner life of Agnes.  

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.

The wider cast is equally impressive, including Tom Varey’s passionate, eloquent Shakespeare, and Ajani Cabey bringing a joyful exuberance to the character of 11 year old Hamnet.

The final scenes set at the Globe in London, where Shakespeare performs his new play, Hamlet, about a man haunted by death, are revelatory and moving, in spite of the staging, which often feels clumsy and inhibiting. 

Perhaps more than anything, this production awakens your understanding of why the pair fell in love in the first place, and how and why they stayed together: Agnes’ instinctive feelings and Shakespeare’s instinctive eloquence were the catalyst for their first love, and their lasting love.

Rating: ★★★★ 

Hamnet is playing at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until 17 June 2023. 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.

Book tickets to Hamnet at the Garrick Theatre in London

Hamnet reviews

📷 Main photo: Hamnet at the RSC. Photo by Manuel Harlan


Garrick Theatre, London

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