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'Hamnet' review – this deeply felt portrait of grief and love honours Shakespeare's essential humanity

Read our four-star review of Hamnet, adapted from Maggie O'Farrell's hit novel, now in performances at the Garrick Theatre to 17 February 2024.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

While the subject matter of Maggie O’Farrell’s best-selling novel Hamnet – Shakespeare’s courtship and marriage, the death of his beloved son during the plague, and how that affected his subsequent plays – makes it a natural for stage, this RSC production is actually a tricky feat of adaptation.

O’Farrell’s novel leaps between time periods and has an intimate interiority, so Lolita Chakrabarti does impressive work to find a new framing for the tale, while honouring O’Farrell’s determination to centre Shakespeare’s wife Agnes and his children. This is a fascinating origin story for the Bard, but it’s as much Agnes’s story – perhaps even more so.

Chakrabarti chooses a chronological structure, so we begin with the future spouses meeting at Agnes’s unhappy home, where a young Will Shakespeare is working as a Latin tutor as repayment for his glove-maker father’s debts. But already the action is haunted by later events: a pair of twins dash around the edges of the stage, and Agnes, who has second sight, hears their voices on the breath of the wind.

Twins: that’s just one of numerous Shakespearean tropes that echo throughout the play, particularly as these twins enjoy disguising themselves as one another to fool people. But, unlike Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love, the parallels are looser here, and more emotionally grounded. Chakrabarti honours the man who captured humanity with such visceral authenticity that we still connect to his work now.

She gives us such a portrait of Will’s own messy, bickering family. The second half also introduces theatrical figures like Burbage and Kempe once Will makes it to London, but it’s the domestic scenes, with their earthy details like how you have to soak animal skins in urine before using them to make gloves, that have the most power.

That’s partly thanks to the sensational Madeleine Mantock, who makes Agnes a riveting figure. She always feels otherworldly, and her connection with nature (she instinctively flees to the woods to give birth) suggests that opposition in Shakespeare’s plays between the confining court and the freedom of the forest, or Christian versus Pagan beliefs. Yet her bereavement is all too relatable: her stark delivery of “How will we bear anything now he’s gone?” lingers, unanswerable.

Erica Whyman’s fleet, fluid production (aided by movement director Ayse Tashkiran) has seamless transitions, the company using minimal props to great effect. Some have enormous power: Agnes and Will’s hands are bound with cloth when they wed, and that cloth is later wound around her to create a pregnant belly – and, horrifically, finally becomes a shroud.

The actors playing their children each enter holding a bundle representing them as a baby, so we meet the person immediately and, like Agnes, glimpse their future. Most memorably, Agnes’s agonised birth cries are bookended by her howls of loss. The only misstep is an overly intrusive, manipulative score.

There are strong performances from Tom Varey as dreamy artist Will, Alex Jarrett and Ajani Cabey as the instantly lovable twins, Phoebe Campbell as their stroppy teenage sister, Gabriel Akuwudike as Agnes’s blunt brother, Liza Sadovy as Will’s no-nonsense mother, and, in particular, Peter Wight as Will’s father, whose bullying violence stems from hurt pride at his loss of status in the town.

Tom Piper’s handsome wooden set morphs from homestead to playhouse, bringing Stratford to the West End, while Prema Mehta supplies gorgeously atmospheric lighting. The play has one advantage over the book in its climax: we can actually hear a speech from Hamlet, and feel for ourselves how personal grief possibly infused that great work.

Thanks to the pandemic, our own plague, we too need art to make sense of those bewildering deaths, to offer solace and escape, and to remind us of the fierce resilience of humanity.

Hamnet is at the Garrick Theatre through 17 February 2024. Book Hamnet tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Hamnet (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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