It was practically inevitable that the Stratford-based Royal Shakespeare Company would want to adapt Hamnet for the stage, but interfering with a delicately, cogently written work of profound interiority was always going to be a risky proposition. Giving the task to Lolita Chakrabarti (Life of Pi, Red Velvet) proved an inspired decision.
Chakrabarti provides a fluent, light-touch adaptation, peopled by flesh-and-blood characters that speak credible dialogue. Agnes (not Anne) Hathaway (a totally engaging Madeleine Mantock), is a warm, mischievous creature of nature who likes to roam in the forest, owns a kestrel, is illiterate but knows all about healing herbs and can commune with spirits.
William, a dreamy young Latin tutor (a very likeable Tom Varey), falls for Agnes.
Act II is set 11 years later. William has been dispatched to London to sell his father’s gloves to a theatre company, and is making his mark as a playwright; in the boisterous mostly female Stratford household the twins (the young actors Alex Jarrett and Adjani Cabey, both excellent) play under the indulgent eye of their elder sister Susanna (Phoebe Campbell). Then Judith falls ill with the plague, and in his despair to save her, Hamnet asks death to take him instead.
Alex Jarrett and Judith, Adjani Cabey as Hamnet in Hamnet. Photo: Manuel Harlan. © RSC
And so he dies, while Judith recovers. This tremendous loss is the fulcrum of the story. Agnes, whose tearing grief is heart-rending to behold (what a tremendous turn from Madeleine Mantock) withdraws from everyday life; William seeks refuge in London and his increasingly popular theatre work. He finally transmutes his grief into his masterpiece, Hamlet, which proves cathartic for himself, Agnes and indeed the audience.
Madeleine Mantock as Agnes, Tom Varey as William and Ajani Cabey as Thomas Day in Hamnet. Photo: Manuel Harlan © RSC
The production, directed by the former RSC artistic director Erica Whyman, is elegant and well-served by a solid ensemble. Tom Piper’s versatile set changes easily from rustic Elizabethan home, with its wooden beams, wheat sheaves and trays of apples, to the Globe Theatre’s circular stage. At its centre is a raised platform behind an A-frame – A for Agnes.
Composer Oğuz Kaplangi and sound designer Simon Baker provide an atmospheric, unobtrusive soundtrack, that blends period lute with percussion and keyboard.
Hamnet is a hugely enjoyable piece of theatre, its emotional build-up intelligent and effective. What it cannot do is match the intensity of the written word on the page, with which O’Farrell so powerfully conveys the interiority of her main characters.
|RSC Hamnet, Garrick Theatre review
|Garrick Theatre, 2 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0HH | MAP
|Leicester Square (underground)
30 Sep 23 – 17 Feb 24, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|Click here for more information and to book