Hamnet – Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Reviewer: James Garrington

Writer: Maggie O’Farrell

Adaptor: Lolita Chakrabarti

Director: Erica Whyman

In March 2020 the Swan Theatre had to close, like venues across the country affected by the pandemic during which countless thousands of families experienced the grief of losing a loved one. Now, following a major refurbishment, the theatre has re-opened – and what better choice to mark the occasion than the world stage premiere of Hamnet, which tells the story of just one family and their grief during similar circumstances four hundred years ago.

It’s a risky business taking a highly-acclaimed novel and adapting it for the stage but Lolita Chakrabarti has tackled the job magnificently, by re-ordering Maggie O’Farrell’s work to create a linear narrative which preserves much of the heart and soul of the piece while making it work better in a theatrical context. Some of the internal dialogue, the thoughts that can never be put into words, suffer a little in the adaptation – but take it as a piece of theatre rather than comparing it with the novel and it’s a triumph.

Most people will be familiar with the story of the young Latin tutor, William Shakespeare, and his love for Agnes, better known to us these days as Anne, and how they lost their son to the plague at the age of eleven. Here at last is a piece that tells us the tale of the Shakespeare family from her point of view – this is not a story about William Shakespeare and his wife, but very much a narrative about Agnes and her husband Will who is usually absent at the times she needs him most. In fact, the whole piece shines a spotlight more on the women of the family than you often find. It’s a tale of domestic life, with all of the ups and downs that entails.

Leading the cast is Madeleine Mantock making a glorious RSC debut as Agnes. Mantock takes us through a roller coaster journey of emotions, from the happy and flirtatious girl who falls for the silver-tongued Will to the woman who’s terrified at having twins, through the joys and tribulations of life as a mother with an absent husband and from there on to the grieving parent rendered almost speechless by despair. Tom Varey as Will is a nicely feckless young man, before heading to London in search of better prospects and ultimately being so wrapped up in his work that he misses the most important moment in his family’s lives – a man drawn away from the grief in body but not in spirit.

Alex Jarrett gives us a well-judged Judith, Hamnet’s twin sister, whose grief and guilt are no less than her mother’s. Jarrett’s work with Ajani Cabey (Hamnet) gives us a real sense of sibling affection. Elizabeth Rider is a strict and upright Mary, with Peter Wight giving us a domineering and bullying John, contrasting well with Obioma Ugoala’s laid-back Bartholomew.

Tom Piper’s typically simple but effective set design depicts the annexe where the Shakespeares spent their early married lives, with ladders creating a massive letter A in a sly nod to Shakespeare’s wooden O at the Globe, as the play shows us that everything has its beginning and its end. Atmosphere is added by Prehma Mehta’s lighting and some excellent background music from Oğuz Kaplangi.

Heading into the final scene we see some of the confusion that Agnes must have felt being thrown into the bustle of London after tranquil Warwickshire. She’s come to confront Will about his latest play, but when she sees it – well, you may find you need a tissue or two.

It’s a powerful and emotional piece that brings a voice to some of the lesser-known characters in the Shakespeare story. Highly recommended.

Runs until: 17 June 2023 in Stratford, then transferring to London.

The Reviews Hub Score

Powerful and emotional.

Show More
Photo of The Reviews Hub - Central

The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

Related Articles

Back to top button
The Reviews Hub