Hamnet at the RSC
Maggie O’Farrell’s 1.5mn selling plague-driven novel explores the loss the Shakespeare family experiences when eponymous son Hamnet dies, aged 11.
The boy’s short life is, effectively, subordinated to the legacy of a Great Man, felt only in the shadows it may or may not have cast on the Bard’s most beloved plays.
Now, Lolita Chakribati’s honourable adaptation reopens the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan theatre after a three-year closure.
Hamnet tells the story of 18 years of Shakespeare’s life from the point of view of Anne Hathaway, the countrywoman who was left behind with three children.
Erica Whyman’s gentle Elizabethan production and 14-strong ensemble glide over Tom Piper’s simple set of wooden beams and ladders.
The audience is alive to it.
The remarkable and young Madeleine Mantock, in her second stage credit, as Agnes (“but the ‘g’ is silent”) Hathaway has great chemistry with family Latin tutor, William (Tom Varey). She grows herbs and keeps bees “in hemp-woven skeps, which hum with industrious and absorbed life”.
The whole thing is an efficient show — not a great show but one that will probably stir audiences’ emotions and join the ranks of such Shakespeare inspired spin-offs as Shakespeare in Love, & Juliet, and also Emilia.
The trap Whyman and Chakrabarti sets for the audience, baiting it with a historically famous figure, is unfortunately, a trap we can’t get out of. There is a lot of exposition.
There is a memorable soundscape featuring Oğuz Kaplangı’s compositions and Xana’s serene sound design; birdsong, the flapping of wings, sporadic knocking.
Still, Whyman has made the English heritage women heroically, mythically alive on the stage. The treatment is certainly on a high level. I was impressed by adult Hamnet, Ajani Cabey
Although Hamnet is moderately elegant and literate and expensive, and the female driven creative team gussies things up with what may or may not be the key to something or other, it’s basically a traditional tragedy. But the show doesn’t wear its conspicuous cleverness lightly.
Disappointingly, despite a rousing Act 2, the whole thing doesn’t quite come off, and we’re always too aware of the sensitive qualities it’s aiming at.
Yet Hamnet is a reasonably good evening that misses being a really memorable one. This atmospheric show is entertainment, which doesn’t require it to be justified in the light of historical theory.
Paul Mescal and Jessie Buckley, are said to be in talks to star in Chloe Zhao’s movie version. A West End run looms.
Hamnet runs at the Swan theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 17 Jun. It transfers to the Garrick theatre, London, from 30 Sep to 6 Jan