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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

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My Neighbour Totoro is profound and inventive

To the Barbican, for My Neighbour Totoro

Not since Life of Pi, have I fell in love with a show so unconditionally.

My Neighbour Totoro Photo by Manuel Harlan

The RSC’s completely stunning stage version of the 1988 Japanese animated fantasy film has smashed box office records – eloquent, profound, and moving, My Neighbour Totoro benefits from wonderful music by Joe Hisaishi that says more than words ever could.

Phelim McDermott, who divides his career between opera and theatre, has pitched his production somewhere between a playful musical, a divine comedy, and a metaphysical drama. The plot centres 10-year-old Satsuki and her 4-year-old sister, Mei, in 1950s Japan befriending forest spirits. Then crisis comes as the children’s mother falls gravely ill, and all of a sudden we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Reworked for the stage by Tom Morton-Smith, here we see emotions form the fundamental arc of all narrative life. This is a production that embraces sadness and doubt.

My Neighbour Totoro Photo by Manuel Harlan

As for the puppets, designed by Basil Twist, they are the real pull of a show that broke the Barbican box-office records for ticket sales in a single day, surpassing the set by Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet.

The inflatable Cat-Bus, meanwhile, is a huge glowing feline that floats through the set’s trees with supernatural grace. It’s as bizarre, imaginative, and authentically psychedelic as anything produced in mainstream theatre. I loved the chickens and the Soot Sprites.

Just as the sensational screen to stage adaptation of Life of Pi, so this show uses puppets and drilled ensemble storytelling to stunning effect, all on Tom Pye’s malleable set that shifts scenes with effortlessness grace.

Of course, it’s easy to become blasé about the visual brilliance, both technical and artistic, of RSC’s output, but Totoro really is a treat for the eyes. Formidably inventive, My Neighbour Totoro hits an elusive sweet spot in terms of appealing to children and adults alike. 

The show has adapted perfectly well to the Barbican stage, but, in essence, it signifies a return to the Cirque De Soleil appetite for spectacle. There is a stunning moment that celebrates the British East and Southeast Asian cast representation at the end during the joyous curtain call.

My Neighbour Totoro Photo by Manuel Harlan

Make no mistake, the artistry and insight will shine on any stage; West End, New York or Hong Kong. Don’t bet against it returning to the Barbican next year.

Overall, this is a captivating world you won’t want to come home from, its beauty, warmth and ambition are panoramic.

I took my Godmother who had tears of joy streaming down her face as we exited the venue.

I may be late to the party, but I now have no hesitation in declaring myself a fully paid-up Totoro fan.

Grab a return or await the inevitable transfer.

At the Barbican, London, until 21 January


RSC announces 2021 winter season and plans for staging shows later this year


Previously announced productions include:

New family musical, The Magician’s Elephant, by Nancy Harris and Marc Teitler based on the international, best-selling novel by Kate DiCamillo, directed by Sarah Tipple.

The Wars of the Roses, directed by Owen Horsley with Gregory Doran, an epic staging of all three parts of Henry VI across two unforgettable performances telling the enthralling story of the brutal struggle for the English crown.

Shakespeare for Everyone; First Encounters with Shakespeare: Twelfth Night directed by Robin Belfield.

Ambition to re-open in Winter 2020 with re-scheduled performances of The Winter’s Tale and The Comedy of Errors.

The Company fully intends to re-open the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST) with new events and re-scheduled performances of The Winter’s Tale and The Comedy of Errors as soon as that proves possible. Both productions were in rehearsal and due to open in the RST this spring. Further details will be announced soon, but this remains dependent on government advice on social distancing and on whether it is financially viable for the Company to perform to audiences inside our theatres. The RSC very much hopes for positive news in the coming weeks on the reopening roadmap and on the distribution of the extremely welcome £1.57bn government rescue package for arts and culture.

Gregory Doran, Artistic Director, said: ‘While we continue to explore every opportunity to open our Stratford buildings as soon as we possibly can, ideally later this year, I am pleased to share this hopeful news of the confirmed schedule for our Winter 2021 season. Since first closing our doors back in March, we have continued to do everything we possibly can to support our audiences through lockdown and to engage and entertain our communities across the UK and beyond. Of course, nothing can or should replace the live theatre experience, which continues to be much missed by audiences everywhere. Alongside our colleagues across the industry, we can and want to play a crucial role in the recovery of the country, knowing how valuable the arts are to our collective wellbeing, whether giving strength in difficult times, helping us to tell our own stories or simply lifting the spirits for a few hours. We very much look forward to welcoming audiences back to our buildings and to share this live experience with them.