Tim Hochstrasser reviews the RSC’s production of Hamnet now playing at the Garrick Theatre London.
Maggie O’Farrell’s novel was one of the literary successes of lockdown, with its lyrical focus on family, coping with grief, and separation between town and country life resonating with the times. Lolita Chakrabati has dramatised the novel for the RSC in Stratford where it opened in April, and now it comes to London, directed by Erica Whyman.
The first thing to say is that play is very different from the novel. While the novel, like so many currently, plays around with time and chronology, here we are given a fairly straight narrative, beginning with Shakespeare’s courtship of Anne/Agnes Hathaway, and developing a detailed, perhaps too detailed, exposition of their family context in Stratford. Only in the second half do we really get to meet their son, Hamnet, and begin to appreciate his significance to the play. Perhaps this was a necessary, even inevitable change – temporal cross-cutting and scene changing can be time-consuming and tiresome in the theatre, even with the latest technology for rapid transitions. What works and resonates in the mind and imagination of the reader is differently configured. But this does beg the question of whether all novels should in fact be considered for theatrical adaptation. Sometime it is best to leave artistic achievement in one form undisturbed…..
The play explores the premise that some of the key themes in Shakespeare were shaped by the events of his domestic life, about which of course we know little. But we do know that a crucial event in his family life was the death of his son from plague at the age of eleven in 1596. Here it is suggested that the very writing of ‘Hamlet’ and several of its key themes stemmed from this tragedy. The point is made very directly in the second half as the actor who plays Hamnet reappears in a final scene that enacts a soliloquy from the play on the recreated stage of the Globe.
However, for all the care and talent lavished on this production there is just too much telling and not enough showing. There is lots of exposition and not enough drama that emerges naturally from the material itself. The urgency of Hamnet’s desire to save his twin sister while sacrificing himself, and the culminating scenes in London do not compensate ultimately for the minutiae of domestic life back in Stratford, however laudable it is to reinscribe Agnes Hathaway into the story in her own right.
It is only fair to say that on the side of the production there is a lot to praise. Designer Tom Piper has come up with an astonishingly flexible set that relies on some truly inventive large-scale carpentry. A literal ‘A-frame’ dominates the early scenes as Will and Agnes begin married life in his parents’ Annexe. From there things open out on multiple levels until in the final scene the Globe itself emerges, complete with balconies that align the interior of the Garrick Theatre itself, binding us all together into the final denouement in a beautiful, literaltheatrical embrace.
The cast and the production values are carefully thought-through and well delivered. This is an ensemble piece with the cast moving the furniture and props too in a smooth and credible way that keeps the action moving. In the lead role of Agnes Madeleine Mantock presents a strong and integrated portrait of an underappreciated woman whom O’Farrell has invested with shamanic powers and an ornery independence. Tom Varey has the hard task of depicting Shakespeare’s transition from awkward if well-educated youth through to professional playwright and the writing makes it harder by neither giving you quite enough to explain his development in London nor simply making him a cipher seen only through his wife’s eyes.
There is some really strong playing in the supporting roles. We see a lot of Will’s parents, especially his bullying, drunken and dishonourable father, John, who was a glovemaker. Indeed, one of the discreet strengths of the play is the way in which gloves and hands form constant reference points, just as they later do in Shakespeare’s own plays. This domestic world presided over by Peter Wight as the father and Liza Sadovy as the mother is credible,but there is simply too much of it, lacking real theatrical bite, except for the intervention of Sarah Belcher as a memorably venomous stepmother. Things liven up considerably when the children take centre stage in the second act. There are three delightful and distinctive portraits here from Phoebe Campbell, Alex Jarrett and Ajani Cabey, full of energy and pathos.
While the production as a whole offers many fragmented pleasures and rewards, ultimately it does not amount to more than the sum of its talented, carefully considered parts.
At the Garrick Theatre until 17 February 2024