This stage adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s book is solidly performed but misses the point of the story.
When I first read Hamnet, I was automatically drawn in by Maggie O’Farrell’s poetic way with words and the vividness of the world that she created as well as being able to shift between times effectively . Admittedly, this is something that would be difficult to replicate on stage and Erica Whyman’s production has a lovely fluidity to it that captures the spirit of the story but Lolita Chakrabarti’s (Life of Pi) adaptation misses the point of the story.
The plot follows that of Agnes (also known as Anne Hathaway) who meets the charming and still unknown William Shakespeare (at this point a Latin tutor to local children in the town) and follows their relationship through marriage, becoming parents and having to deal with grief. It is a story of family, art, love and grief all expertly interwoven into one straight forward plot, which leaves you wondering what inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet.
However, where the book’s focus is on Agnes herself and her internal thoughts and emotions, with Shakespeare (who is not named) only appearing fleetingly, whereas in this RSC adaptation the focus leans slightly more towards Shakespeare and the development of his career and equally the titular character is only truly brought in during the second act. Given the title, it feels a little frustrating that more emphasis isn’t placed Hamnet’s relationship with his parents as this forms a central part of the story when he dies and how their grief tears their relationship apart. It also feels as though Agnes’s story is lost slightly behind the shadow of Shakespeare.
The show flows beautifully from scene to scene and Whyman’s direction means that it feels authentic and well grounded from start to finish, all that is lacking in places is emotional connection. Elsewhere, Tom Piper’s set design grows and evolves impressively during the course of the show and combines beautifully with Oğuz Kaplang’s music to really immerse the audience in story unfolding in front of them. It is little touches such as using the cloth that Agnes and Will’s hands are bound with when they wed, that is then later wound around her to create a pregnant belly, that enhance the fluidity of the production and keeps the story moving effectively.
Meanwhile, the performances are all solid and it is clear that they all work well together to bring the story to life. Madeleine Mantock as Agnes delivers a thoughtful and passionate performance, highlighting the character’s individuality and love of nature – there is a mystical quality to her performance which really works for the character and the way she moves through life. Tom Varey as William comes across as a little bit constrained in places but there is also strength and playfulness to be found in his performance as the show goes on. Phoebe Campbell, Alex Jarrett and Ajani Cabey as Agnes and William’s children have a joyful exuberance about them that doesn’t fail to put a smile on the audience’s faces and Peter Wight shows great depth and range as both William’s father and William Kempe.
Overall, there is plenty to admire about the production itself, but for me the adaptation didn’t quite live up to what I was expecting and could use further depth to make Agnes’s story shine out a bit more.
By Emma Clarendon
Hamnet continues to play at the Garrick Theatre until the 17th February 2024. Click here to book tickets.