Maggie O’Farrell’s beautiful 2020 novel Hamnet, which imagined the domestic life of the Shakespeare family and the emotional and critical impact of the death of their 11-year-old only son, won a slew of awards and became a much-loved lockdown bestseller.
One of the things that made the novel so special is that it largely inverted the prevailing perspectives of the great playwright William Shakespeare and his wife Agnes Hathaway. Too often, she has been depicted as a shrewish, illiterate woman who got pregnant and forced him into an unequal marriage. A woman who was left behind in Stratford to look after the children while William set off to London to find his fortune.
Instead, of focussing on Shakespeare (he is never named in the novel, only referred to as “the Latin teacher”, the father or the husband), O’Farrell puts Agnes Hathaway centre stage, depicting her as a formidable woman of the country. Her ability and instinctive understanding of nature made her a powerful herbalist, someone whose impressive witch-like talent for creating lotions and potions were well-known in the local area. In addition, she is endowed with psychic abilities including something approaching the likes of clairvoyance.
Although there seemed an inevitability that the Royal Shakespeare Company would adapt O’Farrell’s novel, given the appositeness of the source material, it doesn’t mean that Hamnet would not pose considerable challenges for Lolita Chakrabarti taking the story from page to stage.
One aspect of 16th-Century life that the novel captures beautifully is that the division between the “real world” and the supernatural realm was considerably more porous than we would ever accept these days. While the written word can more easily provide the transportation needed to convey the more imagined or imaginary elements, a stage presentation by nature is more literal. When we first meet Agnes (pronounced Ann-yis), she is immediately unconventional. Her face is lit up with delight as she watches her kestrel soar, a breathy soundscape suggesting a telepathy between Agnes and her surrounding world.
While Madeleine Mantock‘s Agnes is strong and grounded, unafraid to stand her ground when she first meets her future husband, director Erica Whyman‘s production surrounds the character with surreal, dreamlike elements. When she becomes pregnant first with Susanna and then with the twins Judith and Hamnet, she hears premonitory whispers on the wind of their voices. When she gives birth to them, the grown version of each child ethereally carries the baby of themselves and delivers it to their mother. It’s surreal and an exquisitely beautiful exchange, conveying the infrangible bond between mother and child. There is a dark foreshadowing in Agnes confusion that she had foreseen only two children in her future.
The issue that blights this production is one of balance. While transcendental moments of Agnes’s otherworldliness soar, most of the first act remains flat. The linear approach to the unfolding events in the lives of the Shakespeare family – complete with bullying fathers, embittered relatives, an awkward marriage between two families – gives the house on Henley Street rather too much Coronation Street melodrama.
Likewise the overlong first act is all set-up and a bit of ominous foreshadowing thrown in. It lacks the kernel of genuine conflict essential in drama, which of course the slightly rushed second half has in spades. The tragedy of Hamnet (played with a wonderful lack of guile by Ajani Cabey) unfolds with a terrible, dark beauty. Comforting his twin who has all the symptoms of plague, he stays with her in her bed overnight but she is the only one to wake up the next morning. That Will arrives back from London too late because his horse was lame, a chasm opens between Shakespeare and his wife. Announcing that he is going back to London only a week after his son’s death, he insists “I can’t breathe here”. His wife’s fury “Where is your despair?” is followed by five months of absence. In a truly heart-breaking finale, Agnes ventures to London furious that the playwright is “using our son’s name for a pageant”. Instead, realising that Will has poured all his grief into the play, the beginning of reconciliation and shared grief comes with Agnes’s recognition of her husband’s talent. “You possess the words. You make him live again”.
While Hamnet too often leaves characters underdeveloped – the scenes with Shakespeare in London with Will Kempe and Richard Burbage fall dangerously close to deleted scenes from Upstart Crow – if you are going to centre a drama so heavily around one character, then you better make sure the casting is right. Madeleine Mantock is mesmerising as Agnes Hathaway. She slips so effortlessly between strong groundedness and unworldly otherness, there’s never a moment you aren’t transfixed by her psyche. It’s a fascinating, controlled, understated performance that draws you in. When her darkest moment arrives, you are so invested in her character, you share the depths of her loss with her. It’s powerful theatre indeed.
Although uneven in places, Hamnet delivers some incredible moments of theatre – ★★★★ 4 stars