Re-opening the Swan Theatre after its pandemic closure is Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s 2020 novel Hamnet, a fictionalised account of the Shakespeare family, based on their son who died aged 11. Like nearly all influential novels of the 21st century, I haven’t read it, but I daresay you have, gentle reader. And so have many other thousands, otherwise the production wouldn’t have more or less sold out at the Swan even before its opening, gaining at West End transfer at the Garrick at the end of September.
But first things first; let’s have a quick word about the refurbished Swan Theatre. Plunged into darkness by Covid, it’s sprung back refreshed three years later and looks a proper treat. Super-comfortable fold out chairs make it easier to get to your seat and give you a great view of the stage. The upper floors create the impression of luxury teak bannisters and give the whole venue a classy feel. This isn’t the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s little brother anymore, it’s a fully-fledged grown-up theatre all of its own. Fantastic job!
Maggie O’Farrell’s book transfers smartly to the stage, with a first act that depicts the early days of Will and Agnes’ courtship, her pregnancy with Susanna, their marriage (in that order), the later arrival of the twins Hamnet and Judith, and Will’s ascent in the playwrighting business, requiring him to move to London, keeping the family at home. The second act shows his rise to fame set against the backdrop of family activities and health problems back in Warwickshire. Judith is a sickly kid but Hamnet is a robust, precocious young cove with bags of energy and even more cheek.
SPOILER ALERT! When the Plague hits the village, it makes straight for Judith much to the devoted Hamnet’s horror. Agnes relies on her herbaceous remedies as usual, but the word goes out to Will that he must come home. Terrified that Judith will die, Will rushes home, only to be relieved to find a healthy Judith; but the Plague has taken Hamnet. The subsequent grief and ways in which the family members cope with it form the rest of the play. It’s a strong story, strongly told. Perhaps the first act is a little slow in part, but the second act races through with a growing sense of urgency as we reach the inevitable conclusion.
What’s in a name? asks Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet and it’s a question that gets a lot of attention in this play. Everyone knows who William Shakespeare is, but who’s this Agnes? Wasn’t he married to Anne Hathaway? Maggie O’Farrell discovered that in her father Richard’s will he names her as “my daughter Agnes”. So maybe Anne was just a shortened form or a pet-name for her; and it’s clearly the goal of both writer and adaptor to put her at the heart of the play, so she’s reinstated in her full Agnes glory. Neither the book nor the play mentions either the names Shakespeare or Hathaway in an attempt to leave their reputations behind and just portray them as an ordinary rural couple; thus they’re both only ever Agnes and Will.
And as for Hamnet; apparently it was a local variant on the name Hamlet, so when Will’s renowned tragedy of the same name appeared a few years after his son’s death, it was quickly assumed that the choice of name was clearly influenced by the lad. And it may well have been simply that obvious; or, it may be that Shakespeare took the name from the Scandinavian legend of Amleth, whose fortunes and adventures are clearly the source for Will’s eponymous tragic hero. Taking his son’s name in vain, without clearing it with Agnes first? Honouring the memory of his son in what would probably be thought of as his finest piece of writing? Or pure coincidence? Audience: you decide.
There is a little imbalance between the two acts; they almost feel like they’re telling two different stories. To help connect the two, Hamnet and Judith appear in spirit form in the first act, which adds to a sense of dramatic irony; we know the boy’s going to die soon and they don’t even know he’s going to be born yet. I thoroughly enjoyed the overlay of Will’s London theatricals on top of the crises happening back home; rehearsing the death of Tybalt whilst the Plague has hit the family, unable to control his temper during the final scenes of Comedy of Errors – and I thought it was a very nice trick to have the same actor play both Hamnet and Thomas, the boy actor who is struggling with the girls’ roles, emphasising how the two halves of Will’s life interweave.
It’s extremely well-acted throughout, but particularly by the main two actors, Madeleine Mantock as Agnes, and Tom Varey as Will. Ms Mantock plays Agnes full of spark as a girl and a young woman, which turns into strong, courageous resilience as the horrors of losing a child completely shape the rest of her life. Tom Varey’s Will also has a cheeky spark as a young man, that develops into a kind of maturity as he gets older, although of course he’s not averse to going out drinking with his theatrical buddies.
Peter Wight is excellent as John, Will’s gruff and impatient father, disapproving of everything his wayward son gets up to – and by association, with the rest of his family. He also entertains as the larger-than-life actor Will Kempe, all wind and ad-lib; very nice. There’s great support from Elizabeth Rider as Will’s hardworking mother Mary, Harmony Rose-Bremner as the grumpy Susanna, and Sarah Belcher’s vindictive Joan, Agnes’s stepmother.
I really enjoyed Alex Jarrett’s performance as Judith; her brief speech about what do you call a twin whose other twin has died was possibly the most poignant moment of the whole production. What’s in a name? again. And it’s a very believable and winning performance from Ajani Cabey as Hamnet/Thomas, both sprightly and spritely, running rings around his mother and sisters, and hopelessly devoted to Judith.
A very enjoyable sideways glance at a family you think you know a little bit about but who in fact are largely anonymous to us today. Plenty of relevance to the present time, and an ultimately very rewarding evening at the theatre. Catch it at the Garrick from September 30th to January 6th if you’re too late to see it in Stratford!
Production photos by Manuel Harlan