Close on the heels of her triumphant adaptation of ‘Life of Pi’, Lolita Chakrabarti’s latest theatrical outing for the West End in Maggie O’Farrell’s ‘Hamnet’ is teeming with feminine sensitivity and warmth. The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production comes to London on the back of sell-out shows in Stratford-upon-Avon, breaking box-office records at the RSC’s Swan Theatre. And, it is no wonder given the moving depiction of Agnes Hathaway as a bereaved mother of Hamnet and loving wife of William Shakespeare.
Agnes (Madeleine Mantock) is a free-spirited young girl who is happiest with her kestrel in the great outdoors, one with nature. While her stepmother is her nemesis, she shares a strong bond with her brother Bartholomew who cares for her deeply in the absence of their father.
A chance meeting with William (Tom Varey), the son of an ill-tempered local glovemaker struggling through financial hardship, unleashes a passionate love story that would go on to inspire great plays such as ‘Romeo and Juliet’. When Agnes falls pregnant with their first child Susanna, William is determined to keep his promise to her and they are wed, or hand-fasted as in those times, despite some protestations from family members on either side.
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Their idyllic love story blossoms with Agnes, gifted with healing powers and an uncanny sixth sense, going on to bear twins Hamnet and Judith to complete their family of five. However, Agnes had premonitions that they would only be blessed with two children, making her overly protective of Judith who is born with a weak heart. When, aged 11, Judith is infected with the plague that hits 16th century England, her mother is understandably distraught, and her father is summoned back from London where he is immersed in the early years of his life as a budding playwright. But while everyone’s worries are focussed on the sickly Judith, it is her twin brother and close companion Hamnet who is destined to take her place.
The play captures the enduring bond between twin siblings and the impact on a loving marriage of losing a child with immense poignancy. The simplicity of the sets recreates Warwickshire of Tudor England 400 years ago adeptly to transport the audience to the stomping ground of the world’s most famous playwright.
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Overall, the success of the production lies in Chakrabarti’s ability to bring O’Farrell’s popular book to life and shine a light on the people surrounding William Shakespeare. The women, often hidden away in the shadows at the time, take centrestage with Agnes Hathaway getting her rightful place as definitive to the storytelling that we associate with her more famous husband. And, of course, there is that connection with one of the world’s most famous tragedies that started as Hamnet to end up as ‘Hamlet’.