Review by Daz Gale
⭐️⭐️ A new play by the Royal Shakespeare Company makes its way to London as the West End welcomes Hamnet. No, that's not a mistake. Rather than a rehashing of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, this play imagines an origin story, putting Anne (or Agnes) Hathaway front and centre but unlike the last time their story was played out in the West End, there's not a Britney or Backstreet Boys song in sight. With all that in mind, was this play destined to be good... or not to be? That is the question.
Based on Maggie O’Farrell’s novel from 2020, Hamnet premiered at The Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon earlier this year. In a case of life imitating art, part of the story sees Shakespeare move from Stratford-upon-Avon to London, so it feels fitting that this production has now done the same. Hamnet is a fictionalised origin story of Agnes Hathaway as she falls in love with William Shakespeare. As she has visions of their family in the future, things start to unravel as it doesn't pan out as it had been foretold. As tragedy awaits their family, an unrevealed connection to Shakespeare’s similarly titled play reveals itself.
Adapted for the stage by Lolita Chakrabarti, the writing in Hamnet is a bit of a mixed bag. While the quality of the writing in itself is faultless when looking at it through isolated scenes, bringing the whole story together leaves something fairly disjointed that never quite manages to tell the story effectively. Though dialogue is pleasant in itself with a few good laughs thrown in and the potential for some great characterisations, the show suffers from a narrative problem overall and comes across as confused at times (I for one could have done without the toilet humour that perplexingly appeared occasionally). Given the prominence of Hamnet in the show’s title and the premonitions that begin the show, we are in for a frustratingly long wait to meet the titular character. When we do, his time on stage is limited to say the least. It feels like far too much significance is given to a character who doesn’t play a huge part in the story and is only given some prominence due to the payoff that comes at the show’s climax. If I really want to split hairs, it also feels reductive to make a story with the purpose of giving a voice to Agnes Hathaway whose life has not been as recorded as you might have thought, and name it after another character.
Erica Whyman’s direction takes some inspired touches to convey the story, but at times feels like there is a slight disconnect between her direction and the writing itself. Tom Piper’s glorious set design has a real satisfying transformative moment in the play’s latter parts. Though it looks great on the West End stage, I imagine the design would have been far more stunning at The Swan as it blended in with the aesthetic. Other production elements help amplify the story with a great use of sound design by Tom Piper, atmospheric music at times composed by Oğuz Kaplangı and a good use of lighting from Prema Mehta.
Whether it is the fault of the writing or the direction, the pacing of the show doesn’t quite work as it should with too much time at the beginning given to exposition of the characters, leaving less time for the real meat of the story. The biggest problem I had with Hamnet, however, was in its lack of emotion. There are some real killer moments in this story that should have caused a real gut-punch moment. Themes of severe grief play out but for some reason or another, these failed to connect at all. As I witnessed the horrors of tragedy play out on the stage, I longed to be moved by the events – but these events seemed to be lost in translation and left me feeling cold.
The lead role of Agnes is played by Madeleine Mantock in a performance that feels limited by the production elements. Clearly a talented performer in her own right, something about the portrayal feels unnatural with her grand, overblown choices at times making it seem like she was in a completely different show to the others. While she had some impressive moments, the lack of connection I felt from the performance again meant this failed to resonate at all.
Agnes’ husband William is played by Tom Varey in a performance that feels quite different to that of his wife. Perhaps suffering from underdeveloped writing, the character doesn’t feel as fully realised as it should have been though Tom’s performance is still a delight to watch, particularly in the show’s opening scenes. Their children Susanna, Judith and Hamnet are played by Phoebe Campbell, Alex Jarrett and Ajani Cabey respectively, all giving wonderful performances as the predominantly playful youths. While all great in their own right, it is Alex Jarrett’s performance that proves to be the stand out of the night, giving an impressively versatile portrayal of Judith which transcended far beyond the character’s frustratingly limited stage time.
The always fabulous Liza Sadovy shines in the role of Mary, though is far too underused in her role. Peter Wright is scene-stealing in two very different characters, one as William’s father John showing a complex side which I would have liked to have seen explored further, and a more comic turn as Will Kempe. The problem is that so many of the characters in Hamnet are severely underdeveloped. Their introductions pique your interest but then their characterisation feels paper-thin. Exploring some of these supporting characters more would assuredly create more nuance and depth, which may go some way to restore the lack of emotion this play suffers.
It may seem like I disliked Hamnet and truth be told, I really didn’t. The play was pleasant enough and I found myself entertained throughout. The problem was I left there thinking the show itself was fine and nothing more and had to ponder what about this production failed to move me in one way or another. While the intent to give Agnes Hathaway her own story and make her front and centre (despite the play’s name) is all well and good, sadly the execution of this hasn’t quite lived up to the promise. While still enjoyable in its own right, I couldn’t help feeling underwhelmed by the production overall. The most frustrating part is that Hamnet has all of the elements necessary to create what should have been a brilliant play but, for one reason or another, its full potential is never fully realised. As always though, it is important to remember theatre is subjective and the fact this production broke box office records at The Swan and has opened to the biggest advance of any production at the Garrick suggests there is a real appetite for a show such as this and it has no shortage of people who loved the show. I find it a real shame I couldn’t have been one of them.
Hamnet plays at the Garrick Theatre until 17th February. Tickets from www.nimaxtheatres.com/shows/hamnet
Photos by Manuel Harlan