Review by Raphael Kohn
Closed behind locked doors and under refurbishment for the last 3 years, the Swan Theatre in Stratford upon Avon has finally opened with a brand-new production. Hamnet (yes, that’s an ‘n’ there, not an ‘l’) is a story of love, emotion, and most importantly, grief. The question on everyone’s lips: would it be the emotionally gripping hit that the novel was?
Adapted for the stage by Lolita Chakrabarti from Maggie O’Farrell’s 2020 novel, Hamnet follows William Shakespeare and his wife Agnes (as historical records seem to suggest her name really was) as they meet, fall in love, and eventually Agnes becomes pregnant with their children. The crux of the story comes when the plague strikes the family and (spoiler alert) kills Hamnet to the distress of Agnes and William.
The RSC has a knack for groundbreaking productions where modernism comes to the fore and traditionalism goes to the curbside, such as their recent productions of Julius Caesar and The Tempest. There is no such modernism to be found in Hamnet, however. No edgy movement, no seat-shaking music (although the audience is treated to some quiet, reflective folk music) - this time, actors are clothed in period outfits, on a minimalist wood stage, without any bells and whistles. Director Erica Whyman’s vision focuses on the drama at play, and the characters’ relationships, communication and growth, letting the actors produce this organically.
It’s certainly the right way to go with this story, with its intimate and gentle storytelling exuding warmth and beauty from the outset. All elements of this production contribute to this, with Tom Piper’s wooden set matching the surroundings of the beautifully renovated Swan Theatre to perfection and blending in so seamlessly, it is as if the theatre and set were built together right from the placing of the foundation stone. It’s a pleasure, therefore, that such a set is complemented so brilliantly by Prema Mehta’s lighting design, both dramatic and gripping at times while also exuding intimate warmth.
Bringing this story to life is a cast of mostly new performers to the RSC, making their debut RSC seasons in Hamnet. Led by Madeline Mantock as Agnes, the cast is on the whole excellent with few weak links among them. A particular highlight was Ajani Cabey’s portrayal of the titular, with his joyous youthfulness exuberating out into the audience. The Bard himself, possibly a very challenging role due it being a very well-known character, is given new life and feels fresh and original in Tom Varney’s portrayal.
All the elements are in place for a truly inspiring RSC production, therefore. Or maybe I have omitted the word ‘almost’ there, as it feels as if the elements are ‘almost’ there. What Hamnet needs to truly succeed as a work of new drama is a brilliant script. Chakrabarti has removed O’Farrell’s original chronology in her storytelling (the book jumps around time periods, exploring the story and its themes in a non-linear way) and instead straightened out the story into one continuous, linear narrative. While this allows the narrative to focus on Agnes more, the side effect of this is that the drip-feeding of grief, the looming threat of Hamnet’s death, becomes lost in favour of a more simplistic story structure. Chakrabarti herself suggests that this structure prevents the ‘flow of the story’ from being lost, but the end result is that the story, while certainly bringing Agnes to the fore, also packs less of a punch than perhaps the original structure could.
This is most obvious in the scene in which Hamnet dies, overcome by the Black Plague, which could have been the most heart-wrenching, soul-tearing scene of child death and maternal grief ever staged. This isn’t to say it needed to be ‘loud’ or ‘brutal’, but it needed to have more substance to it – and indeed, I noticed a distinct lack of the rustling of tissues around the audience, instead, Hamnet just writhes for a bit on a bed and then is taken away, the whole thing only lasting a few minutes. For a show about grief with such a strong creative team, you can’t help but want a little more.
Yet one of the best creative decisions is made by having a live three-piece band situated above the stage, giving us scene transitions and brief interludes with new compositions by Oǧuz Kapalangi. Folky, mystical and mournful (and at times all at once), Kapalangi’s music elevates this production greatly, especially when performed by such a talented band, with Alice Brown’s viol, fiddle and recorder playing singing out into the audience with the musical voice of an angel. I only wish that there was more of it in the show - the music was often reduced to single chords played between scenes during transitions, yet it was such a beautiful sound, I wished it could have underscored the play more or been more of a presence. However, coupled with excellent sound effects from the mononymous sound designer Xana, in which whispers and natural birdsong and insects surround the audience like spirits in the ether, the sound is, on the whole, excellent.
I wish I could have loved Hamnet – indeed, I much admired many elements. But for me, this felt like only a ‘good’ production, and with such a strong creative team, one could have expected a truly spectacular production. It’s still a great way for the gorgeous Swan theatre to reopen, though, and I look forward to seeing what more is brought to this auditorium by the RSC.
Hamnet has sold out its run at the Swan theatre, but returns can be booked via https://www.rsc.org.uk/hamnet/tickets.
Hamnet will transfer to the Garrick theatre in London in September 2023, with tickets available at https://ticketing.rsc.org.uk/tickets/series/gaham01m
Photos by Manuel Harlan