It is amazing how little the world knows about one of its most famous writers. There are countless books and films about the secret, everyday life of William Shakespeare. With Hamnet, the Royal Shakespeare Company tells the domestic part of the story; it is a story about love, trust, loss, and all the little aspects that makeup life. It’s about the encounter between Agnes (or Anne) Hathaway and the young Latin teacher, William Shakespeare. About the love that grows between them and the challenges they face in Elizabethan England. And about Hamnet, their son who was suddenly taken from them when he was only 11 years old. The boy’s death is a catalyst that brings many of the family’s underlying conflicts to the surface until it almost breaks them.

There’s no question that translating a story from one medium to another is always a challenge. Especially when it comes to a piece of literature as complex as Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, which, in addition to its sensitive narrative style, also gains a lot of depth thanks to its idiosyncratic chronology. Lolita Chakrabarti, who, among other things, adapted Life of Pi for the stage, seems ideal for this task. But what makes Hamnet the award-winning story it is, is lost in this adaptation.

The scenery is well chosen; Tom Piper’s design is directly reminiscent of the Globe and, thanks to its various levels, easily becomes the location for many events. The ladders that make Shakespeare’s small annexe look like an A are a particularly charming move. It’s dynamic, and easily transformable, becoming exactly what it needs to be when it needs to.

However, the charming set does not hide the fact that key elements of Act One feel rushed while others drag. Agnes and Shakespeare almost stumble into their relationship. There is a lack of chemistry on stage and the development from getting to know each other to getting married is almost impossible to see. After the wedding, the first act progresses with a steady flow of domestic activities. Topics are touched upon, but not necessarily pursued or thought through (there is a hint of abuse and domestic violence, and the inequality of education between men and women, amongst others). Erica Whyman’s direction, however, is to point out and help overcome some of the questions that may arise.

The dynamic only changes slightly when William moves to London to expand his father’s glove business and Agnes stays behind to manage the everyday life of their family. While it is left to the audience’s imagination how the son of a glove maker becomes a sought-after and celebrated writer, it is clearly visible that his wonderful wife leads the small family in his absence with so much love and empathy that you are completely captivated by her.

Agnes is indeed the one figure carrying this production. She is wild, free, and somehow different. She is spiritual and in harmony with herself and nature. Exploring her witchy side and leaning into the accusations of witchcraft in this adaption of Hamnet feels only suitable for this time of the year. Madeline Mantock exudes a strength that is second to none. She is complex, and it is a joy to watch her development throughout the piece. Meanwhile, Shakespeare seems to remain the 18-year-old dream dancer throughout. Tom Varey gives the Bard as much pathos as possible but remains very straightforward overall. All through the play, there is no spark between the two, as beautiful as their words may be.

Mantock is resolute and the driving force behind the reconciliatory ending. Even if the latter came as abruptly as the beginning of the relationship. There is an imbalance in the pace of the narrative in this story that spans 18 years. While seemingly banal aspects seem to be artificially drawn out, key points seem rushed forward.

An energetic match, on the other hand, is Ajani Cabey (Hamnet) and Alex Jarrett (Judith). The twins’ connection is so touchingly close that it almost breaks your heart. Whether characterised by lightness or deep sadness for each other, Cabey and Jarrett are completely fascinating. They are glimpses of light in this overall quite heavy play.

However, while William Shakespeare used almost 30,000 words in his art, so much is left unsaid in this production.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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