“Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die”
It is difficult isn’t it to convert a 384 page novel into a two and a half hour stage play? Maggie O’Farrell’s novel is entitled Hamnet after William Shakespeare’s twin son but is more about Hamnet’s mother Agnes with a silent ‘g’. I am not overly keen on plays which fictionalise real life characters without there being the historical evidence to back up these ideas. In fairness to Maggie O’Farrell, she never calls William, Shakespeare, but using Stratford as her base conclusions will be drawn. Lolita Chakrabarti has adapted the novel for the stage.
The characters who lose out here are Shakespeare’s father, the glovemaker John (Peter Wight) who is shown to be excessively angry and derogatory towards his son. The other dislikeable parent is Agnes Hathaway’s step mother Joan (Sarah Belcher) who is horrid towards Agnes (Madeleine Mantock). The first act establishes Agnes as a woman, a mystic and full of knowledge about herbs and nature who meets her brothers’ Latin tutor (Tom Varey) in the middle of the apple harvest and they fall in love.
Their child Susanna (Phoebe Campbell) is conceived and they are married with opposition from John Shakespeare the bad tempered glovemaker who has fallen on hard times and is impatient with his son’s scholarly pursuits. William is 18 years old and Agnes is older. William gets depressed and leaves for London to go to Bermondsey to act in his father’s glovemaking interests with the Cordwainers and Saddler Leathermakers.
In Maggie O’Farrell’s version, it is making gloves for actors that sees William’s first engagement with theatres. There is a similar story in my friend’s family history where making gut strings for musical instruments led to his great uncle attending music halls, becoming a performer and later managing them as an impresario.
William comes back to Stratford with tales of a theatre in Shoreditch, that he is making gloves for, conveying all the excitement of the crowd moved by the plays. In Stratford we see the birth of his twins Judith (Alex Jarrett) and Hamnet (Ajani Cabey).
Act Two sees the similarity between Judith and Hamnet who can pretend to be each other and we wonder about the inspiration for The Comedy of Errors and for Viola and Sebastian in Twelfth Night. Agnes stays in Stratford with the three children. There is a good scene in London with actors Will Kempe (Peter Wight) and Richard Burbage (Will Brown). Burbage complains about his roles, “Why must I always die?”
In Stratford, the bubonic plague strikes Judith with a sinister Plague doctor in a hideous bird like mask and although she survives, Hamnet contracts it, dies and the burial records show him as aged 11.
Tom Piper’s set is all ladders and a central platform. Of the acting performances Madeleine Mantock is charming as Agnes and grief stricken by the loss of her son.
I was less than convinced by O’Farrell’s finale when Agnes goes to see the play Hamlet and says “You possess him completely and you make him live again.” My reasoning is that I can see no obvious links between the life experiences of the Prince of Denmark and the short life of Shakespeare’s only son other than the similarity of their names. It is moving to see John Shakespeare proud of William’s achievement.
I have not read the O’Farrell novel but the staging of Hamnet doesn’t leap off the page but it may well bring more pleasure to those familiar with the novel. The question that really interests me is how the son of a glovemaker from Stratford wrote so many brilliant plays set in Europe where he had never visited.
There is recent speculation that John Shakespeare’s glove making business did not fail but that he was involved in an illicit trade in sheep, wool and skins because of the evidence of expensive property he bought.
From the novel by Maggie O’Farrell
Adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti
Directed by Erica Whymam
Director: Erica Whyman
Designer: Tom Piper
Composer: Oguz Kaplangi
Movement Design: Ayse Tashkiran
Lighting Designer:Prema Mehta
Sound Designer: Simon Baker
Musical Supervisor: Bruce O’Neil
Fight Director: Kate Waters
A RSC production
Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Booking to 17th February 2024
2 Charing Cross Road
London WC2H 0HH
Phone: 0330 333 4811
Rail/Tube: Charing Cross
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge
at the Garrick Theatre, on 18th October 2023