HAMNET

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _RSC STRATFORD-UPON-AVON., _GARRICK THEATRE LDN.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _17th JUN (SUA)., _6th JAN (LDN).

June 14, 2023

images © Manuel Harlan @ RSC.

At one point midway through the second act of Erica Whyman and Lolita’s Chakrabarti’s stage adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, Tom Varey’s ‘William’ (you know the one) asks his fellow players to imagine the seats of their newly-founded Globe theatre to be full of patrons. Moments before, a comedic beat sees one of the Bard’s troupe almost tumble off the edge of the stage and into the laps of (gamely amused) actual audience members. Nestled, as Hamnet currently is, in the Swan Theatre at the RSC, it’s all laced with echoes of cultural poignancy, not to mention some cheeky, fourth-wall breaking knowingness.

Plenty of Whyman’s transplant of Hamnet resonates to this canny, autobiographical enrichment. Mentions of Stratford and Warwickshire abound (and even received audible murmurs of approval from the audience), whilst the whole thing feels leant a sense of authenticity by dint of company and locale alone.

And yet, for all of the myriad fun had in exploring the unique meta opportunities of bringing this tale to the stage in Stratford (and soon to be London), fundamentally O’Farrell’s story is one of grief, loss, absence and departure. For sure, the power of performance and the cathartic nature of theatre are indeed important threads of the Hamnet tale, and there’s fun to be had with a smattering of references and Easter eggs for enthusiasts of the Bard’s oeuvre, but all the frolics and intertextuality in the world wouldn’t save it from a failure to deliver on the story’s most profound and affecting beats.

“…an assured, indomitable turn, with Mantock lending an air of venerability and wisdom beyond age to the orphaned Hathaway…”

Thankfully, a resplendent company deliver us to the eventual heartbreak and anguish with sincerity and clout. Front and centre is a captivating Madeleine Mantock, as Shakespeare’s wife, Anne – here renamed Agnes (‘the g is silent’) – Hathaway. It’s an assured, indomitable turn, with Mantock lending an air of venerability and wisdom beyond age to the orphaned Hathaway, which bounces well off of Varey’s likeable, boyish vim as a young Shakespeare. Whyman and Chakrabarti’s adaptation doesn’t shy away from the ethereal and spiritualistic elements of O’Farrell’s storytelling, either; introducing Agnes from the off as a figure attuned to whispers on the wind, an affinity with the natural world, and the perhaps inevitable consequential sneers and accusations of witchcraft and ungodliness. Where less confident productions would perhaps hedge their bets on ambiguity, Hamnet quite literally gives voice and presence to the manifestations of spirits and the supernatural, that end up being a crucial part of its heroine’s identity and arc.

“A thing of shimmering wonder”… Maggie O’Farrell‘s 2020 novel from which ‘Hamnet‘ is adapted (original cover above, © Tinder Press) released to immediate acclaim and plaudits – going on to win a breadth of accolades including the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and ‘Novel of the Year’ at the Dalkey Literature Awards.

More grounded are practically the entirety of characters about her. From Sarah Belcher’s unabashedly venomous step-mother, Peter Wright’s boorish, oft-abusive and shame-ridden father of Varey’s Shakespeare (or his flatulent luvvy), to a wonderfully droll and deadpan Elizabeth Rider as his mother Mary, it’s a rabble of earthy, colourful Elizabethans. Sure, we rarely scratch beneath the surface for most of them, but they’re a rich and vibrantly performed collective who add plenty of grit and character, to a slightly meandering first half in particular.

For it’s certainly a lopsided affair. The first act, which centres around the blossoming romance between lowly Latin teacher William, and Hathaway, surely takes its time, but is a little too doe-eyed, occasionally to the point of threatening to feel languid. By contrast, the sheer amount of incident and high drama that rips through the punchier, powerful second half almost leaves it feeling too fleeting. Chunks of Hamnet’s opening hour may be characterful and involving, but pale into relative inconsequence by the time the tragedy that threatens to tear the Shakespeare homestead apart begins to unravel post-interval.

“A thing of shimmering wonder”… Maggie O’Farrell‘s 2020 novel from which ‘Hamnet‘ is adapted (original cover above, © Tinder Press) released to immediate acclaim and plaudits – going on to win a breadth of accolades including the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and ‘Novel of the Year’ at the Dalkey Literature Awards.

Thankfully – if one can say such a thing when discussing the bubonic death of the young – Whyman’s production strikes these pivotal moments with heartrending precision and impact. Mantock’s anguish and desperation as a woman facing the sum of all maternal fears is raw and devastating. It’s a truly blistering demonstration of grief. Loss hangs palpably in the air and upon the shoulders of the cast, and if it is indeed these wrenching throngs of pain that Hamnet has been building toward, the production and cast more than deliver.

“…one can’t help but feel that the cosier safeness of Hamnet’s first half deserved something of a squeeze to allow its more interesting second half time to breathe.”

It only amplifies the regrettable nature of its disjointed structure. Just as we begin weaving into heady issues such as survivors guilt, expression through language and other interesting wrinkles, the breakneck pace of the second Act sees it all needing to be wrapped up. That it does so on a beautifully satisfying, bittersweet coda is welcome, but one can’t help but feel that the cosier safeness of Hamnet’s first half deserved something of a squeeze to allow its more interesting second half time to breathe.

Structural gripes aside, this is nevertheless a slick, handsomely-realised production. Staging designer Tom Piper plays with levels and constructs (ladders, unfolding stages et al) to at times quite literally build the story of Shakespeare’s evolution, in a woody fashion that feels totally organic and resonant within the confines of the recently (sublimely) refurbished Swan. Movement and transitions are smooth, and the depictions of place feel lived-in and authentic. Prema Mehta and Xana’s lighting and sound work are cannily utilised, in understated yet surprisingly evocative fashion. Some may find the occasional otherworldly whisper a touch on the nose, but the sound of flies (or are they bees?) buzzing away faintly in the distance serves as a reminder that death and decay are creeping in at the periphery.

Much like its fascinating lead character, Hamnet is a curio of gentle otherworldliness and raw, unbridled emotion. That it spends a little too much of its runtime on the former, whilst slightly rushing through the weightier ebbs, makes for a production that lands with perhaps a touch less elan and rhythm than enthusiasts of O’Farrell’s novel may have anticpated. Yet, despite this slightly choppy pathway, when it comes to realising the emotional fulcrum of its titular tragedy, a riveting, powerhouse Mantock and company more than deliver.

It’s just a pity that it wraps itself up far too soon afterward.

For as the Bard himself knew only too well, and indeed as Varey’s Shakespeare emphatically notes to a freewheeling Will Kempe at one point, it simply doesn’t do to mess up on rhythm and structure.

O’Farrell’s glimmering text is delivered to the stage in curiously disjointed and lopsided fashion. Even so, a towering Mantock heads up a cast who deliver wrenching, powerful theatre when it finally brings its titular tragedy front and centre.

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