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Hamnet at Garrick Theatre, London | Review

To be fair to this production, I wasn’t aware William Shakespeare’s son was called Hamnet (Ajani Cabey). But then, for the show to be called Hamnet and for him not to be the most prominent character in the play makes the choice of title a curious one, and it is his father (Tom Varey), actor and playwright extraordinaire, that the audience ends up hearing about repeatedly, even when the action remains in Stratford-upon-Avon, but the Bard is in London.

Tom Varey as William Shkespeare and Madeleine Mantock as Agnes Hathaway. Photo credit Manuel Harlan.
Tom Varey as William Shakespeare and Madeleine Mantock as Agnes Hathaway. Photo credit Manuel Harlan.

I wanted, given the show’s title, to know more about Hamnet, but the story – at least in this adaptation of a novel of the same name – can’t decide whether it’s about Anne Hathaway (or Agnes (Madeleine Mantock) as the play would have it) trying to cope with loss and bereavement as the world, at both personal and wider levels, continues to turn, or if it’s about William Shakespeare and his runaway success which brings financial security to his family but he’s hardly ever at home to be with them.

It transpires there’s not, in any event, that much to discover about Hamnet, given he was a tragic victim of the bubonic plague at the age of eleven. According to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the cause of death was not recorded in the parish records of the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, so they can’t say for certain what he died of. That isn’t the only element of creative license deployed in this show, and Shakespeare enthusiasts will have some fun, or at least some interest, in picking out what bits of the dialogue are either quoted or slightly misquoted from which plays in the Shakespeare canon.

I found the portrayal of a couple of characters rather one-dimensional and borderline cartoonish. John Shakespeare (Peter Wight), William’s father, drinks too much and never has a nice word to say about his son, resorting to what in this day and age would be termed domestic violence. Agnes’ stepmother Joan (Sarah Belcher) is one of those religious fanatics who thinks everything that isn’t done according to her exact and precise standards is a sin and deserves punishment of the severest kind.

It was a struggle, frankly, to be drawn into proceedings. The novel, I am reliably informed, doesn’t even mention William Shakespeare by name, focusing on Agnes as its main character. This stage adaptation would have done well to follow that focus, and as William was away from home for extended periods anyway, it wouldn’t have been that difficult to reduce his prominence. That said, Tom Varey does very well to portray a young, teenage Shakespeare (dare I say it, a Shakespeare in love) and then an older, substantially more mature one, in charge of a company of actors who look to him for leadership. But then this might as well be – and indeed it is – another show about Shakespeare. Even the musical & Juliet managed to give more prominence to Anne Hathaway.

This rather disjointed production was, from a technical perspective, very sound – the costumes were all suitable for the period as far as I could tell, and every line could be heard clearly from beginning to end (you’d be surprised how often that doesn’t happen). But I am also reminded of the EM Forster quote: “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height”. This wasn’t a production that connected as it should have done.

2 gold stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Warwickshire, 1582. Agnes Hathaway, a natural healer, meets the Latin tutor, William Shakespeare. Drawn together by powerful but hidden impulses, they create a life together and make a family.

As William moves to London to discover his place in the world of theatre, Agnes stays at home to raise their three children but she is the constant presence and purpose of his life. When the plague steals 11-year-old Hamnet from his loving parents, they must each confront their loss alone. And yet, out of the greatest suffering, something of extraordinary wonder is born.

The production features Set and Costume Design by Tom Piper, Lighting by Prema Mehta, Music by Oğuz Kaplangi, Sound Design by Simon Baker, Movement by Ayse Tashkiran, Dramaturgy by Pippa Hill, Fights by Kate Waters and Casting by Amy Ball CDG.

Joining the company are Gabriel Akuwudike (Bartholomew), Phoebe Campbell (Susanna), Mhairi Gayer (Tilly/Caterina/Landlady) and Liza Sadovy (Mary). Reprising their roles from the RSC’s Stratford-upon-Avon run are Sarah Belcher (Joan), Will Brown (Burbage/Father John), Ajani Cabey (Hamnet), Frankie Hastings (Eliza/Customer), Karl Haynes (Ned), Alex Jarrett (Judith), Madeleine Mantock (Agnes Hathaway), Hannah McPake (Jude), Tom Varey (William Shakespeare) and Peter Wight (John/Will Kempe), Haydn Burke and Faye Campbell complete the cast as off-stage understudies.

Garrick Theatre, 2 Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0HH
Saturday 30 September 2023 – Saturday 17 February 2024


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