Hamnet at Garrick Theatre
Who were William Shakespeare’s family? Based on the book by Maggie O’Farrell and adapted by Lolita Chakrabati, Hamnet is a play where his wife and children get more of the limelight and their stories will squeeze your heart.
Agnes, a sheep farmer’s sister, meets William, a 17-year-old working as a Latin tutor. She sees visions of the future and the beautiful children they will have together and falls in love with him. We see her life at home and her strength in putting up with an awful stepmother but holding her own with cutting remarks and follow the rest of her story as she marries William and their children arrive.
The play is far more Agnes’ story than her son Hamnet’s, despite his being the name in lights. Is that a problem? Not really. Agnes, who either barely features in other tellings of William Shakespeare’s life or has various terrible things made up about her, is the perfect character. And Madeleine Mantock plays her perfectly.
That’s not to say the show is completely devoid of William or his children. We see glimpses that tell great stories and reveal great detail in short scenes – a great testament to the writing – such as William’s relationship with his parents, and the special bond that twins Hamnet and Judith share.
Production-wise, there’s maybe a couple of kinks to work out. Moving some panels in the background is slowly drawn out at a snail’s pace in order to not disrupt a scene in the foreground but just ends up making a distracting whir for far longer than necessary.
And using the same cast member for multiple roles doesn’t always work as fluidly as they one would hope. The play makes iconic characters of the cast for 60 minutes and then suddenly presents them as someone else with no warning. It works when the new character is behind a mask or that actor only has two minutes of stage time as a minor role in act one. But when William’s abusive father shows up as his jolly actor friend after the interval, the whole thing gets a little confusing.
Otherwise, it’s quite slick. In particular, a simple transformation shows off the wonderfully clever set design. The whole thing is a gorgeous wooden framework, which brings to life the Shakespeares’s countryside abode.
Maybe there are things to pick at but ultimately, Hamnet is a beautiful story of love and loss, fatherhood and motherhood, and twin and non-twin sibling relationships. And it heroes a woman too often missed out in stories of William Shakespeare’s life.
Photos: Manuel Harlan
Hamnet is at Garrick Theatre from 30th September until 17th February 2024. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.