The Theatreguide.London Review
Garrick Theatre Autumn 2023
There has long been speculation about the women who may have inspired Shakespeare to create so many independent-minded women characters in his plays. A few years back, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s exciting play Emilia offered us an imagined account of Emilia Bassano, a writer of poetry.
Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet, which won the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, gives us a lyrical, atmospheric account of Agnes Hathaway, the wife of William Shakespeare, told from her point of view through the shaping impact of the death in the opening pages of their son Hamnet.
Her husband is not named in the text but instead referred to as ‘the glover’s boy’, ‘him’, ‘the father’, ‘the son’, and ‘the Latin tutor’. We encounter him, his theatre and the plays through her consciousness.
Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation of the novel for the stage, directed by Erica Whyman, replaces the novel’s mix of time periods with a chronological narrative.
It also shifts the emphasis away from Agnes and Hamnet towards a chatty, confident Shakespeare (Tom Varey), who even has some scenes with his players in London that Agnes could not have seen.
The eleven-year-old Hamnet (Ajani Cabey), apart from running around the set with his twin sister Judith (Alex Jarrett) between scenes, only really appears later in the play to die in a slightly melodramatic sequence.
Other characters are given a generally one-dimensional depiction. Will’s father (Peter Wight) is an angry opportunist. Agnes's stepmother (Sarah Belcher) is a bitter angry woman.
Even Agnes (Madeleine Mantock) is given little to allow us more than an impression of her. It is difficult to see a real romantic connection between her and Will.
The acting is always reasonable, though the actors aren’t given much of a script to really fly with. Each scene and any dramatic potential it may have is too slight to generate any tension or emotional engagement with the audience. The man sitting to my left seemed to nod off to sleep in the first half.
Tom Piper’s wooden two-level set is impressive and adaptable, from being a kitchen to becoming the Globe stage, but the music is slight and unimaginative.
The whole show is curiously lacking in a political or social context. If not for the mention of the plague, we could imagine it as taking place at any time over the last five hundred years.
Although the success of the book and the name of the Royal Shakespeare Company performing the show will be enough to fill seats, the play is light, superficial and not particularly engaging.
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