Friday 16 June 2023


Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

27th May, 2023

“What is ‘Quintessence’?”

For over 407 years Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets have entertained, educated and beguiled audiences and readers the world over, yet much of the man himself is still a mystery. From the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love to Ben Elton’s broad sitcom Upstart Crow, fictionalised versions of the Bard have posited the question that experts and laymen alike have perpetually sought answers; ‘how much of the man, his life and those surrounding him, inspired the great works?’. It is human nature to want to empathise, and to seek parallels between fact and fiction, and Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s bestselling novel Hamnet offers perhaps the most poignant interpretation of the man yet.

Yet, to say that this is a play about Shakespeare is to do it disservice, as the spotlight is steadfastly focused on William’s wife, Agnes Hathaway (an earnest and mighty Madeleine Mantock), and their children. Agnes is earthy, yet spiritual, having an affinity with nature and an intuitiveness that leaves locals accusing her of witchcraft. ‘I feel more than now’ she says at one point. She meets eighteen-year-old William Shakespeare (a puppyish Tom Varey) in her family’s apple store, he on a break from tutoring her younger brothers. The connection is instant and when Agnes falls pregnant the couple hastily marry, much to the chagrin of their families.

O’Farrell and Chakrabarti’s narrative spans decades, as we watch the Shakespeare family grow alongside William’s burgeoning career as a writer. However, his move to London to pursue his calling leaves Agnes to raise their three children alone. Soon enough, disaster strikes as young Judith (Alex Jarrett) contracts the plague. Agnes refuses medical help, instead leaning on her intricate knowledge of natural remedies. Meanwhile, Judith’s twin brother, Hamnet (Ajani Cabey) watches from the rafters as his beloved sister grows ever weaker. The plot takes a sudden turn, when the untimely death of Hamnet shakes the family to the core and Agnes is unable to understand her distant husband’s reluctance to mourn.

Chakrabarti and director Erica Whyman draw a nice contrast between the more comedic scenes featuring the Lord Chamberlain’s Men rehearsing in London, and the domestic, bucolic and graveness of those set in Stratford-upon-Avon. The rift between the central couple becomes starker through this tonal juxtaposition. Tom Piper makes great use of the Swan Theatre’s timber in a simple but evocative set. Rafter beams form attic bedrooms and haylofts while also echoing the gabled houses of Tudor England and the boards of the Globe theatre.

I think this story in all its guises is so successful because the audience and reader can relate to the family drama at its centre. At times we forget we are watching a play about the most famous playwright in history; the creative team make an elusive yet ubiquitous figure a being of flesh and blood, and, even more impressive, they make him a side-character to the markedly more heroic Agnes! For example, the play focuses on the almost feral nature of the mother/child bond. When Agnes flees home to give birth in the woods it feels like a natural – universal – calling for her, and the moment loses all baseness and reminds us of the beautifully physical, earthy and animalistic instinctiveness that connects mother and baby on a deeply molecular level.

Likewise, O’Farrell and Chakrabarti also explore the unique relationship between twins, with Hamnet’s death taking on an ethereal aspect as he seemingly sacrifices himself to save his sister; just as the siblings fool their family and friends by swapping clothes and identities, so too do they trick death. The third example of the triptych of familial relationships under the microscope, is, of course, that of husband and wife. The shared happiness, the conflicts, the secrets. The concluding scene, in which a distraught Agnes covertly watches an early performance of Hamlet, is one of such luminescence it changes not only the way we view the couple, the way we view their grief, but also the way we view Shakespeare’s work in general. Certain lines from that play will never sound the same again.

It was a treat to see Hamnet performed in the heart of Shakespeare’s hometown, just meters away from the historic setting of the story. Chakrabarti has done a wonderful job of translating O’Farrell’s heady novel into a linear narrative that stirs the emotions and pays tribute to an unsung hero of literary history.

Hamnet plays at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until 17th June. It then transfers to the Garrick Theatre, London from 30th September 2023 – 6th January 2024. For more information please visit:


Tom Vary (William) and Madeleine Mantock (Agnes) in Hamnet. Credit: Manuel Harlan


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