Review: Hamnet, Garrick Theatre, London

By Jim Keaveney

Lolita Chakrabarti, who earned critical acclaim for her adaption in the Life of Pi, sees her new adaption of Maggie O’Farrell’s similarly acclaimed 2020 novel Hamnet transferring to the West End at the Garrick Theatre, following a successful run at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon – a stone’s throw from the home of the Shakespeare family. But where the focus is normally on the head of the household, the William Shakespeare (Tom Varey), the heart of this story is his wife Agnes Hathaway (pronounced Ann-yes and played by Madeleine Mantock) – normally known as Anne.

There is a methodical clip to the story’s progression in Chakrabarti’s adaption that is absent from the book’s more interesting, non-linear structure, and it takes something away from the story, turning it into a straightforward story of love and loss – young Latin teacher meets an interesting woman on the edge of society, falls in love, has kids, suffers loss and then writes the greatest play of all time. OK, maybe not so straightforward – but the feeling is exacerbated by Erica Whyman’s production which plays everything safe and in a straight period style. It also, understandable, seeks to humanise William makes his accomplishments seem ordinary and leans into the idea that this is a simple love story. Only his mother (the terrific Liza Sadovy) seems in any way interested in her son’s interactions with monarchs at Court.

But it also results in a more one-dimenstional view of the titular Hamnet (Ajani Cabey) and his twin Judith (Alex Jarrett) as, although they are seen playing in the background of scenes before their birth, a sense within Agnes of what is coming, we do not actually meet the characters until the second half of the play, not very long before Hamnet’s death – and we see no interactions between William and his son. It’s therefore difficult to get a sense of the relationship between Hamnet and his parents or get to know him as a character, undermining the emotional heft of his death, William’s notable reaction to it, and the final moments that bring his parents together in their shared grief.

All of that is to make the play seem like a palatable miss when there are strong things here too, most notably the cast with strong performances throughout – no less so than from Mantock and Varey; there is a better play out there with these two in the lead. There are also nice moments of humour and one-line quips in Chakrabarti’s text, and Shakespeare aficionados will enjoy knowing nods to his plays and the period. Tom Piper’s stage is elegant and impressively functional, transforming from the loft of the Shakespeare’s marital bed to the grand house William buys for them to the stage of the Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames. Most people will find something to enjoy, which is part of the problem – the play aims for mass appeal but by aiming to please everyone doesn’t fully please anyone which is why the overriding sense here is one of a missed opportunity.

Hamnet is at the Garrick Theatre until 17 September