HAMNET at the Garrick Theatre
“The story is gripping, and the performances are strong”
It is a hard task to adapt an incredibly popular and deeply literary novel for the stage, especially one which spans decades, cities and narrative voices. This adaptation doesn’t quite carry the romantic and ethereal genius of its source text, but it is brave enough to carve its own path through the story. It rushes along as a love letter to the emotional power of theatre.
Agnes is the peculiar orphaned daughter of a sheep farmer, who falls for the quick tongued Latin tutor, known better as William Shakespeare. The first half follows their romance and their struggles with their respective families, particularly William’s cruel and violent father. The second half jumps a decade, and surrounds the personal heartbreak which inspires, so this play supposes, one of the greatest tragedies ever written.
Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation is direct, emotionally honest and blunt. Sometimes this is an asset, allowing the emotional truths to be laid bare, but sometimes it lacks subtlety. The high-octane emotions, especially at the beginning, do feel a bit distancing at times, and it would have been interesting to explore a more layered complexity, especially in the couple’s relationships with their parental figures. The time jump in the middle, which brings the twins to the forefront and allows the piece a greater emotional depth, also stunts the development of the romantic centre. In some ways this does work, as by shifting the focus from the romance, the script is able to build its own identity, separately from the novel. Some of the strongest moments come with William’s players, and their plans for a new playhouse. Converting the stage into The Globe for the final scene is magical, and the joy and power of theatre is beautifully explored here.
Erica Whyman’s direction gives Hamnet significant momentum, hurtling along with a terrible, inevitable dread. There are some really beautiful moments to be found, but often they come in the pauses, when the play lets itself breathe. Some of this energy comes from the choice to cover each scene transition with a jaunty tune (Oğuz Kaplangi). This is also interspersed with sinister breathing and whispering, by sound designer Simon Baker. However, because many of the scenes are short and sharp it does stilt some of them, and prevents us from sitting with what we have seen.
It is a large cast, which serves to flesh out the rich world of the play. Madeleine Mantock’s Agnes is fiery and bold, contrasting and complementing Tom Varey’s William who is more pent up. For me the standouts, were Ajani Cabey and Alex Jarrett as the tragically fated twins. Cabey’s performance was beautiful, showing both incredible grace and joyous mischief. Jarrett was also excellent, bringing a tragic complexity to a grieving child, and one of her speeches was, for me, the emotional punch of the whole performance. Special mentions must also go to Gabriel Akuwudike’s Bartholomew whose excellent comic timing was a joy and Sarah Belcher who as Joan had a real grasp of her emotional levels, and brought a huge amount to what might’ve been a one note character.
Tom Piper’s set is ingenious, quirky and fun. Two levels framed by wooden ladders allow the cast to scamper up and down and all around, making use of every inch of the space. Using wood gives it an earthy feel, connected to Agnes’ natural healing. Prema Mehta’s lighting design brings harmony to this playful and warm set.
As an avid fan of the novel, I wanted to love this play. While I respect its ability to make the story its own, for me the emotional build felt rushed, and didn’t pay off. The story is gripping, and the performances are strong. But there is a bit of magic missing, which is what made the novel unique, and without which, the play is left feeling a little hollow.
HAMNET at the Garrick Theatre
Reviewed on 18th October 2023
by Auriol Reddaway
Photography by Manuel Harlan
Previously reviewed at this venue: