At home with the Shakespeares as best-selling book is brought to RSC stage - The Leamington Observer

At home with the Shakespeares as best-selling book is brought to RSC stage

Hamnet

RSC Swan Theatre, Stratford

 

A COUPLE battle the bullying blinkered expectations of their elders only to find the freshness of their love hard to maintain when challenged by ambition, separation, loneliness and the tragic loss of a child.




All themes covered copiously in drama and eminently forgettable were it not for the fact that this is the tale of Mr and Mrs Shakespeare of Stratford, a private life which has excited and exercised scholars and historians for centuries.

We know surprisingly little of the life of the Bard and his family and Maggie O’Farrell’s hugely popular novel, adapted here for the RSC stage by Lolita Chakrabarti, cleverly knits what we do know with a fair dollop of imagination to create a narrative which raises as many questions as it provides answers.


The playwright, in the hands of Tom Varey, is presented as a young man besotted by the wiles of his first love and positively bursting with love, a desire to discover and a bottomless creativity. Life in the capital may turn his head intermittently but he’s in love as much at the end as he was at the start.

Madeleine Mantock as Agnes – wrongly known as Anne it seems – though I doubt they’ll be renaming the tea rooms – is a heady mixture of confident woman, feisty lover and darkly intriguing mystic. So much more than a routinely overlooked wife in the background, this is a performance full of nuance and depth.

The loss of son Hamnet in childhood gives the play (and the book) its pivotal point and its title but this is a narrative based largely on Agnes and the life she’s forced to live.

There are good performances throughout a well-balanced cast, but the greater part of this play’s impetus comes from the women and in Sarah Belcher and Elizabeth Rider as dominant mothers almost competing with one another, and Harmony Rose-Bremner and Alex Jarrett as daughters Susanna and Judith the production is impressively strong on the female side, something the Bard himself, it could be argued, rarely managed.

Tom Piper’s ever-versatile set of ladders and platforms works splendidly and the production is graced by a musical score from composer Oguz Kaplangi which adds much when it needs to and is never intrusive.

The play is formed of countless small vignettes in a relentless chronology, only opening out in the second half when separation means we have to keep our eyes on Stratford and the playhouses of London simultaneously.

Short scenes tend to mean a paucity of chances for characters to develop but so slick is Erica Whyman’s production at moving between those scenes that the flow is never lost and there are some genuinely affecting moments as well as real comedy.

It’s hard to say how the long-term future for this play will look. The book’s monumental sales guarantee it won’t be going away, but what of the play? It’s not a definitive portrayal of history – it’s actually much more that that. But its development and appearance at the home of its illustrious subject gives it a gravitas that may be enough for it to stand on its own two feet and it deserves that at least.

 

 

 

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