Hamnet ★★★ Garrick Theatre | Sep 30, 2023 - Feb 17, 2024


In her novel of 2020, Maggie O'Farrell reimagined Shakespeare's matrimonial and family life, making his wife, Anne (or Agnes as she is known here), a central figure in his creative imagination. Raised on a sheep farm, Agnes is presented as an illiterate embodiment of the natural sphere who is in touch with its spirits. Her world clearly stands in contrast to that of her suitor. His father is a tradesman with aspirations to be a gentleman, while Shakespeare himself is a Latin tutor who will become a playwright. The suggestion is that Agnes brings to the would-be wordsmith the fascination with the natural and supernatural world that pervades his works. Similarly, Act II posits that the loss of their only son, Hamnet, becomes the inspiration for the Bard's penning of Hamlet. The first act of the play focusses on the unhappy family lives of the young couple and their courtship, concluding with the birth of their son and his twin sister, Judith. Unfortunately, the flirtation and development of this love story isn't that engaging, and one wonders if it would have held any interest if it weren't for the fact that it is cast as the story of Shakespeare, and as an insight into his little-known personal life. The second act contrasting Shakespeare's life in London with his wife's struggles to raise a family proves more interesting, but also seemed somewhat superficial. The psychological connection of the two worlds and the two principal characters traumatised by their son's death didn't really resonate. The issue may be that the subtle layering and development of character and relationships that characterised O'Farrell's novel doesn't really translate to the stage. Nevertheless, this is a show that will definitely appeal to those who wonder about the genesis of genius, and the biography of England's greatest playwright.

Rated: ★★★

Reviewed by J.C.
Photo by Manuel Harlan © RSC

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