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Hamnet - Royal Shakespeare Company Review

Reviewed by Mark Johnson at the Swan Theatre in April 2023.
Disclaimer; tickets were gifted in return for an honest review.

Maggie O'Farrell's hit novel arrives on stage in Stratford-Upon-Avon bringing the human side of William Shakespeare and his family to life in the town where much of the action takes place. Hamnet reopens the transformed Swan Theatre after a 3-year absence.

In O’Farrell’s novel and this magnificent stage adaptation by Lolita Chakrabarti, the focus doesn’t centre on William or the titular Hamnet but on wife Agnes. Little is known of Agnes but the portrayal of a strong female herbalist who embarks on a relationship with Will, who is at the time a Latin tutor, with their passionate romance leading to pregnancy and marriage but after Will leaves for London to make his way, Agnes is left at home to bring up their 3 children.

Madeleine Mantock (Agnes) and Tom Varey (William). Photo by Manuel Harlan

The first act of the play focuses on the family building as we get a sweeping romantic tale that plays out wonderfully but is a little stilted as much pathos and drama plays in the second act especially if you know what is to come. The interval falls as twins Judith and Hamnet are born.

The second act jumps 11 years as the plague hits, with twin Judith falling gravely ill leaving Hamnet to take close care of her. The subsequent heartbreaking scenes as Judith recovers only to discover Hamnet has passed to the disease are powerfully moving and played out superbly by the company and leave few dry eyes in the theatre.

The latter part of the second act focuses on how Agnes and Will deal with grief and loss. With Will throwing himself into his writing and performing, there are some great scenes as Will and his players rehearse some of his texts. These scenes often play alongside the moments back in Stratford. Whilst Agnes is left at home to deal with family life, Will is pouring his grief into a new piece of work which we see premiere in the final scene, the curtain rises on Hamlet at The Globe witnessed by Agnes.

It’s all so exquisitely written and visually brought to life Tom Piper’s wooden set which transports you to 1500's Stratford and London with simplicity and ease. The creation of a visual A is very clever. The effective design helps combine costumes and lighting by Prema Mehta to transport the audience. Xana’s soundscape matches with Oguz Kaplangi’s score in adding another layer of humanity and emotion.

Tom Varey (William) and Madeleine Mantock (Agnes). Photo by Manuel Harlan

Simply put Madeleine Mantock is extraordinary as Agnes. She is endlessly watchable and emotes every scene perfectly, be that the light bright romantic teenager to the grief-stricken mother and wife. Mantock bares her soul into every moment. Tom Varey matches as Will. Capturing the romance in the first act and the intrigue of the writer in the second well. 

Alex Jarrett’s Judith and Ajani Cabey’s Hamnet have some lovely playful moments at the top of the second act that quickly turns the horrors that ensue as Jarrett portrays the illness and Cabey frantic caring for his sister whilst nobody appears to be around to help is deeply touching. With Harmony Rose-Bremner also impressing as older sister Susanna. The believable relationships make for the emotional payoff.

A strong company plays their roles with expert skill guided by director Erica Whyman. There are moments that could be developed more but ultimately the piece is a beautiful exploration of love and loss with an unforgettable leading performance by Mantock.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Hamnet played at The Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon until Saturday 17th June 2023. The production transferred to London’s Garrick Theatre running from Saturday 30th September until Saturday 17th February 2024. Tickets are available from 

Ajani Cabey (Hamnet). Photo by Manuel Harlan.

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