Hamnet review, Swan Theatre, RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon

The RSC has reopened its refurbished Swan Theatre with an eagerly anticipated adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s bestselling novel Hamnet, said Sam Marlowe in The Stage. As “snug and supple” a fit for the Stratford stage as one of the bespoke gloves made by William Shakespeare’s bullying father, it imagines the playwright’s courtship and marriage to Agnes (aka Anne) Hathaway, and the death of their 11-year-old son, Hamnet. Tom Piper’s design – with its “wooden beams and ladders, wheat sheaves, lavender and rosy apples” – turns “bewitchingly” from “a rustic home to the wooden O of the Globe Theatre”, and the action is garlanded by Oguz Kaplangi’s folksy music. In this “soft-focus version”, some of “the texture and particularity of O’Farrell’s writing” is lost, but this “historical-biographical fantasia” will still “win plenty of hearts”. 

Erica Whyman’s production is “evocative and beautifully acted”, and “often touching and witty”, said Dominic Maxwell in The Times. “Yet my tear ducts remained dry. This is a good night at the theatre, but not the great one we might have dreamt of from such moving source material.” One factor is that (unlike the novel) the story is told strictly chronologically, meaning that Hamnet (played “adorably” by the adult actor Ajani Cabey) is not around for long. His death is the story’s pivotal event, but while it is sad, “the feelings don’t have room to run deep”. More broadly, said Sarah Crompton on What’s on Stage, Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation does not quite take us into Agnes’s mind, so that we can truly feel her grief. This is a “beautifully modulated telling of a sad story, but it doesn’t pierce the heart”. 

The strength of the evening “lies in its principals”, said Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph. Madeleine Mantock has a compelling “air of otherworldliness” as the seer-like Agnes; when she touches Tom Varey’s “bright, unassuming Will, it’s as if he’s the lightning-rod for her sixth sense”. This is a “spare, fleet, gently atmospheric production” – but it needs to land with more force. 

Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, to 17 June; Garrick, London, 30 September to 6 January 2024; rsc.org.uk. Rating ***