In the RSC’s Clapham rehearsal room, family tensions are rising around a dinner table. A baby is crying and getting on the nerves of the family patriarch. The new daughter-in-law, Agnes, an incomer into the family, has cooked one of the dishes differently from family tradition. Tempers fray and snap. Agnes stands her ground. The father raises his hand to her, and her husband seizes his dad’s arm and holds it back, asserting himself against his father.
It could be a scene from a dinner table somewhere in the UK in 2023, but this is a scene from Lolita Chakrabarti’s stage version of Maggie O’Farrell’s 2020 best-seller, Hamnet, and the family gathered around the table are those of Shakespeare, who has recently married Agnes, often known to us as Anne Hathaway.
"One of the things I love," says director Erica Whyman, "is the way Maggie’s book is set in the 1580s but feels so completely contemporary. She so carefully picks all the life events that have not changed down through the centuries and which we all recognise. So it always feels immediate, as if it could be happening now."
Hamnet, which opens at the RSC’s Swan Theatre, sold out its Stratford run almost as soon as it was announced, so it’s good news that it is transferring in the early autumn to London’s Garrick Theatre. Demand is likely to be as high. As Whyman points out, it is a book that captures "the terror of childbirth, having a child, and the terror of losing a child better than anything I’ve ever read." When Whyman was auditioning actors for the cast, she was intrigued to discover that many of the younger actors knew the book, having been given it to read by their mothers. It is a book about grief and terrible loss, but as Whyman points out, it is also suffused with the joys of daily family life that came before the flood of unbearable pain.
Actors Tom Varey (William) and Madeleine Mantock (Agnes) in the RSC's premiere of Hamnet.
In the 17th century, the names Hamnet and Hamlet were often interchangeable. The first was the name of Shakespeare’s son, who died in Stratford at the age of 11. Nobody knows what he died of, but in O’Farrell’s book he dies of the plague while his twin sister Judith survives. The other version of the name is that of Shakespeare’s most famous protagonist, Hamlet. Shakespeare wrote the play, which is full of ghosts, just three years after his son’s death.
But Whyman points out that Hamnet isn’t a play about Shakespeare, the great writer. It is a play about the people of whom we know almost nothing: his wife and children. It puts them centre stage and draws the attention away from Shakespeare, who has always been in the glaring spotlight. It doesn’t diminish him, but rather shows him in a different light as a father and a husband. Whyman says that there is a running joke in rehearsal with actor Tom Varey, who is playing Shakespeare, that "it isn’t all about him."
No, it’s much more interesting than that, not least in the way that it turns hundreds of years of scholarship upside down, which has often suggested that Shakespeare’s marriage to Agnes was a shotgun affair that trapped him. Scholars often use as evidence that, in his will, Shakespeare left his wife their "second-best bed." But as O’Farrell’s book suggests, the second-best bed would have been the marital bed. The best bed would have been for guests. "We have been reading too much into the second-best bed for far too long," says Whyman tartly.
The joy of the book, Chakrabarti’s stage version, and Whyman’s approach is that they tell another story, not that of the genius writer, which is overly familiar, but the story of those who are lost to history and whose lives have been overshadowed by Shakespeare’s fame, but perhaps who made him the writer who wrote Hamlet. Or all the other plays. It offers a different Shakespeare, too: one who is a bullied son and a loving husband and father. It is his clever, intuitive wife Agnes, a natural healer (played by Madeleine Mantock), and his children Susannah, Hamnet, and Judith who give his life grounding and purpose.
It is that rare beast, a theatrical hymn to the textured richness of the domestic, something that has so often been ignored in British theatre, which has, as a matter of course, put the lives of men centre stage and relegated women and children to walk-on roles in male lives. Or simply ghosts.
Here, there are different kinds of ghosts lurking. Hamnet is also a peon to the healing power of theatre and how sitting in the dark watching stories unfold can provide solace. In the theatre, ghosts walk, the lost are memorialised, and the dead can once more rise again. Night after night. "Remember me," says the ghost in Hamlet. Hamnet does that, bringing to life an 11-year-old boy and creating wonder out of grief.
Cover image of director Erica Whyman, courtesy of the RSC. Hamnet opens at London's Garrick Theatre on the 30th of September 2023 for a limited run.