It is 400 years since Shakespeare died. One might think it would therefore be hard to say anything new about him.
But Maggie O’Farrell’s 2020 novel Hamnet did just that. By focusing on the life of his family, it cast new light on his own work. And perhaps more importantly, it was a valuable reminder that even the most brilliant among us are dependent upon others, whom history has a habit of overlooking or traducing.
It has not taken long for the story to come to the stage, and the Swan is the natural home for an intimate tale set largely in Stratford. It is directed by Erica Whyman, the RSC’s acting artistic director; a transfer to the West End has already been secured. The company is taking this seriously; the concern from a theatrical perspective is that it might be taking it a bit too seriously.
Hamnet was the name of Shakespeare’s son, who died aged 11. The story asserts that the play Hamlet is in some way inspired by him. But the boy himself is of less interest to this production than his mother. She has been known for centuries as Anne Hathaway, but here she is called Agnes, which O’Farrell argues is probably more accurate. Agnes is presented here as something of an enigma, inhabiting her own dimension, experiencing life with an almost mystical sense of perception. If she seems like a dreamer, it is because she sees the world as it is. She is played with an earthy radiance by Madeleine Mantock, to whom this show belongs.
And we have to trust that she sees things others cannot, because it is hard to see what she sees in Shakespeare, played by Tom Varey. He seems rather annoying and conceited from the outset, and there is little evidence of much maturation as the play progresses. Matters are not helped, in the first half at least, by an array of caricatures purporting to be characters: the couple’s respective mothers are little more than hectoring harridans; William’s father John is a mite more sympathetic in places but rarely strays from a well-worn blend of exasperation and brutality.
The production finds more depth after the interval. The death of Hamnet (Ajani Cabey) is portrayed powerfully, and its aftermath leads to some of the play’s more effective scenes as it follows Shakespeare to London, having absented himself from day-to-day family life. But although many will find the play moving and enlightening, it is all handled in a rather staid and respectable manner: there is little to quicken the pulse, and there is a general lack of imagination. Hathaway embodies something wild and quixotic, yet the production seems too keen on being wholesome. It also suffers from an unfortunate desire to make everything make sense, which makes for a rather passive watch: all is played out and spelt out.
Hamnet should have little trouble finding an audience. It is warm and earnest and full of heart, and its aims are laudable. It is as good as it needs to be; and while some might hope for more, that is probably enough.
Until June 17. Tickets: rsc.org.uk