Royal Shakespeare Company
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
The year is 1582. The place is the county of Warwickshire, in the heart of England. In the opening scene of Lolita Chakrabarti’s keenly anticipated adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s acclaimed novel, a spirited young woman is flying a kestrel. Woman and bird are instinctively connected. The bird responds to her calls, following the swinging arc of her lure before returning to her gloved hand.
The woman is Agnes – with a silent ‘g’ – Hathaway (Madeleine Mantock), better known as Anne Hathaway, wife to William Shakespeare (Tom Varey), the greatest playwright in the English language and revered son of the Warwickshire town of Stratford-upon-Avon. Agnes is a herbalist, a healer, a mystic and, it is whispered, a witch. Uneducated and illiterate, she feels and tastes what other humans merely see; her messengers are the wind and the changing seasons, the beating of wings, the sounds and signs of the natural world.
Witch or not, she has had a seriously bewitching effect on the rumpled, boyish Latin tutor William (Tom Varey), who enthusiastically returns her ardour. In the novel, O’Farrell gradually winds the reader into Agnes’s strange, unearthly consciousness, immersing us in her life under the strict regime of her yeoman father’s household, ruled with a rod of iron by his embittered widowed second wife Joan (Sarah Belcher).
But stage time is limited and, in a matter of minutes, William and Agnes have become lovers, she is pregnant with his child and they have begun a swiftly arranged married life in the attic of his unwelcoming parents John and Mary Shakespeare. Narrative speed is very much the hallmark of the first act of this lush, sensual production, brimming with symbols of fecundity – ripening apples, sheaves of corn, wildflower wreaths and garlands, herbal potions and soap sweetened with lavender.
The helter skelter dash through romantic encounters, multiple childbirths, family conflict and domestic violence calls into question whether O’Farrell’s langorous, seductive, carefully crafted novel is a suitable case for treatment. Nevertheless, Chakrabati has assiduously kept faith with its atmosphere and powerfully portrays the cloistered sisterhood, whose collective activities and mutual support frame the storyline.
Mantock’s Agnes is luminous and mysterious, her easy manner masking a strength of purpose capable of handling every challenge thrown at her. And those challenges are many. Her every move is held up for critical scrutiny by her mother-in-law; she endures silently the harsh, humiliating treatment meted out to her husband by his bullying father (Peter Wight), a glove maker who longs to be a gentleman; and she must constantly compensate for William’s thoughtless, carefree behaviour.
The birth of her eldest child Susanna (Harmony Rose-Bremner) is rapidly followed by the birth of twins, Hamnet (Ajani Cabey) and Judith (Alex Jarrett), who grow up like two peas in a pod, as close to each other as two human beings can possibly be. Meanwhile, William’s gaze wanders from his family, becoming fixed on a burgeoning career as a writer. The stages of London beckon and he feels compelled to follow.
When the dreaded bubonic plague invades the household, Hamnet’s devotion to his delicate sister strikes right to the heart of the family. It is in the tragedy of the second act that the piece really finds its feet. Mantock undergoes a remarkable feat of physical transformation, visibly and psychologically bending under the weight of parental responsibility. In spite of her desperate ministrations, death tightens its hold over her sweet daughter (Alex Jarrett), before unexpectedly clamping its clammy grasp onto her twin. Cabey and Jarrett are touchingly credible in this heartbreaking scene.
The death of her son and the frequent absences of her husband prove too much for the indomitable Agnes. Bowed beneath the giant A (for Agnes) frame at the centre of Tom Piper’s all-embracing set, she learns, to her horror that, back in London, William is writing a new play – about the loss of a son. Shocked and angry, she vows to confront this travesty. But, as in the novel’s breathtaking finale, Chakrabarti saves the best until last.
What unfolds is a brilliantly executed recreation of Shakespeare’s finest play. Even the first and last lines of the opening scene remain intact. Far from betraying his wife and child, William has accomplished the ultimate in theatrical suspension of disbelief.
Setting aside his high jinks in London, dispatching the services of his distinguished actor pals Richard Burbage (Will Brown) and Will Kempe (Wight), he summons the presence of Hamnet himself, merry, mischievous and affectionate. Agnes at last understands the depth of her husband’s literary genius. He has returned to her the enduring spirit of her precious son. Through the play, Hamnet – renamed Hamlet – will live forever.
Runs until 17 June then transfers to London’s Garrick Theatre from 30 September for a 14-week season.