In a rehearsal room in Stratford-upon-Avon, a small group of people huddle around a silent bundle on a lumpy mattress. Two men step forward and lift the slight body, swaddled in white cloth. Gingerly, tenderly, they slip their hands beneath the child’s shoulders and knees and slide him on to a wooden board. Even in this brightly lit room, it’s a piteous sight. The more so when you reflect that the real boy lies buried just a few hundred yards from where these actors are so painstakingly recreating his death.
This is a scene from Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell’s best-selling novel, as it makes its way from page to stage. O’Farrell’s exquisite book won the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction for its profoundly moving act of restoration, lifting Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway (called Agnes in the novel) and his children Hamnet, Judith and Susanna from the footnotes of literary history and sending them tumbling across the pages in vivid, breathing detail.
It is also a book steeped in love and sorrow, as it faces up, in heartbreaking detail, to the loss of a child. Hamnet Shakespeare died aged just 11, a fact noted in passing in many Shakespeare studies but given its full weight in O’Farrell’s novel.
We don’t know how Hamnet died, but in O’Farrell’s account it is bubonic plague that kills him. It’s little wonder, then, that the book flew off the shelves in 2020 when the arrival of a new pandemic had made the fragility of life so tangible for so many readers. Pestilence no longer felt like a distant, historical phenomenon. “We’ll never be able to go back to that time before this pandemic where we thought we were invulnerable,” O’Farrell reflected in an interview later that year.
Publishing in March that year, O’Farrell had expected the novel to sink without trace, but it articulated perfectly the deep anxiety of the time. Readers rushed to recommend it online, sales soared, and to date the book has sold 1.5mn copies.
Now a new stage version will bring that proximity to the past into even greater relief. Adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti, Hamnet the play (a co-production between the Royal Shakespeare Company and Neal Street Productions) will see those characters spring to life in the Swan Theatre, a stone’s throw from the streets where their real-life counterparts hurried daily to market or to school.
“The town is full of ghosts,” says Chakrabarti, whose award-winning adaptation of another bestseller, Life of Pi, has just opened on Broadway. “They’re the reason we’re here.”
O’Farrell, she adds, has been “very generous and supportive”. “When she came into rehearsals I said, ‘Thank you for letting me be a clumsy midwife to your play.’ And she said, ‘I think we’re co-parenting, to be honest.’”
For the RSC, Hamnet is a project rich with resonance. It turns the spotlight on the wife, family and home life of the writer whose work they stage daily. It places centre stage the boy whose death in 1596 surely echoes through so many of Shakespeare’s plays, not least the one that almost bears his name — Hamlet — written about four years after he died. Hamnet will now tread the boards that Hamlet has so often trodden.
It also fuses the sense of place so vivid in the novel with the place itself. Such is the interest in this new incarnation of Hamnet that a West End transfer has already been announced. But it begins life in Stratford, where the landscape of the story sits just beyond the theatre doors.
“We make it live in 3D form,” says Chakrabarti. “And the audience is such a key character — it’s their imagination and their willingness to travel with you to Stratford in 1582 that makes it so.”
Before rehearsals begin, Chakrabarti and I slip out on to the streets of Stratford to seek out that world for ourselves. The Warwickshire town these days is a mix of old and new, its most famous son remembered in café names, gift outlets and hostelry signs. The tilting, timbered buildings he would have known now sit cheek by jowl with glass frontages and coffee chains.
We walk down Henley Street, imagining the light, panicked footsteps of Hamnet who, in O’Farrell’s novel, darts hither and thither seeking help for his twin sister Judith, who lies ill with the plague. We follow the sombre route taken by his father Will as he carries his dead son to be buried beside Holy Trinity church. We pass the marketplace where Agnes pauses to exchange greetings with the baker’s wife as she makes her way back to her childhood home in Shottery to give birth.
But we start where the book starts and where Shakespeare started: at the house of his glovemaker father John — a tan-coloured, half-timbered building now preserved as Shakespeare’s Birthplace. Early in the morning it’s quiet, attended by only a couple of emissaries from the 21st century: a lone tourist taking snaps of the heavy oak doors, and the insistent grind of a pneumatic drill.
Peer through the latticed windows, however, and you could fancy you see the tousle-haired Hamnet as he thuds noisily down the stairs, and hear the creak of the ladder as William climbs to the tiny attic to avoid his father’s hot temper and to lose himself in a world of make-believe.
“We think of it as historical,” says Chakrabarti, who, like O’Farrell, has steeped herself in the area. “But when you’re here, it’s a lived-in place. Shakespeare was born here: he had his arguments, scraps and teenage stroppy years here. It would have been full of noise and smell. And labour. All the normalities of life. You feel it in the walls.”
The genius of O’Farrell’s novel is to bring this world to life in such granular detail that you can almost see the motes of dust dance in the sunlight, feel the warmth of the ashes slumbering in the grate and smell the woodsmoke, the baking bread and the tang of Agnes’s herbs.
Translating that immediacy and texture to the stage calls for a different approach, says Chakrabarti: “In a book you can really imagine the nooks and the crannies. On a stage you’ve got limited time and space. You have to pick up how it felt to be in those different spaces. When Agnes is outside with the kestrel, how is that different to being inside, in these small, busy, intense rooms, with her mother-in-law and her violent father-in-law?”
She adds that dialogue takes over from description as a means of plunging the audience into the world of the story: her script is peppered with tasty morsels of 16th-century slang: brach (bitch), dottrel (easy prey), clapperdudgeon (chief beggar).
“I found a fabulous Elizabethan dictionary,” says Chakrabarti, smiling. “I wanted language that stayed in their reality but still feels real now. We think of them as saying ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and all of that, but they would have said it as we go, ‘Yeah, y’alright?’ So I wanted words that weren’t too removed, because if you suddenly go into ‘God’s wounds’ then we’re in a Restoration comedy.”
On Church Street we pause before the Guildhall, a handsome two-storey timber-framed building. Downstairs there’s a chamber where travelling players would demonstrate their skills — possibly where Shakespeare first encountered the craft that he would make his own. Upstairs sits the schoolroom where he would have toiled over the Latin literature and rhetoric that proved so important to his writing, and where young Hamnet might also have sat wriggling on a wooden bench.
“There’s a scene in the play where Hamnet’s going off to school,” says Chakrabarti. “So you just picture him running off here, an imaginative, distractible 11-year-old, full of life and energy and daydreaming.”
Schoolchildren still use this building — in fact Chakrabarti and I can’t go inside this morning because there is a class in progress. As we walk on towards the graveyard where Hamnet’s story would finish, we touch on the enormity of losing a child.
“We’ve all feared it, haven’t we?” says Chakrabarti. “Those moments where you lose a kid at a fair. Or they run across a road. That split-second thing. So I can feel the fear.”
Central to O’Farrell’s novel is an understanding of the way fiction can transform grief into art, and the great and consoling gift of that. The book reminds us subtly that the exchange between life and art is fluid. Read it and you suddenly see more clearly the impact of loss on so many of Shakespeare’s plays — not just Hamlet and King Lear, but in the longed-for reunions in Twelfth Night, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, and in Constance’s heart-rending speech in King John: “Grief fills the room up of my absent child . . . Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.”
O’Farrell meets those works with an act of artistic alchemy of her own: through her imagination the boy lives again and the love and pain of his mother find a voice. Life and death twine around each other in the novel as O’Farrell’s narrative dances back and forth in time, from the early, flirtatious meetings between young Will and Agnes to the few days that will change their lives.
That looping structure is not possible on stage, says Chakrabarti: theatre is a hungrier narrative art form, demanding action, conflict and forward propulsion. With a sprinkle of puckish mischief, her play borrows the five-act structure of Shakespeare’s dramas: “It has that sense of movement. You don’t sit anywhere for too long.”
In theatre it’s our collective imagination, the conspiracy between audience and actors, that can make Hamnet live again in performance. But Chakrabarti’s drama does play with time in its own way, threading through ghosts and whispers from the past and future.
“We are in real time with the actors,” says Erica Whyman, acting artistic director of the RSC and director of Hamnet. “So we’re telling the story chronologically with a very strong sense of premonition. It has a different quality to it — it becomes a kind of memory play.”
Translated into drama, the story also becomes, in part, a response to Shakespeare’s great history plays. Rather than courts, kings and political intrigue, it lovingly puts the women’s world centre stage: the world of kneading, scrubbing, mending, of cradling and laying out; the hard labour of birth, the harder labour of death. All the domesticity, in short, that is mostly absent from Shakespeare’s plays, but that is no less the stuff of life and death.
“There’s a responsibility Maggie’s given us, which is to tell the counterpoint to public life,” says Whyman. “Because life and death in most people’s lives doesn’t happen with swords and poisoning and accession to the throne. It happens in hospices, bedrooms and hospital rooms. And these are the events that change lives, that make us wise or fragile — that entirely remake us.”
In a sense, the book turns the tables on scholarly works on Shakespeare. Here Agnes is central: a bright, free-spirited woman, a herbalist and healer. It is the playwright who appears in glimpses, referred to as “the father”, “her husband” or “the Latin tutor”.
On stage there is a shift, however. Chakrabarti has written — with O’Farrell’s blessing — some scenes that depict the playwright’s working life in London and that impishly echo his own work. Both Shakespeare himself and the theatre have a greater presence in the play. Why so?
“I thought, Agnes speaks one language and he speaks another,” says Chakrabarti. “She’s quite free to start with and becomes trapped through the death of her son. He’s quite caught to start with and becomes released by the theatre. So there is a yin-and-yang thing going on. And there’s the fact that he can express the child after he’s gone in a way that she can’t.
“And it just seemed important to look at: where did [Shakespeare] go? What did he find? I wanted that as a total opposite to Agnes at home with the children, the soap, the bread and the schooling. These opposite worlds that ultimately make him and his plays . . . You start to see the man rather than the examined word.”
Whyman adds that the novel is, ultimately, very moving about theatre: “It’s so key to how the book ends . . . we discover that he can give voice to the most complex and profound emotions and, by doing so, he — we in the theatre — can offer something that heals. All those things become incredibly vivid by making it a play.”
The RSC has form with staging novels. The company’s 1980 adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby was one of its great successes. Recent stage versions of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy and Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy (Imperium) wrangled those mammoth texts into drama. And novels on stage can be good box office, offering audiences a chance to reconnect with much-loved works.
But a great novel does not necessarily make a great play. A book offers private pleasure, the chance to people your mind with characters, to relish prose, to read and re-read at your own pace. Theatre, by contrast, is communal, dynamic and transient. So much too depends on a novelist’s style: the wit of Jane Austen; the wry mischief of Virginia Woolf.
Any adaptation, then, is haunted by the fear of mangling the thing you love or upsetting fans. And while Wolf Hall and Imperium both bustled with the sort of political intrigue often found in Shakespeare’s work, Hamnet poses a different challenge: the book is subtle, intimate and carries huge emotional meaning for many readers.
“There’s no way that the play can be all the things that people have imagined when they read that novel,” says Whyman. “But this is our version. This is a version. Hopefully, it will remind us of all we love in the novel and bring it to life for people who haven’t read it. Adaptation is not trying to imitate exactly what has gone before: it has to change shape and become its own thing.”
And then there is the looming presence of William Shakespeare. While actress Madeleine Mantock has the sizeable challenge of representing Agnes, a woman about whom we know so little and yet who lives so vividly in O’Farrell’s novel, Tom Varey has to measure up to playing the iconic dramatist. There will be some “quill action”, jokes Varey. But, he adds, you have to banish all thoughts of being a legend: “I can’t be in the middle of a scene thinking, ‘I don’t think Shakespeare would pick up a plate like that.’”
Out on the street, Chakrabarti and I are nearing the end of our walk with the past. Rounding the corner to Holy Trinity church down by the river, I’m struck by the distance from Henley Street — the route taken by the funeral procession in Hamnet — and just how far it would feel if you were carrying your dead child.
The real Hamnet was buried here, as was Judith some 66 years later. But you’ll search in vain for a headstone: neither grave is marked. Last year, to make amends, O’Farrell planted two young rowan trees in their memory. We stand now before them, slim, graceful saplings, bowing slightly in the light spring breeze. You can hear the faint rush of the nearby river.
At the base of each is a plaque bearing an inscription. It’s a quote from Twelfth Night for Judith, from the scene where the twins are reunited: “How have you made division of yourself?/ An apple cleft in two is not more twin/ Than these two creatures.” For Hamnet, it is a passage from Hamlet: “He is dead and gone, lady,/ He is dead and gone;/ At his head a grass-green turf,/ At his heels a stone.”
“It’s a lovely place to be buried,” reflects Chakrabarti. “It’s very peaceful. Things won’t really have changed that much.”
We head back to the theatre, where the cast, laughing and chattering, are drifting into the rehearsal room. But I watch one person who has stayed behind in the foyer to study his script. It’s Ajani Cabey, the young actor who will later lie deathly still on that wooden bier. Flung on to a chair with the lithe ease of youth, he’s now bent intently over his task, one hand absent-mindedly twisting a strand of hair as he reads. Strip away the modern boots, tracksuit trousers and black backpack, and he is perhaps not so different from that young boy who walked these streets some 400 years ago.
‘Hamnet’, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, April 1-June 17; then Garrick Theatre, London, September 30-January 6 2024, rsc.org.uk
Sarah Hemming is the FT’s theatre critic
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Source: Financial Times