Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – until 17 June 2023, then Garrick Theatre, London from 30 September 2023 to 6 January 2024
It’s a joy to have the intimate Swan auditorium open again, refurbished after going dark in the first sudden Covid closure, and to see once again a strong, nimble RSC ensemble conjuring up the past. It is a 16 century domestic world in this very town, as Will Shakespeare the glovemaker’s son marries the Hathaway farm-girl, raises three children and loses one, all while seeking and finding his fortune in the playhouses of London.
In Maggie O’Farrell’s prizewinning novel the imagined tale is of that domesticity, centred on Agnes (usually called Anne). In one line (not, alas, in the play) her hero Will observes that a theatre production is “like the embroidery on his father’s gloves: only the beautiful shows, only the smallest part, while underneath is a cross-hatching of labour and skill and frustration and sweat”.
I thought a lot about that line, for much labour and skill has gone into this particular embroidery. O’Farrell did meticulous research on daily life, notably on herbal medicines, deciding to create Agnes (about whom we know almost nothing) as a falconer and a spiritual, magically inclined herbal healer with ancient womanly skills. She is a so cold-comfort-farm that when in labour, she flees her in-laws’ town house and willing womenfolk to give birth alone in the forest with only her dead mother’s spirit in attendance.
The book also stitches arresting details to the rest of the family, making Agnes’ stepmother a virago and the hero’s father John an overbearing brute (Peter Wight an impressive presence, rather Hobson’s-Choice in his roaring authority, an alpha matched only by the splendid Obioma Ugoala as Agnes’ benign brother Bartholomew). This father only lets his educated Latin-tutor son marry the country girl in some profitable deal about sheepskins. A nifty female revenge on the unknown glover, since male authors have spent centuries announcing – just as fancifully – that Anne/Agnes must have been an awful bitch to drive Shakespeare to spend his working life mainly in London. The programme has an entertaining pageful of 200 years of this contumely.
The book nips to and fro between the short life of the 11-year-old Hamnet and Agnes’ earlier life and wooing. She is no termagant, but is the loving, innately wise if rather fey mother-heroine, who is devastated by the child’s loss and becomes profoundly depressed, spiritless, resentful of Will’s absences and finally – redemptively – shocked by his use of the name in Hamlet.
Lolita Chakrabarti, adapting it, has straightened out the chronology, and invented new moments from the London life: Burbage as Romeo moaning “Why do I always die?”and being teased by Will Kempe (Wight again) while all of them plan the Globe. Those bits feel a bit revue-sketchy, but a good contrast with the slower domesticity: a beautifully designed, sparse and credible set with the great kitchen-table where apples are laid out and lavender-soap made by the women as the children lark around or help, all beneath the A-shape of the cramped family house. That works wonderfully, making it ever clearer why even without a bullying father young Will needed some freer air to flourish.
Madeleine Mantock’s Agnes, an RSC debut, has a fresh, dignified loveliness which works well in the slow, romantic first half as the children are born, and throws everything at the scenes of passionate grief later. Buy her listless neutrality thereafter, as if resolved never to smile again (which does shadow many pages of the book) makes her fade, causing rbrn a sort of exasperation as her daughters (Harmony Rose-Bremner and Alex Jarrett, both terrific) run the house and get no joy og her. Almost my favourite scene, thrown in by Chakrabarti, has an exasperated Susanna in a private moment parodying her mother’s visionary feyness .
William himself is another RSC debit, Tom Varey, a curly-headed, sometimes hangdog bullied teen who develops credibly into a mischievous wooer, proud new father, and then the preoccupied professional in London once he escapes the trap. Hard, though, in the limitations of the text, to get far into the psychology of his divided loyalty: doesn’t quite chime, and his grief is given only one or two lines and little to still the heart. The couple’s chemistry in the first half is good, more charming than electric but suitable enough to the story. Judith and Hamnet are nicely twinned – Ajani Cabey’s Hamnet not given much to do beyond lovable capering until he gets his moment , and rises well to it in self-abnegating devotion to his apparently dying sister.
So it’s all there – the RSC “cross-hatching of labour and skill and sweat” as in the glove metaphor, and readers of the book will not be disappointed: it’s lovely to look at and director Erica Whyman moves at least the second half briskly, with a lovely ensemble evocation of what a shock the London crowds must have been to Agnes when she finally ventures up there with the loyal Bartholomew . But altogether there’s more charm than excitement, more sweetness than inspiration, the grief observed rather than shared with the stalls. And the culminating Hamlet moment, dismayingly, feels like an unexpected vacuum.
Box office rsc.org.uk to 17 june
Then GARRICK THEATRE, London, from 30 Sept to 6 Jan