Movies

Breaking Baz: Stage Version Of Maggie O’Farrell’s ‘Hamnet’ Has Become A Phenomenon Before It Opens; Transfer From Stratford-upon-Avon To London’s West End Revealed

The  Royal Shakespeare Company’s stage adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s best-selling novel Hamnet, a tale of love and heartbreak concerning Agnes Hathaway and her beloved one William Shakespeare, has taken the unheralded step of announcing its West End transfer before it has has even opened in the famous playwright’s place of birth.

The play, adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti — whose version of Life of Pi is on Broadway — directed by Erica Whyman and starring Madeleine Mantock (Charmed, Age Before Beauty) begins performances at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon on April 1 through June 17.

But following a “tsunami” of interest from eager ticket buyers, the show will transfer after its run in Stratford to London’s Garrick Theatre for 14 weeks from September 30 through January 6.

If the phenomenal level of interest is maintained, then expect seats at the Garrick to be hard to come by after they go on priority sale from March 28, with public booking from April 6.

The plain fact is that O’Farrell’s engrossing novel has sold more than 1.5 million copies and has fans on every continent.

Her story of the plain-speaking, free-spirited Agnes Hathaway; her relationship with Shakespeare; the heartbreaking death of Hamnet, their 11-year-old son; and how that tragedy inspired the Bard to write Hamlet; touched a nerve coming out as it did during the pandemic. “It’s totally a love story, it’s very romantic,” Chakrabarti told us.

Also, Chakrabarti continued: “Shakespeare is endlessly fascinating because we are trying to work out who was the man behind these amazing pieces of work, but Maggie O’Farrell’s book asks: Who was the family behind him? Anne, or Agnes, Hathaway has had a pretty bad press, and this redresses some of those injustices.”  

Whyman had a “hunch”the RSC ought to put it on stage the minute she’d finished reading it because it dealt “so beautifully with bereavement and love.”

That love, Whyman observed, “carried Shakespeare to some of the most remarkable achievements of his life, notably writing Hamlet.” 

Liza Marshall’s Hera Pictures already had acquired an option, and the movie’s in development with Neal Street Productions, founded by Sam Mendes, Pippa Harris and Caro Newling, and Amblin Partners. Chiara Atik is writing the screenplay.

However, O’Farrell and Neal Street had a keenness for it to be staged in Stratford, so agreements were struck with the RSC for Neal Street, in association with Hera Pictures, to allow a theater version that would be separate from the movie. Amblin has been supporting the stage adaptation enthusiastically.

O’Farrell has been giving “hands-on” attention to both the screenplay and the stage play, Newling said.

Newling admitted that “it’s unusual” to “shout about” transferring before you’ve opened, but “there was this tsunami of interest, and we were never going to satisfy the extraordinary level of interest during the run at the Swan alone. There is such demand for this title,” she added.

The play’s a terrific opportunity for Mantock, who made her debut in a recent revival of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit directed by Richard Eyre.

Whyman, Chakrabarti and Newling all spoke of their excitement in finding Mantock, heaping casting director Amy Ball with praise.

“It’s simple,” said Whyman “She has got really old-fashioned star quality but at the same time has got her feet firmly on the ground. Agnes is a hard-working, fearless woman who knows her own mind, and so does Madeleine.”

For the Nottinghamshire-born Mantock, Agnes is a “giant role” for her. “It does feel like the role of a lifetime. I don’t know if I’ll get this opportunity again, so I’m very grateful.”

The cast got to meet O’Farrell during rehearsals, and Mantock remembers the novelist telling the company “that ‘not every person in history is remembered kindly and sometimes they are misremembered,’ and I think we all felt lucky to have a responsibility to look at how we might choose to see Anne Hathaway this time.”

Mantock said that “there’s a lot of pain and loss and grief, but there’s also the love, the joy and the hope. And you have to feel all of those things … that’s what life is.”

She noted the advantages of having Chakrabarti at rehearsals, plus, if needs be, “if we get a bit stumped and we don’t know which way to go with something, we can go to the book. We’ve got this amazing resource.”

So first the Swan Theatre, followed by a season at the Garrick in the West End. The phenomenon of Hamnet is unlikely to end there.

There’s Broadway and beyond.

The cast also includes Tom Vary as William and Sarah Belcher, Will Brown, Haydn Burke, Ajani Cabey, Faye Campbell, Frankie Hastings, Karl Haynes, Alex Jarrett, Hannah McPake, Elizabeth Rider, Rose Riley, Harmony Rose-Bremner, Obioma Ugoala and Peter Wight.

Creatives includes Tom Piper design and Prema Mehta lighting.  

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