03 October 2023
2.0 out of 5.0 stars
Oof, I’m really not sure what to write about the new play based on Shakespeare’s family life. Hamnet follows mostly William’s younger years, spending the first act entirely on examining his relationship with Anne Hathaway, here named as Agnes (pronounced Anne-yes), which some scholars do believe was her actual name, though almost all of the few documents from her lifetime do list her as Anne.
While the relationship between William and Agnes is portrayed as loving, Will being the one pursuing Agnes first, some strange choices were made for this play. It is underpinned with creepy children’s whispers, painting Agnes as a sort of nature witch who speaks to unseen entities and knows things about the future before it comes to pass. She is shown to be a strong-willed but supportive woman who manages to handle a variety of different people with challenging personalities.
However, Agnes also feels like the only fully realised character throughout the entire show, everyone else just comes across as caricatures, solely there to drive the story but without any lives or reasons of their own.
When Will and Agnes’ son Hamnet dies at the young age of 11, the mother’s intense grief seems to be framed as over-bearing and too much. Showing her falling into a deep depression and calling for Hamnet, seeing him in shadows and whispers, while her husband is off in London working on his plays. What didn’t sit well with me was the fact that the death of her child seemed to be downplayed, while Agnes’ grief and ways of trying to handle it feel almost like an attack against her and her emotionality and connection to nature, when those were exactly the qualities built up in the first act as her best features that made William fall in love with her in the first place.
The play is incredibly slow, relying very much on mood rather than action, which I did not find to be appealing nor entertaining. To be honest, my favourite scene of the entire play was towards the end, when part of Hamlet is performed, heavy handedly driving home the point that William decided to write a play to grieve the death of his son Hamnet, rather than speaking to his wife. Somehow magically healing her grief in the process? It was weird. Almost as weird as the screaming-moaning dragged out birthing scenes during the first act.
Overall, I think it’s a play that will greatly split opinions. For me, it’s two and a half hours of my life I will never get back.