Our grief deserves better than theatre for the middling classes.
Standing outside the theatre in Leicester Square, considering the various combinations of casual eveningwear waiting to be let in, I had a thought I’ve been having a lot lately. Had it not been for the events of recent years, this line may be a bit denser. A great many here had lost someone close to them at the height of the pandemic, a friend or loved one, someone who they might have otherwise invited to accompany them to that evening’s performance of Hamnet.
Granted, the average demographic represented in that line — more on that later — would have access to care and resources many other parts of the world, even other parts of the UK, would not. Still, the numbers being what they are, odds are that there were a fair number of ghosts waiting with us.
They say that the vitality of live theatre is gone, that the stage is a dead medium. That its relationship to the most visceral and extraordinary experiences in daily life has been loosened to such a degree that, ultimately, most people can’t be fucked to care what the artform has to say.
They’ve been saying this for a long time. Nobody seems to fear it more than theatre’s most dedicated practitioners. In the introduction to his and Nicholas Wright’s 2000 book Changing Stages, former National Theatre artistic director Richard Eyre admitted that to stake a claim of his artform’s continuing relevancy was to take a position of almost unrealistic optimism. The necessity of this optimism is reflected in his observation that the opinions of newspapers’ theatre critics — once widely respected and listened to by all who wanted to keep up on what was happening culturally — no longer carried much weight. Eyre quoted former Sunday Times theatre critic Harold Hobson: “The trouble with our successors is that nothing seems at stake for them.”
Nearly 25 years later, this hasn’t changed. But then, for theatre critics to have anything at stake, so too must the theatre itself. Theatre critics have been glowing their praise of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamnet. The blurbs on the promotional posters in the London Underground call it “pure theatre gold.” And frankly, this kind of description of this particular play could only cut ice in a world where plays don’t matter anymore. At least not to the degree they once did.
Hamnet, as a play, should matter. The novel it’s based on — of the same name, written by Maggie O’Farrell — was one of the bestsellers of 2020, appropriately enough for “a novel of the plague.” O’Farrell’s book is just that. It tells a version of the story of the death of William Shakespeare’s only son, which some speculate came from bubonic plague.
Why this story should be relevant, given the events of the past few years, is self-evident. O’Farrell’s novel admirably captures all the sadness and confusion of loss in the midst of spreading disease, which no doubt struck readers in the gut during a harrowing time. But reading can only ever be a solitary act, leaving us to walk into the world with a hole in our chests we still, inexplicably, don’t acknowledge to each other.
Hamnet the play should be an opportunity to collectivize the grief and trauma. Seeing this story — the tragedy of losing a child, the wedge it drives into families, the thorny but inexorable pull for the artist to process their grief through their work — acted out before an audience might be cathartic in this context. It should be, but it isn’t. Not in the RSC’s version.
Like most other things related to the lived life of William Shakespeare, the historical record of his son’s death is scant. It is accepted that William married Anne Hathaway in November of 1582 somewhere in or around Stratford-upon-Avon. He was 18, she was 26. Their first child, Susanna, was born six months later in 1583. In 1585, Anne gave birth to twins, Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet died in 1596, with the cause of death unrecorded. Records tell that this was several years into William’s increasingly lucrative playwriting career, when he was splitting his time between London and Stratford.
These are the parameters that O’Farrell used to spin the story of her book, from established fact to theories and arguments among scholars, to hypotheses and educated guesses, then finally to simply inventing the conversations and interactions that make up the meat of her novel. Though Hathaway’s accepted first name is Anne, her father’s will refers to her as Anges, and O’Farrell does the same. Given the frequent outbreaks of bubonic plague that would periodically crop up across Europe, it isn’t unreasonable to think that Hamnet died after contracting the disease, and this is how his death is recounted in the book.
Then there’s the matter of the name. Nobody can miss the similarity between that of Shakespeare’s son and that of his famous play, perhaps the most influential in the English language, written just a few years after Hamnet’s death. Scholars have bickered for centuries over whether Shakespeare deliberately chose a name so similar to Hamnet’s when he wrote Hamlet. If baptismal records are to be believed, and the name given to Hamnet during his christening was “Hamlette Sadler Shakespeare,” then it seems more than a bit likely.
O’Farrell’s Hamnet is, therefore, less historical novel than occult history, and in more than one sense. You see, the book suggests that Agnes was learned in the ways of herbs, that she was given to visions, could commune with animals, and would go to the woods to give birth. In other words, Agnes was at best thought a bit strange, and at worst was holding at bay whispers that she was a witch.
That isn’t all she is, though. She is devoted and strong-willed. Despite her illiteracy, she is easily the smartest person in the room, and manages to stay that way with everyone else thinking they know best. She is also particularly protective of her twins. When Judith falls ill with the plague, she plies every remedy she’s been taught to save her daughter. When Judith miraculously recovers, only then for her brother to get sick and die, Agnes’ grief engulfs both her and everyone around her.
All except Will. After Hamnet’s funeral, he quickly retreats back to London. The Will of Hamnet is quite different from the William Shakespeare we have drilled into us. He is intelligent but naïve, and nowhere near as strong-willed as Agnes. He isn’t just in love with her, but in awe of her, at her ability to understand what he cannot. Learned and literate though he is, he can’t find the vocabulary for some of the most harrowing experiences.
Naturally, her husband’s constant aloofness embitters Agnes. When she hears of the production of Hamlet, she ventures into London herself to admonish him for being such a coward, such an opportunist. Only after seeing that Prince Hamlet is a subtle, complicated, flawed-but-admirable, fully fleshed human does she understand. Hamlet was the only thing Will could think of doing to make sense out of a senseless unknown, his version of Agnes’ uncanny sight.
O’Farrell’s book is prescient because it interrogates what we do with the painful reality of cosmic indifference. It is an investigation into the unpredictable interactions between love, grief, and intellect, the alchemical overlaps between the act of creation and the inevitability of loss. And it manages to do so with minimal sentimentality, despite how easy it is to fall into the traps of the overwrought with a story like this.
It’s the kind of sweeping story — epic but intimate — that people once flocked to the theatre to see. Indeed, in Shakespeare’s own time, it was the kind of story that could only be told on the stage. People would crowd by the hundreds into sweaty wooden O’s, literally standing in shit, to witness and be moved by a tale like Hamnet.
I, unfortunately, was not standing in shit. I had paid £55 for nosebleed seats at the Garrick Theatre. I was sat next to two women with Sloane Ranger accents discussing matter-of-factly that mummy and daddy were paying the mortgage for them. In all likelihood, they too had lost someone dear to them in recent years. But such topics aren’t the stuff of polite conversation during a genteel night at the theatre.
As for the play itself, it underwhelmed from its first moments. Some of that was down to Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation. While much of the dialog is taken directly from O’Farrell’s book, its structure, its non-linear moves between the events of Will and Agnes’ marriage, the birth of their children, and Hamnet’s death, are flattened into a linear chain of events. This is an unambitious, paint-by-numbers adaptation, barely attempting to reach in the direction it needs to.
The cast seems to do as well as they can with this uninspired material, but they are further hobbled by Erica Whyman’s uninspired direction. It makes for sloppy performances, none so noticeable as that of Madeline Mantock’s Agnes. This is a character that must fill the stage with herself and her aura. When she stands tall it needs to be with all the sturdiness of an oak, when she mourns it must be the kind of mourning that catches the breath of everyone around her. Her grief needs to be on the level of Medea or Hecuba. As it is, even when Agnes stands alone on an empty stage weeping for her dead son, it carries more novelty than power.
This isn’t even a problem of the sentimental, which might be understood if not forgiven. No, Hamnet is a play that is attempting to give us a carbon copy of sentimentality, and can’t even manage to do that successfully.
During intermission, I looked around and saw how delighted the audience was, how pleased they were for such a perfectly aesthetic night at the theatre. How utterly unmoved they were by this story of what is supposed to be the most devastating loss you can fathom.
I wanted to rage at them. Every single one of them. Partly because far too many of them have been far too protected from other people’s rage for far too long. And partly because this story — all of our stories — merit more than polite laughter between sips of overpriced chardonnay. I pictured myself storming down the bar, grabbing everyone by the collar, shaking them by their shoulders, screaming in their faces. Why are you so calm? So contented? You know the devastation that comes! You’ve felt it yourself! The way you wanted to rend your clothes and howl at the unfairness of it all? The hole it left inside you? How can you ignore it when this play is set to tearing away at it?
I wanted to, but I didn’t. Mostly because the play, despite its subject matter and source material, didn’t tear away at the empty spaces left by our dead friends and family. It simulated the act, provided enough so those in attendance could talk about what a lovely night at the theatre they had. It did not, however, create much of anything in the way of emotional resonance. The raw edges of absence and loss were left more or less untouched. The casual frivolity, the idle chit-chat in a theatre lobby; these were, ultimately, warranted by what this audience was watching.
What is the point of a play like this? What is its intent? Is it to change something, even if only the air around it? Does anyone involved with it understand that this means making the audience feel something they’ve never felt, see something they’ve never seen? Does this play set out to do that and merely fail? Or is it simply recapitulating something that already exists, but with just enough variation to hold the attention of people who aren’t used to being challenged? As a theatrical experience, Hamnet fails to satisfactorily answer any of these questions.
Few plays are a full and totalizing encapsulation of a given moment’s class politics and withering culture, but we can say that each one reflects something of these back to us in a fractured, incomplete manner. Two things are true here. The first is that the Royal Shakespeare Company is one of the more flagrant examples of how mainstream Britain is continually finding ways to maintain its weird, neo-Victorian cultural superiority complex. It is also true that the RSC has managed to shape some of the sharpest talents in contemporary theater. It has cast some of the most creative actors. It has employed some of the most daring dramaturgs. And it has provided training from some of the most skilled practitioners and teachers, well-educated themselves on such varied topics as the intricacies of Elizabethan history and the biomechanics of the human voice and body.
The RSC’s primary flaw, though, is the primary flaw of most theatrical institutions in England. That is, it is less and less viewed as an essential part of a healthy demos and more as a business, with its own subtle ways of making itself responsive and pliable to the market. As public funding for the arts continues to twist on the vine, the access that working-class would-be actors might have had to reach the peak of their craft — think of the grants that allowed, say, Patrick Stewart and Brian Blessed to train at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School — also narrows. So too does the the space to take risks, the time to dive deep into a story and explore is contours. It is just as true at the Royal Shakespeare Company as it is at the Globe, the Old Vic, the National Theatre, and other similar institutions.
Still, even after years of this increasing inertia, there has been evidence of brilliance. In 2001 I saw a full four-hour version of Hamlet at the RSC’s home theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, starring the tragically underrated Sam West. It was stunning: not just stylishly produced but grounded, rendered in such a way that the style served a purpose. The acting and direction were impeccable too, a reminder that all one needs to make Shakespeare great is to master the language (a task graceful in its simplicity, though no easy feat).
We also can’t blame the flabbiness of the RSC’s Hamnet on the fact that it wasn’t a Shakespeare play. This RSC’s vast resources and capabilities have been well-applied to countless more modern works. Another personal experience: seeing the company’s version of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, well before author Martin McDonagh had become the praised writer-director of films like In Bruges and The Banshees of Inisherin. Again, it was a near-flawless production: absurd, demented, hilarious, and a bit haunting.
What seems to have happened with Hamnet is that its story — particularly the book on which it was based — had become enough of a mass phenomenon that its watering down became inevitable. The eerie timing of the book’s release, the resonance its story fomented between past and present events; these made any possible stage adaptation of Hamnet timely and urgent. It also, for that same reason, made it very lucrative. And when something might make a lot of money, every corner must be cut to ensure it does. A story that might be too taxing or controversial to an imaginary target demographic must have its rough edges smoothed over.
It’s a perverse irony, that a story’s relevance might create pressure to turn it into its shallowest shadow, but that’s the logic that the culture industry. The end result recreates Hamnet’s aching losses while keeping their truth at a safe distance. The well-heeled audience might say they’ve “gone through” catharsis without having done so. They applaud, and the best-paid critics swoon. Sure, a few true believers dissent in their little corners of the internet (like this one), but the machine of theatre-as-spectacle continues to chug along more or less unperturbed.
Understand, when I use the term “theatre-as-spectacle,” I mean it as a bad thing, but I don’t simply mean theatre that is “spectacular,” overblown with expensive sets, grandiose choreography or other such sugar-shiny trinkets. Those can be part of theatre-as-spectacle, but by that same token, a well-crafted and produced play can also make use of these devices and mostly avoid being sucked into the spectacle of it all. Yes, the spectacle I’m talking about here when I describe Hamnet as an example of theatre-as-spectacle is the spectacle of Debord in his best-known work: the manufactured appearance of life filling in for life lived in truth.
In contrast, meaningful art imparts meaning into life, allowing us to tarry with its details and ambiguities, to critically reflect on the forces that might shape it. This is something that — for as much as Debord might object — Hamnet the book does quite well. Several sequences vividly illustrate the quotidian, almost mundane happenstances that allow the story to unfold how it does. The serendipities and coincidences, the examples of uncanny timing, the random cosmic threads that weave the fabric of tragedy, comedy, epic history. Studies in Shakespeare’s own time would couch these events in alchemy or some other numinous universal principle. Bollocks of course, though one must respect that they thought something might explain the randomness of life and death, love and calamity, that these could be, with the right tools, eminently knowable.
Until such time though, only the imagination can provide some logic to this ineffable randomness. Whether it is in the form of oil painting, game theory, or Elizabethan playwriting, it is the imagination that puts substance to the most baffling strands of human existence. It is, we might say, the crucial element of “anti-spectacle,” that which will enlarge rather than diminish the reach of collective human subjectivity. And it should — again, should — be the primary animating force behind any worthy work of art. It may proceed from what we know, what we can grasp, but dares to leap into what we, at this time, cannot.
No passage illustrates this more presciently in Hamnet than the section that recounts the travels of a flea. First jumping from a pet monkey into the shirt folds of a sensitive Manx cabin boy in Alexandria, it stows away on a ship. There it breeds, and its offspring nest in the dirty rags used to pack a shipment of Venetian glass beads bound for England. The glass, rags, and fleas change hands as far north as York, and as far south as Kent. Some are delivered to Warwickshire, where a merchant’s wife allows to Judith to see them. One of the flea’s offspring, infected with plague, bites Judith, then, presumably, Hamnet. And through this uncanny sequence of events, the story of Hamnet is set in motion.
Hamnet the play doesn’t bother with any of this. At one moment Judith is sick, then she is well, while Hamnet unexpectedly falls ill and dies. The flea’s story needn’t necessarily be included in the stage version, but there must be something illustrating the oddity and mystery of this story. One is led to believe this is the intent behind the occasional sequences of cool lighting and the sounds of children’s laughter that pepper the play, but they’re a paltry substitute. The play’s attempt at alchemy comes off as no more than what it is: staged tricks. Cheap, rote, unable to fully explain, and uninterested in trying. The world of the RSC’s Hamnet is, ultimately and accidentally, a prosaic world, where a child’s illness is ordinary and a mother’s grief is underwhelming.
This is also a world where a playwright father’s cathartic masterwork is clumsily fit on top of his attempt to come to grips, rather than a search for a way to fill the gaps left in his life. Hamnet the book spends time unraveling the parallels between the Danish prince and Shakespeare’s late son, revealing how Hamlet was Will’s earnest attempt to map a way out of his grief. Hamnet the play assumes this same relationship, but almost none of it is dramatized on the stage. But then, this may be good enough when you create theatre not to make sense of this sea of chaos enveloping us, but to satisfy those who already have a robust life raft.
We aren’t so terribly removed from the opposite kind of theatre. A quick scan through British drama during the 1960s and 70s, and for much of the 80s, reveals productions that challenged audiences (emotionally and intellectually) and scandalized censors. These were, naturally, years where the relevance of live performance were called into question by film and television. Writers like Caryl Churchill and Edward Bond, and directors like Peter Brook, were all aware of the tension created by this new technological-cultural reality. Rather than submit, they and a flourishing grassroots theatre movement insisted on the unique ability of the stage to touch the raw nerves of experience, unmediated by film and camera, particularly in a world where stability was proving illusory.
One must wonder — or, more precisely, imagine — what might have been possible had the RSC’s Hamnet dared to grapple with the world in this manner, to stand in this fecund lineage. It wouldn’t have filled these ghastly holes we walk around with, but it might at least have forced us to acknowledge them to ourselves and each other.
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