A staging of a harrowing novel about the death of William Shakespeare’s son from the plague is to have its world premiere at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theater in Stratford-upon-Avon next April.
Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell, was released in March 2020, just as the world was going into lockdown in response to the Covid pandemic. It tells the story of a family torn apart by grief over the loss of the 11-year-old child, focusing on day-to-day domestic details without ever naming the boy’s father.
The book will be adapted by Lolita Chakrabartiwhose credits include the theatrical adaptation of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel La vie de Pi, and the play will be directed by Erica Whyman, acting artistic director of the CBC.
Hamnet will mark the reopening of the Swan Theater after a three-year closure, initially due to Covid and more recently due to a major refurbishment including the installation of new seating, new infrastructure and improved access. The play will run for 11 weeks starting April 1.
O’Farrell said, “To have Hamnet the boy now appear in a room named after him, in the very town where he lived and died, is an incredibly moving thought.”
Her novel has sold over 1.5 million copies worldwide and won the female fiction award and the National Book Critics Circle award in 2020. O’Farrell said his motivation in writing the book was “to give voice and presence to William Shakespeare’s only son, who died aged 11 and since relegated to a literary footnote in his father’s biography.
She said: ‘I wanted to write a book that puts this forgotten child center stage, to tell the world that he was important, that he was pained, that his life was important and that without his untimely death, we wouldn’t have Hamlet. and we wouldn’t have Twelfth Night.
The author’s fascination with Hamnet began in adolescence when she studied Hamlet, written about four years after the death of the bard’s son in 1596, and which bears her name. The novel focuses on the life of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway – Agnes in the book – and her children in Stratford-upon-Avon, while Shakespeare is mainly in London.
Chakrabarti said she was excited to adapt the novel. “It has been a fascinating task to see our greatest English-language writer as a man, not a genius, and to discover the family behind him and the influences on his work.”
She said Hamnet was “a universal story about the dynamics of a family, the devastating effects of the death of a child, the reinvention needed after loss, and how new writing is formed. It was a privilege to recreate and imagine the life of an often forgotten but important figure, Mrs Shakespeare.
Whyman said: “Maggie’s beautiful novel moved and inspired me in the darkest days of lockdown, as it has done for so many others. It is particularly fitting that this production reopens the only Swan Theater in Stratford-upon-Avon, evoking another era of the city, one that not only gave birth to our house playwright, but who knew what it was like to live through waves of pandemic, grief and recovery.
Last week the RSC learned that its funding from Arts Council England had been frozen at £15.2million a year for the next three years. The company said the money will support its national work with 12 partner theaters and 250 schools.
He added: “Theaters are the lifeblood of communities, supporting the economy and contributing to the strong health and well-being of the nation. The ongoing recovery from the pandemic and the significant increase in the cost of living means that the challenges are real for everyone.