RSC to stage play about plague death of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet

Adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s novel will premiere at Swan theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in April

A stage production of a poignant novel about the death of William Shakespeare’s son from plague is to have its world premiere at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon next April.

Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell, was published in March 2020, just as the world locked down in response to the Covid pandemic. It tells the story of a family racked by grief at the loss of the 11-year-old, focusing on everyday domestic detail while never naming the boy’s father.

The book will be adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti, whose credits include the stage adaptation of Yann Martel’s Booker prize-winning novel The Life of Pi, and the play will be directed by Erica Whyman, the acting artistic director of the RSC.

Hamnet will mark the reopening of the Swan theatre after a three-year closure, initially because of Covid and more recently because of a major refurbishment including the installation of new seating, new infrastructure and improved access. The play will run for 11 weeks from 1 April.

O’Farrell said: “That Hamnet the boy will now be appearing in a play with his name, in the very town where he lived and died, is an incredibly moving thought.”

Her novel has sold more than 1.5m copies worldwide, and won the Women’s prize for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle award in 2020. O’Farrell said her motivation in writing the book was “to give a voice and a presence to the only son of William Shakespeare, who died when he was 11 and has ever since been relegated to a literary footnote in his father’s biography.”

Maggie O’Farrell at the Edinburgh international book festival in August 2022.
Maggie O’Farrell’s fascination with Hamnet began when she was a teenager. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images

She said: “I wanted to write a book that put this forgotten child centre stage, to say to the world that he was important, he was grieved, his life was significant, and that without his early death, we wouldn’t have Hamlet and we wouldn’t have Twelfth Night.”

The author’s fascination with Hamnet started as a teenager when she studied Hamlet, written about four years after the bard’s son died in 1596, and named after him. The novel focuses on the lives of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway – Agnes in the book – and her children in Stratford-upon-Avon while Shakespeare is mostly away in London.

Chakrabarti said she was thrilled to be adapting the novel. “It has been a fascinating task to look at our greatest writer in the English language 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 a family’s dynamics, the devastating effects of a child’s death, the necessary reinvention after loss and how new writing is formed. It has been 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 did for so many. It is especially fitting that this production will reopen the unique Swan theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, evoking as it does a different time in the town, one that not only gave birth to our house playwright but one which knew what it was to live through waves of pandemic, of grief and recovery.”

Last week, the RSC learned that its funding from Arts Council England had been frozen at £15.2m a year for the next three years. The company said the money would support its national work with 12 partner theatres and 250 schools.

It added: “Theatres are the lifeblood of communities, supporting the economy and contributing to the nation’s strong health and wellbeing. The ongoing recovery from the pandemic and the significant increase in the cost of living means the challenges are real for all.”


Harriet Sherwood Arts and culture correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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