When the Royal Shakespeare Company’s sell-out production of Hamnet transfers to the West End this week, Madeleine Mantock will be called upon to break audiences’ hearts eight times a week. “On matinee days I have six births and two deaths to get through,” she laughs. “Just the six.”
We meet during rehearsals for the transfer of the show, based on Maggie O’Farrell’s best-selling 2020 novel, to the Garrick Theatre. Wearing shorts, Birkenstocks and a white shirt, the actor is a bright, funny, vivacious interviewee.
This is only her second stage role – she made her debut in the West End opposite Jennifer Saunders in Blithe Spirit in 2021 – but when Hamnet opened at the Swan theatre, Stratford in February, critics called her performance “outstanding” and “luminous”, meaning Mantock, who grew up north of Nottingham, is set to return triumphant to the West End.
In the novel, adapted for the stage by Lolita Chakrabarti (Red Velvet, Hymn, Life of Pi), Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway is called Agnes. In the course of her research, O’Farrell read Richard Hathaway’s will which referenced “My daughter Agnes”, and the Hamnet author wrote “we may have been calling her the wrong name for all this time”.
We see Agnes fall in love, marry and have three children, while her brilliant husband decamps to London for a life in the theatre. Then, riven by grief after the death of their son Hamnet, who succumbed to the plague aged 11 (a tragedy which later inspires Shakespeare to write the play Hamlet), she battles to hold their family together.
“You’ve got two people who have come from really tense and often violent family situations, who meet each other, fall in love, defy the odds and make this happy little path for them to go down. And so when it all goes wrong, we really feel what they’ve lost,” Mantock says. “But I love that, because it feels true to life; I get to play joy and sadness and those different feelings’.”
The play is named after Shakespeare’s lost boy, but there is little doubt who is the star of the show: grounded but otherworldly (Agnes has second sight and is a healer), the playwright’s wife runs rings around her husband, and everyone else.
In her first scene, Mantock plays her as a tomboy in jerkin and trousers, flying a kestrel. Shakespeare (played by Tom Varey) even mistakes her for a boy. Mantock relishes the fact that Agnes now has a voice, instead of, as has happened in the past, being dismissed by scholars as a nag and a shrew, who tricked Shakespeare (eight years younger) into marriage by getting pregnant.
“I feel there is room for us to have that artistic license. Because, yes, I am essentially playing a version of a real-life human,” Mantock says. “But it’s a good 400 years ago, there’s so little known about her, most of the focus that has been placed on her has not been very positive. So I feel like we can really embrace who she might have been.”
She was hooked immediately by Chakrabarti’s script. “If I read something and get really emotional, I have that ‘whoosh’ feeling,” she says. “I thought: ‘OK, I’ll go in and do my best.’ I normally work on screen so theatre is not necessarily my comfort zone.”
Director Erica Whyman and her casting director Amy Ball invited Mantock to workshop scenes with them. “Eventually I met Lolita. And it was quite daunting, because she’s the person reading with me. I thought, ‘Oh, you’ve written this and you’re looking me dead in the eye.’ But they were just lovely every step of the way.”
Mantock, 33, doesn’t have children and did initially worry about playing a mother. “We’ve got a 20-minute interval break and then suddenly I’m over 40 with three children. Who’s going to believe me?” The children are played by 20-something actors too. “In real life, they’re grown up; they vape,” she laughs.
In the play, all the Hathaways are played by actors of mixed heritage – Mantock, who has Jamaican heritage, identifies as half Afro-Caribbean, half Caucasian. “From Lolita’s research, she discovered that at this time, there were people from everywhere all over the country, especially in London, but that actually the group that people native to England would have discriminated against were the Europeans. They were the people they didn’t like or trust,” she says.
“For Will and Agnes’s families, it’s not so much race that’s the problem, it’s more the religious element of who’s still secretly a Catholic, and who’s not. And also, yes, Agnes’s family are a bit different. They suspect her of being a witch. So that sense of being ‘other’, whether or not you feel like you are, and then how the rest of the community treats you, definitely threads through the play.”
What would Mantock say to Shakespeare traditionalists who query the mixed heritage casting? “I think that is a bigger, more personal problem,” she says thoughtfully. “I sometimes go to see a show and say: ‘Oh, this is a very white cast, what’s gone wrong here? Who were the people in charge, because that’s not a reflection of my world.’ I’ve had lots of conversations with Lolita and her adviser Farah Karim-Cooper [Professor of Shakespeare Studies at King’s College London] and part of the reason Lolita wanted to have a mixed heritage family as part of the story was because historically, we haven’t acknowledged that England, at that time, was not just white people, because of trade and because people have always migrated.
“And so what I would say to those people who go: ‘Why does it have to be like this?’ – first of all, why not? And also if you can’t look beyond somebody’s initial appearance, and see the qualities they bring, then I feel sorry for them, because I see bits of myself in everybody. Yes, Agnes is being played by a mixed race woman, but hopefully, all the humanity I’m trying to imbue her with will shine beyond that.”
We’re experiencing a unique moment in the West End, with all-black casts for The Effect and God of Carnage, plus the success of Roy Williams and Clint Dyer’s Death of England plays and a thrillingly diverse ensemble for Sunset Boulevard (previously a classic white Hollywood story). Does she feel part of that movement?
“I think I do. I feel lucky to be here, and I hope there will be people who can see our play and see themselves in that way. If you have that reflection of yourself, and a sort of truth that it could happen for you, it can only spur people on and give them that confidence that there’s a place for them in this industry.”
Mantock is critical of limited diversity in theatre — and wants to see representation go even further. “I want us to have a love interest or a beautifully, wonderful, desired woman be the darkest person you’ve ever seen. I want there to be plus-sized women… I want us to explore what it’s like to have a disability or what it’s like to be trans in this world,” she has said.
Today she mentions how Idris Elba has commented that he would rather not be called a black actor. “I guess the difference is that until we start saying, ‘White actor Ben Whishaw’…” she pauses, carefully. “But it’s when you’re constantly being othered and put into this other bracket where it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re different from the norm that we’ve set’ – I think that’s why people get fed up with it.”
We speak again later, on the phone, and she tells me, “I think we’ve got a really interesting history of how people who are mixed have found ways to survive in this country.” She mentions America, and ‘passing’, “where a lot of times people can just move through the world as if they were white even though they’re not. And it’s really interesting, because I’m like: ‘So what is this construct of race based on then, if you’re able to move through the world more freely and without as much prejudice because you look more like this?’ But, you know, their character is exactly the same, they could be a good person or a bad person.
“It seems a shallow limitation to place on somebody. I hope, as time goes on, that we can educate each other and our children to just embrace people, for how and who they are, and be open to learning about other people’s cultures. Because at the end of the day, the thing that unifies us is we’re human.”
She speaks warmly of the little Hamnet “family”. Since the play finished at Stratford, they’ve attended festivals together and had riotous nights out. She’s slightly miffed that Tom Varey went to see Barbie without her. “ So I went to Guys and Dolls without him. I was like: ‘Well, you Barbied’.”
Mantock is equally proud of her working class background. From childhood she knew she wanted to perform – Goldie Hawn and French & Saunders were her heroines – but it seemed an impossible dream. “Where I grew up there were hairdressers, chip shops and miners’ welfare centres. In terms of [the entertainment] industry or culture, there wasn’t anything,” she says.
A performer called Jordi Guitart visited her school to do a masterclass. “And that was the first time I knew it was a job. And I remember saying, ‘Well, I’m going to do that.’ Everybody said, ‘Nobody gets to do it full-time’. But I was like, ‘No, if only a few people get to do it, I’ll be one of the few.’ I was a bit obnoxious and quite set that somehow I would succeed,” she smiles. “And I kept that mentality for the rest of my childhood, and then it all became about – like Shakespeare in the play – how do I get to London?”
She studied musical theatre at Arts Ed in Chiswick. “It was all: can you sing the loudest and highest and get your leg up to your ear?” But, from her own experiences, she’s aware that class can be a hurdle.
“It can be an extra hoop for somebody to jump through if they don’t have the help, the contacts, the access. I think there’s a lot of discourse about how we should think of, or treat, those people who do have it. And sometimes I think: ‘Well, if I’d had all that, would I be the same person?’ And I probably wouldn’t. I’m sure that there are people out there who are like: ‘Well, well, my dad is so and so… and I haven’t had any help.’ But it would be wrong to deny that, for some people, it is a lot easier.”
In her case, she thinks “it solidified the idea that I have to make it happen for myself; nobody is going to give me what I want. I have to fight for it, and hopefully, [success] can be a little bit sweeter. But also, at the same time, it can be exhausting and you think: ‘Aww, I’d love for someone to hand me something’.”
Before Hamnet, Mantock primarily worked in TV. She had roles in Casualty, Debbie Horsfield’s Age Before Beauty and Into The Badlands. Then in 2018, she was cast in the girl-power reboot of Charmed, about three sisters who discover they are witches. She relocated to LA, attracted by the concept of a prime-time show with three non-white female leads.
Her 20s were spent in hotels and rented apartments, missing friends’ birthdays and weddings. So she’s thrilled to be back in west London permanently. “In LA, I’d go to get oysters on my own, have a nice dinner, go to bed, go to work next day. That’s what my life was like so, yeah, this feels a bit more like living,” she grins.
On Blithe Spirit she was so in awe of Saunders she avoided her. “She’s quite shy. But I kind of felt she wanted to know who I was, and what I was about. And so to be honest, I ignored her. It felt like she wanted to be left alone and didn’t want anyone to smother her. So I thought, ‘OK, I’ll just leave her be.’ So I made friends with other people and then eventually she came to me and I was like: ‘OK, Jennifer wants to be my friend’.”
When she heard Hamnet was transferring, Mantock assumed a bigger name would play Agnes in the West End. “To be honest, my first thought was: ‘Well, we won’t be there’,” she laughs. But there she is. Each performance of Hamnet is subtly different, even when it comes to the audience. She can always tell when a book group is in the theatre – ‘They’ll be cheering on Agnes. But if it’s a school party of teenage girls, William is king of the show. And I’m like: ‘OK, cool. you get that one.’”
Hamnet is at the Garrick Theatre; buy tickets here