Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 208
Lolita Chakrabarti is the playwright of Red Velvet, about 19th-century Black actor Ira Aldridge, and has adapted Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi for the stage. Now, she has adapted Maggie O’Farrell’s bestselling novel Hamnet for the stage. Hamnet is currently playing at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre.
The play tells the story of a young Agnes Hathaway and William Shakespeare as they fall in love and start a family, and the psychological damage caused by the death of their son, Hamnet. Barbara Bogaev talks with Chakrabarti about adapting O’Farrell’s story, how she portrays the Shakespeare family, and her earlier play Red Velvet.
Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, NPR One, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Hamnet is onstage at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s newly restored Swan Theatre until June 17 and will open at London’s Garrick Theatre on September 30.
From the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published April 25, 2023. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Melvin Rickarby in Stratford and Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.
MICHAEL WITMORE: Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet offered a fictionalized backstory for the play Hamlet. Now, Hamnet itself has been turned into a play. You got all that?
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger Director.
In her career as an actor, Lolita Chakrabarti has appeared in numerous TV and film roles, including the long-running British police show The Bill. Her stage credits include playing Gertrude in a 2017 production of Hamlet directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Chakrabarti is also the author of several plays, including the award-winning Red Velvet, about the 19th-century Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge. Chakrabarti has recently made a name as an adaptor, having brought the novels Invisible Cities and Life of Pi to the stage.
Now, Chakrabarti has adapted Maggie O’Farrell’s 2020 novel Hamnet. The novel—and Chakrabarti’s play—tell the story of a young Agnes Hathaway and William Shakespeare as they fall in love and start a family.
[CLIP from Hamnet, written by Lolita Chakrabarti. Tom Varey is William Shakespeare and Madeleine Mantock is Agnes Hathaway]
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: Anne, Anne, Anne.
AGNES HATHAWAY: That’s not my name.
WILLIAM: You said it was.
AGNES: You weren’t listening.
WILLIAM: Tell me again.
AGNES: I’m Agnes. Agnes Hathaway.
WITMORE: And the psychological damage caused by the death of their son, Hamnet.
The play stars Madeleine Mantock as Agnes, and Tom Varey as William. It’s directed by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s acting artistic director, Erica Whyman. Produced by the RSC, Hamnet is currently running at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon ahead of a London transfer later this year.
Here’s Lolita Chakrabarti, in conversation with Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: After Life of Pi and Invisible Cities, adapting novels, I’m thinking, for the stage, is now your real area of expertise. But it’s still a really hard thing to do. Has it gotten any easier for you with Hamnet, since it’s a story that has a very clear narrative structure and is not magical realism starring a tiger?
LOLITA CHAKRABARTI: So interesting you say that because although it’s not magic realism, there’s still magic within it. There’s not a tiger though. There’s definitely not a tiger.
BARBARA BOGAEV: Just hawks.
LOLITA CHAKRABARTI: [LAUGHING] Yeah. The narrative structure of the book is—I mean, one of the things that I’ve done for the play is I’ve put it chronologically in order because the book leaps around from the day that Hamnet—well, his sister gets sick and then Hamnet gets sick—and then it sort of flashes back and forth, through the history of Agnes and William to the day that Hamnet passes. And then, it leaps four years forward into the future to the Globe. So, the book doesn’t travel a linear way, although the magic of it is that you don’t realize that. But, obviously, in the play I’ve had to make it a more logical path.
BOGAEV: Why is that? Because you just can’t keep track of those jumps on the stage?
CHAKRABARTI: I guess, to a certain degree, that’s my choice, because I thought, “Oh, that would make sense to me.” To me, I want to know what was the thing that affected everybody beforehand and the accumulative effect of people’s actions and their relationships. The growth of the relationships, that’s what I find interesting on stage.
But, also, in my view, to be leaping back and forth is a whole theatrical version of it that would require a certain kind of storytelling. I wanted to be a little bit more linear, I suppose. So, maybe it was just my choice.
BOGAEV: Okay. Practical question. How do you literally start an adaptation? Do you go in there, read the book with a highlighter pen and sticky notes?
CHAKRABARTI: With some of them, yeah. With Life of Pi, that’s exactly what I did. And I’ve been brought up, “Never write in a book. It’s a sacred thing.” And the only time I do write in a book is now when I’m adapting them.
Yeah, for Life of Pi, I absolutely took a highlighter pen and highlighted all the interesting bits and then put it into different categories.
With Hamnet, it was different. I asked Maggie [O’Farrell] for a PDF. And—I mean, I didn’t know what I was going to do with the story. I loved the story, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to tell it.
But I thought the first thing to do was to put it chronologically so that I could see where it began, what it was about, where it ended. And it became clear to me that it was about—one of the things, it’s about many things—was about creativity and what makes… how do you create something: a person, a piece of work? What goes into that person?
Actually that accumulation of events is what really fed into that storytelling. So, I did start chronologically, that was the first step.
BOGAEV: Oh, now that’s fascinating because it anticipates the question I wanted to ask you next. We’ve talked a lot on this podcast about just what a drubbing Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, has gotten throughout history: how every generation seems to have used her as this repository for anxieties or controversies of the day, or preoccupations, or neurosis.
Then, you read Hamnet and Maggie O’Farrell has so completely reimagined this woman as a skilled healer. She has dignity and strength all her own. What were your first impressions of Anne—or Agnes, as she’s called in the book—and how have you gone about adapting her arc for the play?
CHAKRABARTI: I suppose the history of how she’s been treated, I didn’t—I wasn’t that aware of actually. I was aware that I didn’t know much about her. That all I knew was that she was left the second best bed. That was the only thing I actually knew about her.
Then, Maggie filled me in about this “drubbing,” as you say, about how everyone kind of blames her for everything. That she was just this older woman who dragged him down and he left them all in Stratford, and she couldn’t read, that she was illiterate, and so how could the greatest writer in English language be with someone who couldn’t read? And this version of her that is given so that Shakespeare is elevated into the place that he is, has been what we buy, right? When you read these books as kids or as young people, and then that becomes part of the, sort of, the landscape, you just go, “Oh, right. Anne Hathaway, yeah. Unimportant.”
BOGAEV: The version written mainly by men throughout the ages.
CHAKRABARTI: Yes. Oh, completely. And a certain demographic of man and a certain type of educated man as well, who was telling that story.
Maggie’s version, when I read it, made complete sense. Because, well, I mean on the basic fact that they had a child who died four years before he wrote this amazing play, and the child and the play share the same name. To not think that that would have influence on a writer is crazy actually. It just seems like a no-brainer. The link of that, you just go, “Oh, okay. So this is obviously a man who loves his children because that’s what men do, what fathers do.” So, let’s go back into the family and look at Agnes.
And Maggie’s, sort of, portrayal of Agnes as this person whose mother came out of the forest, and who was this slightly mysterious, not magical, but other person, who then settled in Stratford and had these children and passed. But left her foresight and instinctive nature and medicinal abilities to her daughter. You just go, “Oh yeah, that makes complete.” —well, not sense. “That’s a possibility.” Because we don’t know, do we? But she could have been that. Absolutely. She could have been that.
But I think it—what Maggie’s book does is, it gives us the possibility of an Agnes who was a strong, interesting, forthright, center of a household. Who, you know, Shakespeare would’ve relied on her to look after the children, because that was the woman’s job, and he could then come home and rest and enjoy his life in between his work in London. I think it’s very believable. It’s the good version.
BOGAEV: It’s a good—and it’s a wonderful inversion. When I talked to Maggie O’Farrell on the podcast, she said she’d read Germaine Greer’s book, Shakespeare’s Wife. She was really taken with Greer asking the question that no one else asked, which was not “Why did Shakespeare marry this old farmer’s daughter?” But “Why did she marry this 18-year-old penniless nobody?”
CHAKRABARTI: Absolutely, absolutely. With no skill or trade or anything. You know, I mean, that’s obviously from Maggie’s book, isn’t it? That he… but he did leave school. He did leave school early, and he didn’t go to university. I think that is a fact. So yeah, absolutely. What would you see in a 17-year-old youth?
BOGAEV: Yeah, he’s just some guy. In the book, Agnes’s insight into Will happens in this interesting moment in which she does a kind of Vulcan pincer grip on Shakespeare’s hand. I mean, she does it on other people too, but on Shakespeare. And it’s her superpower or her witchy power or something. It’s how she reads people’s souls.
[CLIP from Hamnet, written by Lolita Chakrabarti. Tom Varey is William Shakespeare and Madeleine Mantock is Agnes Hathaway]
AGNES HATHAWAY: Do you always take what doesn’t belong to you?
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: It’s just an apple.
AGNES: But it’s not yours.
WILLIAM: What’s your name? Why won’t you tell me?
AGNES: Because my name is mine to gift and not yours to take.
WILLIAM: Then give it to me.
AGNES: If I tell you, will you let go?
WILLIAM: I will.
AGNES: How do I know you’ll keep your promise?
WILLIAM: I’m a man of my word.
BOGAEV: So, she does that and sees into his soul. And she sees… in the book, the quote is, “Spaces and vacancies, dense patches, underground caves inside of Shakespeare,” and it’s this pivotal scene. How do you go about bringing something like that alive on stage? I imagine… what? Soundscape, video projections?
CHAKRABARTI: Yes, soundscape is definitely part of it. I mean that second-sight element of Agnes has been really interesting, because how do you put that on stage?
When you say “Vulcan,” that’s really interesting because, yeah, you think of Spock, don’t you, doing his pincer, and onstage you just go, “Yeah right. Okay, I know what sort of play I’m in.”
But how do you do it convincingly? I think as influences for that element of the play, I drew on three different things. I’ve tried to lace, obviously, the imagery and the sort of characters and some of the language of Shakespeare’s plays throughout into the play. Because that’s—they’re not autobiographical, right? But they give a flavor of the person. So, I use the feeling of the witches in Macbeth, and that premonition feeling, and the slightly spooky nature of people who predict things.
Then I used a friend of mine who was psychic, and she described to me—she’s passed now—but she described to me when she first realized she was psychic. And she woke up in bed when she was a young woman and saw three people from maybe, sort of, maybe Tudor times, actually. You know, long skirts and bonnets at the end of her bed. And they were just looking.
And she said she was quite frightened, and she didn’t know what to do. Then she realized, “Oh no, it’s okay. They’ve just come here to tell me something.” And I never forgot that. I was like, “Wow, okay. You wake up in bed and you see historical characters at the end of your bed, right? Okay.”
Actually, I knew this friend of mine when she was in her sixties. So, much later. She’d had her gift for a long time and she would give me, you know, predictions of, “Oh yeah, you’re going to get that job. They’ve told me.” So, there was that element as well.
I also took… I knew somebody who was a paranoid schizophrenic and who would talk to people that she thought were there. She described it when she was on medication and she didn’t talk to them anymore, what that felt like. And I thought, “Well, who’s to say those people weren’t? Is that reality or is that illness? I don’t know.”
So, I combined those three elements because to me they feel real and theatrical, obviously with the witches, in different ways. I used that as a tool to inform what Agnes hears and how she responds to those other elements from the other world.
It’s portrayed through soundscape, music. But, also script and her relationship with things that aren’t there, but maybe voices that we hear.
Does that make any sense? That sounded like a very long explanation to a brief question.
BOGAEV: No, that was great. I love that. No, that makes a lot of sense. I’m thinking though, she’s also a falconer. There’s a lot of use of scenes of her training and working with the falcon. Do you use puppetry in this play, like the puppetry you use in Life of Pi?
CHAKRABARTI: Back to puppets.
BOGAEV: Yeah, is it back to puppets?
CHAKRABARTI: Back to puppets.
BOGAEV: Hard to get away, finally. How are you dealing with this falcon?
CHAKRABARTI: Well, I think I’ve done my puppets for a little while now and I’m still doing them. So I thought, “Right, let me—how do we do this?” I thought, “No, we went theatrical.” I mean, obviously, what do they say? They say, “Animals and children, don’t work with them on stage.” Just because it’s difficult.
And I thought, “No, you want a theatrical answer to that.” So again, acting and association to the kestrel, and then sound and light.
[CLIP from Hamnet, written by Lolita Chakrabarti. Tom Varey is William Shakespeare and Madeleine Mantock is Agnes Hathaway]
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: Was that a falcon?
AGNES HATHAWAY: No.
WILLIAM: I saw it
AGNES: Then you are mistaken.
WILLIAM: I was watching you. I saw a falcon.
AGNES: If you tell Joan I’ll be punished, I couldn’t leave her when she’s hungry.
WILLIAM: Did she eat?
AGNES: She did. She flew into the wind, eyes fixed on the ground, then dropped down. She ate two mice and a vole.
WILLIAM: A banquet.
AGNES: Who are you?
WILLIAM: The Latin tutor.
BOGAEV: Another thing I was thinking about, one big stylistic shift in the novel. It might pose an interesting challenge to you as an adapter. Hamnet’s death comes in the middle of the book. And the writing after that point becomes much less fluid and coherent. It really seems like a series of small sketches.
And O’Farrell said she was very conscious about this. She wanted to show the fracturing before and after a death of a child in a family, the shattering of it. What were your thoughts about that?
CHAKRABARTI: I guess in doing—it’s a slightly different thing on stage because obviously you have the language. but it’s in relationship to each other. So, actually, it’s how you speak to each other and what happens between people rather than the language on the page.
And in going in from a chronological order, whereby you meet Agnes and William beforehand, and you get to know them and see them fall in love and how they make Hamnet. And that when Hamnet and Judith and Susanna are there, they are this complete family.
So we grow with the difficulties of the couple in their families, their personal families. They come from complicated families, both of them. And they find each other and find respite with each other and a certain freedom.
AGNES HATHAWAY: Do you blow me out like a candle?
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: I cool your heat.
AGNES: Why do you come every week?
WILLIAM: To teach the boys?
AGNES: Stay at the house then and do your job.
WILLIAM: But you are the only reason I’m here.
AGNES: I hate it here. If I choose you—
WILLIAM: I’ll choose you, but I have nothing to give. Just myself.
AGNES: That is more than enough.
CHAKRABARTI: And then they grow as a family. So, there’s a building of joy and a bit of struggle, and, I suppose, identity: finding out who they are as a unit. When Hamnet dies, then we can see it break.
It is interesting being in rehearsals and watching it, actually. Watching it evolve, and seeing just the joy, the simplicities. You know, life is complicated even when it’s happy, right? Often we take it for granted when some—I don’t know—a younger sibling’s moaning and the older sibling’s cross and the parents are a bit like harassed and, “Oh, just behave,” you know? And all of that stuff. We think, “Oh, I’ve had a really difficult day.” But, then, when one of those people leaves, it leaves a huge and gaping hole. All those tiny irritations seem delightful.
I guess it’s in that, that you see it on stage. It’s how that person is missing and the joy has gone and everyone is trying to reframe their relationships. Susanna and Judith to their mother, who is, you know, having been somebody who sees—not necessarily sees premonitions, but hears and understands other worlds. Now, she’s trapped in her head and can’t shift the grief. She’s stuck in a different, kind, of set of voices. That separates her from William, who has run away to London and is making theater.
And then the children are left, the two daughters are left. And [I] find it heartbreaking when Judith says, you know, that, “When her husband loses a wife, he’s a widow[er].” And, you know, this sort of idea of when children lose their parents, they’re orphans, “but what am I called if I’ve lost a twin?” And you just go… “Yeah, actually that’s a really interesting question.”
So, it’s in relationship. You see this messy, vibrant, building of a life before Hamnet passes. Then, you see this fractured, distressed… everybody processing their grief in a different way because communication is so hard because the loss is so personal.
Then, at the end— which is what’s so beautiful about Maggie’s book and also true of life—that out of those kind of terrible, terrible things, there are new shoots because you have to find your way and you have to reinvent. And if you’re lucky, you find each other. And they do.
BOGAEV: You know, on a very different tack, I’m so glad we’re not talking about William Shakespeare for once. I mean, everyone who portrays Shakespeare either in writing or on the stage, comes on this podcast and talks about this big hurdle they have to get over. You know, “Oh my god, I’m presuming to have a take on William Shakespeare or to put words in his mouth.”
In fact, Maggie O’Farrell said that’s why she never names him as Shakespeare in her book Hamnet. For most of the book, she said he’s just some guy who’s in love with an older woman. What a relief.
Was that something you had to grapple with too? Putting words in Shakespeare’s mouth, did you feel any of that trepidation? Or, is this such a different story that it’s not an issue?
CHAKRABARTI: It’s funny. I did feel trepidation, in that he’s this iconic, extremely studied, loved, lionized character that everyone has a take on, as you say. But I needed him in the play. I absolutely needed him because without him, how does she make Hamnet, you know? I felt, in a physical sense, as in being present in a theater. I wanted him there in some way.
So, he’s very present in the play. But actually writing him, I found really pleasing. Because it’s funny when you walk around Stratford and you go in and out of the buildings that he would’ve lived in or gone to school in, or walked down the streets of, or maybe had a pint in.
You think, “Oh god, this was just a man. This was just a man who was a boy in his school who was taken out of school early, for whatever reason, but was obviously brilliant and obviously hungry. And a bright light and a genius beyond his years. That’s who he grew into. But he did just start out as any of us.” That’s what’s so lovely, actually, about Maggie’s story, is it makes them people. So, I just wrote a person.
BOGAEV: Yeah. And I do like your Shakespeare. I like this one passage particularly, where he’s talking to Richard Burbage and he’s saying, “I promise you, I’m close to getting the play tomorrow or the next day. I’ll feel my way, like a blind man on a tight rope, not knowing how far I may drop and then I’m like a galloping stallion.”
He just… this series of metaphors, kind of, pours out of him as he’s just talking about his—complaining about writing, actually. “My hand aches, my eyes blur. My insides are out.”
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, well, I thought it would be interesting to hear what writing is from a writer, you know? From Shakespeare, and obviously me behind him being the writer.
BOGAEV: Right. Do your hands ache and does your mind, your eyes blur and your—?
CHAKRABARTI: My eyes definitely blur. I guess now I’m typing rather than writing with a pen. But, you know, sometimes I do write with a pen when I just want to have free flow and go old school.
And, yeah, your hand does ache because you just want to write down what you’re thinking and you haven’t… you can’t quite keep up with your thoughts. You have to write beyond yourself in order to get where you’re going. You have to fill it with emotion of your experience and life and imagination.
It’s a very strange alchemy, writing. And it costs in a way that is different. I thought it would be interesting to hear that from Shakespeare. And I’m an actor by trade, as well. So, I’m an actor as well, and I write very much from an acting point of view. I thought, “Well, if you’re an actor and you’re writing for your fellow actors and they’re waiting there for the play,” and you know.
I mean, it’s very—being an actor is very collegiate. It’s a fantastic room to be in. And it’s free and it’s… you know, you are playing with all sorts of dramatic stories and scales of emotion. It’s a difficult life in terms of finance, but it’s also a very fun life in terms of the kind of work that you do.
I wanted to combine that joy of the freedom that William had, having grown up in this Stratford home where his dad was pretty bullish and the prospects were pretty small, and suddenly he goes to London and finds the theater. I wanted to catch that freedom that he gains, a little bit like a falcon flying.
BOGAEV: Ah. Well, switching gears again. You’ve written another Shakespeare related play, Red Velvet, about the amazing 19th-century Black actor Ira Aldridge, who we’ve also talked a lot about on this podcast. How did you first hear about Aldridge?
CHAKRABARTI: So in 1998, my husband, Adrian Lester, who’s an actor as well, he did a reading about Ira Aldridge at a small theater festival in Brighton. He came home and he said, “Have you heard about this guy, Ira Aldridge?”
And of course, neither of us had heard of him. I had just started writing then, so I’d been writing for two or three years. And I thought, “No, I’ve never heard of him. He sounds amazing. This Black American actor in 1824, 1833 playing Othello at Coven Garden. What?”
I started to research it because I was looking for something to do as a writer. I thought I needed a subject. And as I followed the trail—this was pre-internet, so the internet was pretty basic then, so I was going to libraries and I was faxing libraries across the world, including the Folger, New York Public Library, and a collection in Bristol, and I went to the British Library, all sorts of places, in order to get some sort of… I don’t know, a lead. Because it was quite hard.
Now you can Google, “I want a book on this person,” and you find out the title. But then, if the bookshop didn’t stock it, there was no way of finding it.
So I followed this trail and I spent the next three years finding out who Ira Aldridge was.
BOGAEV: Yeah, and it’s a fascinating story. And it’s so heartbreaking that he got his big break and then the very racist press of his day just savaged him. You quote some of the newspaper reviews in the play, I think. Remind us, what did they hone in on?
CHAKRABARTI: Well, I mean, you know, for dramatic purposes, I selected the ones that would serve my story. So, I used the ones that criticized. I mean, some of them did actually compliment him and his performance and his voice and his stature. But then they would say things like, “He was not bad looking for an African.” You know, things like that.
Then they would be more specific about his race and his color and his look and his ability to speak English. I mean, some of the reviews—a lot of the reviews he got across Britain—not in London, across Britain—were really excellent.
But it was the London press that were particularly brutal, I think. Because they had other agendas to follow. And they’re really shocking. I mean, when you hear them now, they’re really, really shocking.
BOGAEV: Yeah. But as you say, people did recognize he was doing something different and something very exciting with acting. And this was a time when the teapot style of acting was prevalent. The actor just stands there like a teapot and declaims their lines like more recital than acting.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, absolutely. Big gestures to cover the fact that the lighting was terrible. The auditorium was enormous. People were probably chatting through it all. So, big wide bodies and arms and wide stance and out front and center and declaiming. Yeah, and all sorts of habits, terrible habits I think people had. I think… I can’t remember now, my research is a bit old now, but there was one actor who paused an awful lot, so it took ages for him to get his lines out.
I remember it was very important that the leading actor was center stage. And they just stayed center stage and everyone else acted around them. Because there were no directors, of course. The lead actor was the one who ran the show.
BOGAEV: Oh, it’s so great to imagine.
CHAKRABARTI: So, they put themselves center.
BOGAEV: What do you think made Aldridge so great? And was he a great actor?
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, I think he absolutely was. I think the reviews that I read around the provinces in Britain, some of the ones in London actually, and the European ones—I mean the European ones where… the Russian reviews are because they report in such detail. Their admiration for acting is so detailed that you could probably recreate his performance from some of the descriptions they give.
And, you just don’t get reviews like that. I mean, I’m paraphrasing, I can’t quote it, but one of the—I think somebody wrote in their diary that to watch him acting Othello was… “To try to describe him playing Othello, was trying to take water from the sea with a spoon.”
I just thought, “Yeah, you don’t get reviews like they’re like that if you are a bit so-so, bit mediocre.”
There were other—I mean, some of it’s funny because some of it, I think there’s racial bias in the back of it. So, there was one review that said, you know, that, “People were terrified that for his Desdemona because he was so ferocious and so fierce. They feared that he’d actually killed the actress.”
BOGAEV: The violent Black man.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, exactly. So, that’s what’s behind it. But what I really liked was there was another… I don’t know, it was an account of Ira replying to someone who said, “Oh my gosh, I was so nervous for your Desdemona. I thought you killed her.” And he said, “Oh, no.” He said, “Out of three, I’ve only killed a couple.” I really liked that.
So there, there’s a kind of—there’s a humor and a charm and a playing-the-game in Ira’s responses. Diary references, people’s comments about what he was like. I think he was a smart man who played the game and was really good at what he did.
There’s photographs of—or I don’t know if they’re daguerreotypes or what they were called—but of him playing King Lear and Othello. And the kinglier one particularly, you know. I mean, it is very old school. He’s facing up to the light with his hands up to the sky. He’s got his white beard.
BOGAEV: Ranting at the gods.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, yeah.
CHAKRABARTI: Ranting at the gods with his white beard and white hair. But it’s… I mean, even just looking at it makes me excited to see what he might have played.
BOGAEV: This was the first play you wrote. What made you think, “I am an actor, but hey, I can do this playwriting thing?”
CHAKRABARTI: It took me a really long time to get that play on. I started writing, probably, I don’t know, nine, 10 years before that. I did it very quietly. I did it… I wasn’t sure whether I could do it, so I started writing short stories. I wrote a terrible first novel and then I wrote a play, a screenplay.
BOGAEV: Wait, you just started writing out of nowhere?
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, I did.
BOGAEV: Did you not have—
CHAKRABARTI: Because I got bored between my acting jobs.
BOGAEV: Oh, so—
CHAKRABARTI: I did. So, I was working as an actor.
BOGAEV: Was writing the first thing you tried to do be between acting gigs to alleviate the…
CHAKRABARTI: No, I did a term of pottery classes and I couldn’t make a pot to save my life. And then I did a term of English Romantic poetry classes, which I thought was really fascinating. But wasn’t going to go anywhere unless I wanted to do a degree or something, which I couldn’t commit to at the time.
BOGAEV: I think pottery classes have created more writers than graduate programs. Yeah.
CHAKRABARTI: “Yeah, I’m not good at that. Let me find something else.”
So yeah, I started writing and I liked it. So, that’s why I stuck at it.
BOGAEV: Well, I read somewhere that your husband, Adrian Lester, reads everything you write and gives you notes. So just how brutal is he?
CHAKRABARTI: He used to.
BOGAEV: Oh, he used to?
CHAKRABARTI: He used to. I think now that I’ve become so busy, it’s not possible really to keep up with everything that I’m doing. But yeah, in the early days, he definitely used to.
Yeah, we had to negotiate the notes. As you can imagine, I had to sort of, you know… it was brilliant because his eye is really good. But, I did have to say, “Listen, you have to say the nice things first. You can’t just go, ‘This doesn’t work, that doesn’t work, this doesn’t work.’ You have to go, ‘Oh, it’s really good. And I really like this bit and I really like that bit. But…’”
BOGAEV: That’s right. There’s an etiquette to this. Can you tell any of his notes on Hamnet or does he not—has he not given any?
CHAKRABARTI: No, he doesn’t. I actually don’t need him to do that anymore. I’m kind of in a place now where I’m better at it. I know more what I’m doing.
BOGAEV: You’ve outgrown Adrian Lester.
CHAKRABARTI: Never. But I’m working with all these amazing companies. I’m commissioned now, so I’m not writing on my own, trying to get the gig. I’ve got the gig and there’s all these people in the buildings who are completely, sort of, on-site and trained and know what I’m doing. So, I have other help now.
BOGAEV: I do have one more question. I was thinking whether working on a play about Shakespeare makes you wish you were acting in one of his plays?
CHAKRABARTI: Oh, always. Gosh. Yeah. I played Gertrude in Hamlet about five years ago. It was when I started writing Life of Pi, actually
I remember I would write Life of Pi in the morning and I would go and do the show in the evening. And it was my first mum, so I thought, “Oh, I’ve got to that age where I can play mums now. How marvelous.” I was a bit in between before.
Yeah, yeah. Oh, it is just beautiful. I’d just listen. I’d obviously be in it, but I’d listen and it’s such… I mean, but it’s so hard to get right as well. It’s just the total pinnacle of acting, and you never get it right. Even on the last night you’re going, “Oh, I didn’t get that bit right.”
It’s a fantastic exercise, gym, exercise to practice your acting with, really. Yeah. I mean, I use bits of his plays in Hamnet. Small bits, you know, because otherwise it’s lazy, right? If I’m using lots of his words and not my own.
But they are—there’s just so much to choose from and it’s so deep and clear and wide and expressive and of its time and of now. Yeah, it’s gorgeous stuff.
BOGAEV: Well, I wish you so much—wonderful audiences for Life of Pi on Broadway, by the way. And again, so much good to happen with your run in the West End. I wish you health and happiness, and thank you.
CHAKRABARTI: Ah, thank you very much. Lovely to talk to you.
WITMORE: That was Lolita Chakrabarti, talking to Barbara Bogaev.
Hamnet runs at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s newly restored Swan Theatre until June 17, and will open at London’s Garrick Theatre on September 30.
This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Melvin Rickarby in Stratford and Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.
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Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu.
Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.