To be woman?

Bernhardt/Hamlet (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

May 28 – June 18

With clam-shell surrounded footlights bordering its stage within a stage, “Bernhardt/Hamlet” immediately urges its audience to step back in time to the world of 19th Century Parisian theatre. Theresa Rebeck’s backstage comedy, which is loosely based on real life events, follows the life of its titular heroine Sarah Bernhardt (Angie Milliken) now in her mid-50s, as she upends the status-quo of late 19th Century Paris with her unconventional, and at times outrageous, approach to life and work. Too old to play the ingénue and unwilling to take on any of the stale roles written for women, the unstoppable legendary larger-than-life leading lady decides to take on the role of Hamlet, so commissions Edmond Rostand (Nicholas Brown) of future ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ fame, to adapt Shakespeare’s play, in the hope that it will be the box office blockbuster necessary to save her auditorium from bankruptcy.

Whether the bold move will be Benhardt’s legacy or undoing, is not, however, the only exploration of the play. Indeed, there is lots to engage audiences in what is, under Lee Lewis’ direction, a layered exploration of Shakespeare, the theatre and women’s roles within it, as the French actress argues that the only thespian who could actually capture the Danish prince’s contradictions is a woman. The intelligence of Rebeck’s script shines as we are given a backstage glimpse at to Bernhardt’s process of examining the idea of “Hamlet”… the sense of it beyond just the words. As she delves into what makes the character tick, but also everyone’s dilemma of how old to make him, key “Hamlet” monologues and soliloquies are explored as part of her immersion into the character and his burdens, reminding us of the importance of Shakespeare and his language.

There is a certainly a lot going on and, along with its intellect, the play comes with satisfying comic moments, courtesy mostly of Bernhardt’s company of players the revered Constant Conquelin (Hugh Parker), Lysette (Amy Ingram), Francois (Leon Cain) and Raoul (Gareth Davies). From a confused attempt to determine the logic behind multiple player entrances potentially upstaging the star, to a memorable seduction of Ingram’s Ophelia in one of the few snippet-sied actual scenes from Shakespeare’s play, they take us on a journey from dressing room to back-of-stage and front-of-stage.

A double revolving stage also aides in swift scene transitions between sections of the theatre and the streets of Paris. In his 100th Queensland Theatre production David Walker’s lighting similarly takes us in and out of rehearsals and performance spaces, as well as into the streets of the French capital, while Max Lambert’s musical compositions melody us between scenes. The sometimes lush fabrics of Simone Romaniuk’s costume design also aides in the establishment of some memorable visual moments.

Milliken is a delight to watch as the Divine Sarah, luminously nimbling about the stage, owning her passion, determination in the face of dissent and legendary lack of shame as honest badges of honour, yet still showing some flashes of vulnerability in defence of her destructive adulterous affair with the enraptured Edmund, for whom she serves as muse, meaning that while she is not always likeable in her choices or their motivations, she is worthy of our respect.

Parker is solid as Bernhard’s friend and contemporary Coquelin who has played Hamlet four times, but has now aged into other roles, giving a masterclass in presentation of a range of dramatic emotions while imparting acting advice to the less experienced players. Meanwhile, as esteemed theatre critic Louis, Anthony Gooley gives us an early highlight when, in a Parisian café, he is left aghast at even the though of Bernhardt’s audacious gimmick.

Although things move quickly, conflict isn’t really established until after interval when the story moves more into exploration of the complex romance between Sarah and the married Rostand with the brief introduction of Rostand’s just-as-strong wife Rosamond (Wendy Mocke), and his new play, Bernhard’s adult son Maurice (played to perfection by Julian Curtis).

While there are discussions of art and poetry and what Shakespeare might have meant between Rostand and the art nouveau illustrator of Bernhardt’s posters, Alphonse Mucha (David Valencia), and consideration of the transformative nature of theatre, these latter parts of its narrative drag a little with perhaps too much time spend on the love affair storyline at the expense of the witty dialogue and challenging insights that characterise its other sections.

“BERNHARDT/HAMLET” is a very good play, dense with ideas deserving of contemplation. While very meta in its discussion of the exquisiteness of Shakespeare’s poetic language, it is also, simultaneously a consideration of women and power, and the way gender in performance is considered, though interrogation of “Hamlet”, and also through mentions of “Medea”, “Macbeth”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “King Lear” and alike. While at its core it is a play for lovers of language and theatre, its humour makes it accessible to audiences beyond this. And there is also the opportunity to get past the mythology of the greatest actress of her century to learn a little more about someone to whom’s legacy everyone involved in the theatre still owes some respect.

Photos – c/o Brett Boardman

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