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

Monumental Miller

Death of a Salesman (Queensland Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

February 9 – March 2

Rightfully regarded as one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, Arthur Miller’s iconic “Death of Salesman” is an unquestionable classic of the theatre, largely due to its enduring resonance, and Queensland Theatre’s production of the mammoth work leaves audiences with little doubt as to why the play remains so beloved, even 70 years (to the week) after it was first performed on Broadway.

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“Death of a Salesman” comes with all the ingredients of a great tragedy. Its narrative follows 63-year-old salesman Willy Loman (Peter Kowitz) as he struggles to accept his failures and wrong dreams. In his earlier life he experienced some level of success, but now he is a broken man, both professionally and personally, plagued by memories of missed opportunities. Long gone are the days of his sons Biff (Thomas Larkin) and Happy’s (Jackson McGovern) hero worship and shared sniggers at the book-smart neighbour boy Bernard (Ilai Swindells) and his knowledgeable and successful father Charley (Charles Allen). Instead, Willy’s twilight-years reality has become one of scheming towards redemption, while relying on Charley’s generosity to only-just survive, but never succeed. It is an unforgiving existence in which Willy also refuses to relinquish his dreams for this eldest son, despite Biff’s rejection.

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There is a lot of pathos to the story’s exploration of big human-nature themes such as pride, guilt and hope and it is very dialogue-heavy in its apparent exploration of Henry David Thoreau’s succinct observation that ‘the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’. Arthur Miller’s script has, at its core, a sensitive craftedness infused with imagery, allegory, multi-level titular meaning and the symbolism of planting seeds to thrive as a legacy.

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The last time I saw this play it was in a cosy Greenside theatre on Royale Terrace at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It was an appropriately intimate experience of a traditional work of realism. While Queensland Theatre have set the story where it should be in the late 1940s time of hats and handkerchiefs as business attire, the realisation is far from one of conventional realism, which works wonders in bleeding Willy’s time into itself.

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The story’s time and place setting is seen in props, costumes and character accents that inhabit Set Designer Richard Roberts’ deconstructed doll-house staging. World class production values bring multifaceted flashbacks and reminiscences to realisation, as for Willy the past is alive. The flashbacks not only provide psychological insight into his character, but add interest as Willy retreats into idyllic family memories and the glories of his venture capitalist brother Ben (Kevin Hides).

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Verity Hampson’s lighting design takes the audience through transitions of the everyday and into memories in emphasis of the gap between myth and reality. Indeed, perfectly executed lighting transitions transform scenes from sepia-toned of-the-time settings to stylised flashbacks behind multi-use scrim screens. Justin Harrison’s soundscape is also quite superb, whether as subtle suburban street sounds or to signpost the assault of a vivid flashback. Even intermission music is of the era, reflecting the attention to detail that is at the core of this show’s success.

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The cast is uniformly excellent as the story’s almost-all flawed characters. The success of any production of “Death of a Salesman” depends ultimately on the portrayal of its lone man protagonist, battling for purpose and recognition and Kowitz is outstanding as the titular merchant, whether full of false pride and delusion, boastfully bravadoing to his boys or submissively stooping towards his mental and emotional decline. It is a slow-burning performance, not pitiful, as it could easily have been, but poignantly honest and therefore emotionally engaging.

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But Willy’s is not the only hero’s journey being examined. Larkin brings a layered sensitivity to the challenging role of Biff, a man with his own yearning to overcome his adversity and live on the land in opposition to his father’s expectations that be also become a businessman. However, the most powerful performance is probably that of Angie Milliken as Linda Lomen, Willy’s emotionally-supportive but worn-down wife, trying desperately to at-once understand and help her doomed husband. Her resolute monologue defense of her husband’s character to their children is moving enough to hold the entire absorbed Playhouse Theatre audience in her grasp. Despite such dramatic moments, however, the production is not all dourness as suggested by its title, with some light moments and comedy serving to alleviate sombre scenes.

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As the company’s Artistic Director Sam Strong notes in the show’s program notes, “Death of a Salesman” speaks across time to the love and lies at the centre of families. And this character universality is at the core of the success of this production. While there is criticism of American capitalism evident, its currency comes more from its every-man human themes of triumphs and disappointments. It is a long show, as classics often are, but this is because it has so much to say, beyond just its portrait of the promise of ‘the west’ and the Great American Dream that appears in so many of its culture’s literary classics.

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Just as Willy believes that success is defined by money and reputation (“the only thing you’ve got in this world is what you can sell,” “be liked and you will never want”, he says), the currency of likeability and stories of self-promotion that form the fabric of his life represent the essence of people’s modern online selves, meaning that in 2019, as much as ever, the play still has much to say about the idea of self-perception. Yet while this theme offers resonance it doesn’t overwhelm the play’s essential story. Jason Klarwein’s direction is one of command, but also restraint, in not trying to force the play to be something it is not. And so, its celebration of the old style magic of theatre makes this monumental first installment in the company’s Season of Dreamers, one to which attention must be paid.