With clam-shell surrounded footlights bordering its stage within a stage, Bernhardt/Hamlet immediately urges its audience to step back to the world of 19th century Parisian theatre. Theresa Rebeck’s backstage comedy, which is loosely based on reality, follows the life of its titular heroine Sarah Bernhardt (Angie Milliken), now in her mid-50s. 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, larger-than-life leading lady decides to play Hamlet. So, she 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. 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 Bernhardt’s process of examining the idea of Hamlet. 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. Among them are 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, they take us on a journey.
A double revolving stage also aides in swift scene transitions. 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. Max Lambert’s musical compositions move us between scenes. The at times lush fabrics of Simone Romaniuk’s costuming provide some memorable visual moments.
Milliken is a delight as the Divine Sarah, owning her passion, determination in the face of dissent and lack of shame, yet still showing some flashes of vulnerability. Parker is solid as Bernhard’s friend and contemporary Coquelin. 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. The latter parts of the narrative drag a little, with perhaps too much time spent on the love affair storyline at the expense of witty dialogue and challenging insights.
Still, 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 a consideration of women and power, and the way gender in performance is considered. While at its core it is a play for lovers of language and theatre, its humour makes it accessible to audiences beyond this. There is also the opportunity to get past the mythology of arguably the greatest actress of her century to learn a little more about someone whose legacy everyone involved in the theatre still owes some respect.
Bernhardt/Hamlet is playing at Queensland Theatre’s Bille Brown Theatre until 18th June, 2022
For more of Meredith’s writings on theatre, check out Blue Curtains Brisbane