The Victorian actor Sarah Bernhardt was a renaissance woman of the fin de siècle. A vanguard of her time, she was one of the first women to appear in motion pictures. She designed her own costumes, directed and wrote plays and was a prolific visual artist. Among others, playwright Edmond Rostand, author of Cyrano de Bergerac, and novelist Victor Hugo considered her a muse.
The Melbourne Theatre Company’s Bernhardt / Hamlet, Anne-Louise Sarks’s first production as artistic director, stars Kate Mulvany in the backstage story of Bernhardt’s revolutionary decision to become the first woman to play Hamlet. Written by American playwright Theresa Rebeck, the play centres on the lead-up to Bernhardt’s 1899 performance at the age of 55, as she grapples with ageing in an industry that has limited roles for older women.
In 19th-century Europe, the idea of a woman playing an iconic male role in a theatre production was a new notion. To take on Hamlet even at the height of her fame was a bold move that would either define or end Bernhardt’s career, and she knew that women were rarely given second chances.
Members of her cast and crew as well as theatre critics questioned whether Bernhardt could pull it off, despite the long theatrical tradition of cross-gendering. Shakespearean women such as Portia (The Merchant of Venice), Rosalind (As You Like It) and Viola (Twelfth Night) often pretended to be men to attain their freedoms. To complicate things further, in Shakespeare’s time these women were always played by men – a fact Mulvany’s Bernhardt frequently refers to when she argues she can play the role.
Bernhardt pushes her colleague Constant Coquelin (Marco Chiappi) to improvise dialogue between Hamlet and the ghost of his father. In a projection of Bernhardt’s feelings towards her own absent father, Mulvany exclaims, “Why did you abandon me?” Coquelin replies dryly, “Because I was murdered.” As Bernhardt concedes, “I think there’s something in that.”
It feels fitting that the play opened on International Women’s Day. Much of the play’s action focuses on Bernhardt’s right to play a man: “Why shouldn’t I play Hamlet?” she asks. “No one cares about masculinity.” It may seem laughable now to think that a woman playing a male role was controversial, but the attitudes revealed in the play are far from obsolete. As Sarks points out in her program note, “much of what Sarah Bernhardt experienced remains a part of the experience of women making theatre – of women working in almost any field”.
Bernhardt’s remarks about Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter blank verse are savage. Such is her distaste for the “da-DUM da-DUM” rhythm – perhaps because she continually forgets her lines – that she orders Rostand to rewrite the speech in prose. She has little time for how Shakespeare’s characters pontificate – as she says cuttingly of Hamlet’s speeches, it’s “a lot of words for such a small thought”.
Mulvany’s performance anchors the play, dancing the line between commanding star and insecure artist with perfect balance. The role of Hamlet consumes her being and Mulvany powerfully conveys this obsession. She has some of the best one-liners in the script, and delivers them with deadpan wit to land the laughs.
Her physical comedy is brilliant: she adjusts her wig incorrectly and adopts farcically dramatic Shakespearean poses with her hands raised to deliver poignant lines. Preparing to recite Hamlet’s famous soliloquy “To be, or not to be”, she marches up the stairs on stage and feigns surprise that the rest of the staircase is painted by pretending to walk into the backdrop. We miss Mulvany in the scenes where she is absent.
As Bernhardt seeks prompts for her lines and fixates on her delivery, testing the phrase “I am a coward” with varying intonation, it feels as if she is set up to fail. This is foreshadowed in dialogue between Rostand (Charles Wu), Louis (John Leary) and Alphonse Mucha (Tim Walter), who are all infatuated with Bernhardt but doubt that she can take on such an ambitious part. Bernhardt, noting that power continues to elude women, holds out against this band of naysayers.
The diverse casting creates a cosmopolitan depiction of 19th-century Paris. Charles Wu plays Bernhardt’s lover Rostand admirably as a man torn between family duties and his passion for the actor. His sexually charged scenes with Mulvany leave you a little hot under the collar and it’s liberating to see women in their 50s portrayed as objects of desire. As Mucha, the visual artist who painted Bernhardt’s iconic Art Nouveau posters, Walter gives a strong performance.
Leary inhabits the arrogance of the critic Louis with ease – “critics are paid to have an opinion but everyone hates it when we do” – and Chiappi delivers a seasoned performance as Coquelin. William McKenna’s performance as Maurice, Bernhardt’s son and a spoilt theatre “nepo baby”, is effective. Maurice is the illegitimate son of the Belgian Prince de Ligne, and his birth sparked a scandal, but he doesn’t provide much more insight on “our divine Sarah” than showing a softer side to her character. However, peripheral characters such as Tahlee Fereday’s Lysette, Dushan Philips’s Francois and Sahil Saluja’s Raoul feel underused.
The humour shines in the first half with some cutting commentary on gender dynamics, but after interval the play shifts towards drama. The ongoing argument of whether a woman should play a man becomes tiring as the play progresses and never quite resolves into a defining statement or revelation. Mulvany’s comic delivery is such a highlight that the later, more serious focus on her relationship with her lover and collaborator feels dull and slow in comparison.
The most impressive part of the production is Marg Horwell’s set and costume design. Antique furnishings and Shakespearean costuming are worked seamlessly together in soft colour palettes. The design is simple yet rich with intricate flourishes that set context, mood and tone. Bernhardt’s dressing room is a particular highlight with floral arrangements, busts – perhaps a nod to Bernhardt’s work as a sculptor – ornate furnishings and self-portraits reminiscent of Horwell’s work on The Picture of Dorian Gray.
For those who enjoy some theatrical mise en abyme, this is an enjoyable watch – and it’s worth the price of admission to see Mulvany’s brilliance.
Bernhardt / Hamlet plays at the Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, until April 15.
COMEDY Melbourne International Comedy Festival
Venues throughout Melbourne, March 29–April 23
MUSICAL Come From Away
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide, March 28–April 29
MULTIMEDIA I have not loved (enough or worked)
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until April 23
VISUAL ART A Third Language
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, until September 17
CINEMA Ocean Film Festival World Tour 2023
Home of the Arts, Gold Coast, March 29-30
EXHIBITION Naadohbii: To Draw Water
Melbourne Museum, until March 26
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 25, 2023 as "The soul of wit".
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