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Review: Bernhardt/Hamlet at the Bille Browne Theatre

Review By Regan Baker

For someone who isn’t a massive fan of Shakespeare I have certainly found myself going to a lot of his plays of late, however this time – it comes with a twist. Bernhardt/Hamlet is not in itself a Shakespearian play, but a loose translation of the true-life story of Parisian diva, Sarah Bernhardt, who was bored of the traditional roles that continued to be written for the women of the time (1899) and who desperately needed to take a risk to save her failing theatre. What better way to draw in a crowd, she thought, than with the controversy of casting the greatest actress of the century in the greatest male role ever written - Hamlet.

Written by the most produced American female playwright on Broadway, Theresa Rebeck, has crafted a powerful story of determination, strength and of going against the grain to stand up for what you believe in.

“It is also a sign of how long the fight for equality continues to be. The opposition to Sarah playing Hamlet in 1899 speaks to the place of women today in America as they face the loss of the right to control their own bodies again.” – Lee Lewis, Director

For the most part, Bernhardt/Hamlet is a brilliantly crafted story that has a bit of something for everyone; drama, comedy, romance - you name it! But for me, it lost a margin of strength in its length and its lack of an ending. At two-hours-forty-five, the play itself is no longer than usual, but the main body of the story seemed to carry on forever, with the main conflict between Bernhardt and her writer and secret lover, Edmond Rostand, occurring about ten-minutes before the end of the play. During this conflict Bernhardt is driven, yes, but a little egotistical and unrelenting in her review of Rostand’s script and the role he wrote for her. We then cut immediately to Rostand’s happy ending, but there is no real conclusion of Bernhardt’s story, and we are left thinking she did not learn anything from this conflict or that she did not grow as a character.

Does this take away from the overall performance and the enjoyment one experiences when they see a Queensland Theatre show? Absolutely not – I’m just being nit-picky. Under the superb Direction from Lee Lewis, the script was always going to be in safe hands. In challenging times when floods ravaged the Bille Brown Theatre some four months ago, she took every obstacle that was placed in front of her and overcame them with finesse. With budget constraints in place, she ensured the stage was filled with action in place of a lavish set and kept us engaged throughout with comical dialogue and background action.

In his 100th credit with Queensland Theatre, an astonishing and impressive feat, lighting designer David Walters gave us warm tones and very subtle colours throughout the production to try and recreate the feeling of a Parisian theatre and town in 1899. Set and costume designer Simone Romaniuk similarly worked brilliantly alongside Lewis to create a subtle French atmosphere and time-appropriate clothing.

In only her third performance with Queensland Theatre, Angie Milliken had huge boots to fill in playing the role of one of the all-time greatest actresses, but she managed it with power and grace. She delivered a strong portrait of Bernhardt whose determination and passion shone through every line and embodied the role with ease.

Opposite her, in the role of Edmond Rostand, Nicholas Brown was a warm and charming love-interest, who gave his everything in his devotion for Bernhardt. He was believable in his actions and his conflicting desires of writing and his affair with Bernhardt resonated in his performance. Their relationship was superbly presented and engrossed the audience in its complexity, deceitfulness and in breaking the bounds of age in love.

Hugh Parker played a brilliant Constant Coquelin who was delightful to watch in not only his spoken scenes, but also in his background action and humorous mannerisms. In his Queensland Theatre debut, David Valencia brings a light-hearted joy to the role of Alphonse Mucha and his artistic talents, while Julian Curtis provided a similar air of comic relief in his brilliant performance as Maurice, Bernhardt’s son.

Anthony Gooley was a strong supporter as Louis, and it was so delightful to see Wendy Mocke (as Rosamond) on stage again after her powerful performance in Taming of the Shrew with QTC last year. Rounding out the phenomenal cast, Amy Ingram (Lysette), Gareth Davies (Raoul) and Leon Cain (Francois) all delivered outstanding performances in what must be one of the strongest team’s I have seen QTC put together. There was barely a beat out of place, and the emotion, dedication, passion, and anger displayed from each one of them made this play the strong performance that it was.

While I may have had my issues with the structure of the script, that should not take away from the importance of seeing this production from Queensland Theatre. In what has been a challenging time for artists and theatre companies alike, Bernhardt/Hamlet brought an air of joy back into the Queensland theatre scene and continues to build on the strong foundation of work they have produced despite the adversities they have faced.

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Not one of QTC’s best productions. A good cast just couldn’t rescue a ponderous script that laboured on the issue of a woman playing Hamlet for what seemed like an eternity. Truly tempted to walk out at the interval but gave it a second, but fruitless chance to redeem itself. Such a let down after ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff’.

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