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Review: Bernhardt/Hamlet at the Sumner Theatre, Southbank, Melbourne Theatre Company

Updated: Mar 20, 2023

Review by Susanne Dahn

If you’re fascinated by theatre history as well as the craft of theatre making, you will find this MTC production of prolific US playwright Therese Rebeck‘s 2018 play, directed by Anne-Louise Sarks (the company’s new Artistic Director and co-CEO), both enjoyable and rabbit burrow thought provoking. The play offers audiences charming witness to the joyful and resounding creativity of theatrical collaboration as a bold new 1899 production of Hamlet is being readied for staging in theatre legend’s Sarah Bernhardt‘s own new theatre in Paris. And the play (which fittingly opened in Melbourne on International Women’s Day) also reminds us that fluidity of gender roles and the assumption of power by women have been divisive and controversial issues for a very long time. Bernhardt at 55 you see is planning to again don britches but this time to play the 19 year old Prince of Denmark herself ! Bold. And not in the melancholic English tradition (stuck in his head, all that privilege, yet he does nothing) but with youth and vigour and energy. And using Bernhardt‘s own commissioned ‘version’ of Shakespeare’s script which naturalises the speech ! Undoubtedly very much bolder. To revitalise her already long and illustrious career on the stage, as well as her dwindling bank balance, the then-most famous actress in the world Sarah Bernhardt, is willing to try the impossible, take a huge gamble and to assume ultimate power and accountability though (as every woman who has ever done these things well knows) never without recurring visitations by doubt, uncertainty and full-on fear. In real life, Bernhardt’s Hamlet was a commercial success and toured throughout Europe and America (a nice place where they pay for your meals). But prominent male critics at the time were predictably negative such as Max Beerbohm who wrote: Creative power, the power to conceive ideas and execute them, is an attribute of virility: women are denied it. In so far as they practise art at all, they are aping virility, exceeding their natural sphere. Oh dear, oh dear what a piece of work is a man ! So glad we’re (mostly) past that and understand better the distinction between playing and inhabiting. So, to the production. Anne-Louise Sarks‘ expert direction is first evident as she elicits a pinpoint delivery of the script’s ample and rollicking wit particularly in the first act. But there’s a very serious message here too and Sarks completely gets the role of theatre as an act of translation and transformation. In selecting and staging this remarkable play she reminds us that women with power are not freaks (or unsex me here!) but that when women want everything men don’t like it! But stay with me, let us defy augury ! It is something of a shame that the diversion into Cyrano in the second act (which though it joins some dots for MTC audiences, is on balance distracting) couldn’t be replaced by a bold rewriting of this very play to demonstrate just how perfectly Sarah could inhabit a youthful but wiser Hamlet not just in rehearsals but live on stage energised by her feelings for her own young lover Rostand. Why not - it’s the theatre, everybody cheats ! But aye, there’s the rub. Big hat tip to Marg Howell for conceiving and executing the graceful transitions from no set, to lavish set, to spare set, with so much ease. Elsinore unravels from the sky, intimate dressing rooms reveal themselves and the set scene stealer - Sarah‘s salon - is sensually and imaginatively made manifest in glorious colour and texture. And second hat tip to Ms Howell for nailing costumes that evoke this fresh Hamlet’s boldness (the boots and leggings) and his youth and energy (the brilliant white fencing kit) as well as Bernhardt‘s sexuality and power (the glittering party gown). Kate Mulvany as Sarah gives a strong, wise and generous performance. Past collaborations with Sark really pay dividends in this production. The pair clearly work well together and Kate is a delight to watch, in fact, she is magnificent. Marco Chiappi as Coquelin is the perfect foil for Kate, and great collaboration is evident here too as Chiappi makes the seemingly effortless switch between his roles. Chiappi is a very accomplished performer and also a complete pleasure to watch. Charles Wu as Rostand has moments of higher conviction in the role, but does test credibility as the scelta d'amore of the Divine Sarah. His are lots of words for such small thoughts, speech and speech but no action, all about the players and not the play. Tim Walter is quite charming as Alphonse; beautifully cast and a tender performance. Tahlee Fereday brings us a believably playful frisson with Kate bringing to life Sarah’s ambition to have Hamlet actually do something. William McKenna, also very well cast, as louche Maurice brings to life a further dimension to Bernhardt’s life. And Izabella Yena as Rosamund offers us palpable strength and fortitude as the cuckolded wife in a scene of subtle but profound tension - a blend of envy and admiration - your wife is a genius, she has outwitted us both. Thank you to MTC for bringing the Rebeck play to the stage for Melbourne audiences. It’s exhilarating to be in the presence of the utterly original, self-made, unforgettable gloriousness that was Sarah Bernhardt.

Image Supplied


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