Bernhardt/Hamlet (MTC) at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner - 130 minutes, plus a 20-minute interval
We are in Paris in 1899.
Take the best actor in the world, in this case a middle-aged woman with a particularly healthy ego that is constantly being stoked.
Her last stage role was a critical success but failed to sell tickets.
This is a woman who doesn’t hold back – who always speaks her mind.
Photos by Pia Johnson
She spends what she wants to spend when she wants to spend it, even though she claims she is now penniless.
Even though she appears to be universally lauded – or at least she is told that she is – she decides to take a very dangerous step.
She will step into the role of Shakespeare’s Hamlet at a time when this – a woman filling a man’s role – was simply not done.
With that comes a surfeit of insecurities.
It is worth noting that she is in her mid 50s and the Prince of Denmark was but 19 years of age.
Still, she presses on.
That also involves imploring a highly regarded playwright, who is married with two young children, to rewrite Hamlet and remove the poetry in the work.
Why? Because she doesn’t like it.
As he can’t say no to her – his muse as well as his lover – he proceeds, but struggles.
Also, struggling to create an appropriate poster of her for the production is a man usually adept at doing so, the artist Alphonse Mucha (Tim Walter).
Bernhardt/Hamlet is the story of Sarah Bernhardt – who has grown out of the ingenue roles that made her famous – and Edmond Rostand.
He was the French poet and dramatist best known for his play Cyrano de Bergerac.
Written by American playwright Theresa Rebeck and first performed on Broadway in 2018, there is much going on in Bernardt/Hamlet.
It was most appropriate that opening night was on International Women’s Day.
Make no mistake, Rebeck has crafted Bernhardt as no shrinking violet.
Others cower and kowtow in her presence.
She talks up her appeal to men, both artistically and sexually.
Kate Mulvany impresses in the lead. She embraces Bernhardt’s no-nonsense approach – a firecracker … feisty, but also beset by moments of self-doubt.
Mulvany has a big stage presence – a requirement of the bolshy role.
Tracts of Hamlet are performed by Bernhardt and other cast members and often questioned by Bernhardt.
Charles Wu plays an interesting juggling act as Edmond Rostand. He adores Bernhardt, but feels some guilt about being with her when he has a wife he loves and a sick child at home.
He tries to stand up for himself and to her, but also seeks her adoration for his writing.
The push and pull between the pair forms the cornerstone of the play.
Around them, the other Hamlet actors are putty in Bernhardt’s hands, inevitably succumbing to Bernhardt’s whims.
With magnificent timbre in his voice, Marco Chiappi is superb as Constant Coquelin, whose command of Hamlet is second to none.
At two hours 10 minutes (excluding interval), I found Bernhardt/Hamlet engaging to a point, but a bit of a stretch.
That comes down to Rebeck’s writing – not the fine acting from the 10-strong cast. I thought the first act needed tightening, ahead of the surprises in the second.
An interesting device used by director Anne-Louise Sarks involved sets and props being wheeled and carried in as the play unfolds. That is certainly eye-catching.
Set and costume designer Marg Horwell has done a good job across the board, taking a playful hand with the costuming.
Make no mistake, there is a great deal of humour in Bernhardt/Hamlet, which – I dare say – will be production that will appeal to some more than others.
It is playing at Southbank Theatre, the Sumner until 15th April, 2023.