‘Bernhardt/Hamlet’ was thought-provoking.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet once said, “What a piece of work is a man” but perhaps the question in 2022 is: if all the world’s a stage and all the men are merely players, what about the women? That is certainly the question at the centre of Teresa Rebeck’s play ‘Bernhardt/Hamlet’. It’s a big question with no easy answers and only one of many raised in this complex and comedic epic, which recently had its Australian premiere at Queensland Theatre.
In 1899, actress and provocateur Sarah Bernhardt took it upon herself to play the great, if slightly whiny, Prince of Denmark. It’s a choice that sent shockwaves around Paris. A woman could not play Hamlet. Shakespeare wrote that part for a man. What does it say if Hamlet is a woman? How does the story change? Does the story need to change? Can the story change? Shakespeare’s text is paramount. In Shakespeare’s time all the parts were played by men but surely this back-and-forth rhetoric is all too familiar to the modern ear. This is exactly what Rebeck intended when she brought this true story to the stage in 2017. Since then, the show ‘Bernhard/Hamlet’ has been performed all over America before finally arriving in Australia in 2022.
Hamlet is a play of beautiful writing and big ideas and ‘Bernhardt/Hamlet’ is no different. Its beautiful writing and big ideas need actors to embody them. Thankfully the 10-person ensemble (with two bonus understudies ready to go on if COVID strikes) were all up to the challenge at hand.
Hugh Parker brings his dry comedic wit to the role of Constant Coquelin – an actor who has played Hamlet four times. Nicholas Brown gives a heartbreakingly honest performance as Edmond Rostand, a playwright constantly in the shadow of both Shakespeare and Sarah Bernhardt. The supporting ensemble of Amy Ingram, Gareth Davies, Anthony Gooley, David Valencia, Wendy Mocke, Julian Curtis, and Leon Cain are all given their moment to shine. The star of the show however is Angie Milliken as Sarah Bernhardt. She rarely leaves the stage for the entirety of the play’s near three-hour run time and manages to make each and every moment captivating and unique.
With a central character like Sarah Bernhardt, it would be impossible to do this show without impeccable design elements. Bernhardt was a lady of Paris. She would spend outrageous amounts of money, often money she didn’t actually have, buying the latest fashions. She owned a theatre and people literally described her as their light. Thankfully the design team has risen to meet the legacy of Ms. Bernhardt. Simone Romaniuk’s costume designs are rich, beautiful and decadent, much like Bernhardt herself. The set design again by Romaniuk is inventive and clever, traveling horizontally from one corner to the other side of space with lots of entrances and exits to discover as the play evolves. David Walters, lighting his hundredth show with Queensland Theatre, brings an effervescent glow to the lighting design. Together with sound design/composition by Max Lambert and Brady Watkins, the design will transport any and all audience members back to the Paris of 1899.
There’s an old saying that theatre is a writer’s medium and film is a director’s medium and if that is true it seriously undervalues the role in which direction plays in theatre. The script of Bernhardt/Hamlet is a beast that many a great director would buckle under the pressure of. Thankfully Lee Lewis, artistic director of Queensland Theatre, directs this show with aplomb. From moment one, the tonal balance on display is remarkable and the way the technical design elements work together throughout is extraordinary. The whole play moves from scene to scene quickly with a precision only possible thanks to the deft touch of Lewis’s direction.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, “Brevity is the soul of wit” and while this play is not brief, each minute of it is full to the brim with complex thought and debate. Much like the famed Dane, Rebeck’s play asks us endless questions. What makes Hamlet, Hamlet? What is the role of women in the theatre? Do we even need Hamlet anymore? How important is authenticity? Do actors have the right to change the text? And that is just a few.
‘Berhardt/Hamlet’ performs until Saturday, 18 June 2022 at the Bille Brown Theatre in South Brisbane. To book your ticket visit the Queensland Theatre website.
Photography by Brett Boardman