‘You are not just one thing.’
That is the statement that Kate Mulvany’s character, legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt is trying to make. The greatest actress of her time, Sarah is tired of being type-cast into roles that society expect her to fill and portray with sexuality and ease. She wants a change, a challenge, and to pursue and conquer Hamlet. But William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is complicated, the exposition is lengthy, and she wants to make the role her own. Society and her peers have other opinions though.
At the same time, Sarah is broke and is in love with a married man who just so happens to be Edmond Rostand (Charles Wu), a promising and talented playwright. Edmond wants to make a name for himself too, and to cement his legacy through his work. But his muse, that of which inspires him, is also the very obstacle standing in his way of greatness.
Melbourne Theatre Company’s Bernhardt/Hamlet is a tough nut to crack and there’s a lot to unpack. Written by Theresa Rebeck and directed by MTC’s Artistic Director Anne-Louse Sarks in her directorial debut, this play boldly explores topics of gender, art, love, and equality. Its set and appearance makes it look like we’re watching a work in progress being created right before our eyes, very clever.
The symbiotic relationship between actor, playwright, artist, and critic are all discussed here while Sarah’s decisions are glaringly observed, picked up, torn apart, chewed up, spat out, thrown up again, is relentless battered, and purposefully so. Is this how it is for any industry to function when it is about the craft of a woman?
All of it is incredibly frustrating. How can she play Hamlet? Why is a woman playing Hamlet? What can she bring to Hamlet? But these are not the right questions. It is much deeper than that. What we really should be asking is, “Why are men so terrified of powerful women?”.
There are moments where I felt like a fly on the wall and extremely uncomfortable to be in the room, especially in a scene where Sarah is hosting her guests who are her ‘friends’. But not one of them shows any decent amount of support that a real friend should. The word ‘toxicity’ comes to mind.
While the cast are all talented, including Marco Chiappi who is fantastic as Constant Coquelin, commanding the stage with his charisma and presence to the point where I didn’t want him to leave it. And for the fleeting moments that they were, I was captivated by Tahlee Fereday’s Lysette and Izabella Yena’s Rosamond. I also enjoyed Charles Wu in the role of Edmond, I could feel his continuous pull in both directions between his drive and his heart. His character wasn’t exactly likeable, but I believe I still could understand his position.
The standout of this production however is none other than Kate Muvany herself. I just couldn’t help but feel frustrated watching Muvany’s Sarah just cling onto her sanity, identity, and creative freedom, while attempting to get to know the work she is supposed to portray, completely in love with someone she shouldn’t be in love with, and falling apart on the inside.
I must also commend Marg Horwell for her costume design, the white shirt and attached black lantern sleeves for Sarah’s character, that whole outfit would look at home at an Alexander McQueen fashion show. Stunning.
The more I think about MTC’s Bernhardt/Hamlet, the more astonished I am by it, and the more I like it. But admittedly that wasn’t my initial reaction. Nothing is ever really concluded here. Well, it doesn’t feel like anything is. I found it very hard to relate to any of the characters as they all seemed selfish in some shape or form. But perhaps maybe that was the point. Granted, these characters are based on real people, but the play itself, like Shakespeare, feels very lengthy and I was fading more than following.
There are topics of love in this production but I can’t say I was feeling any of it. However, I understand not all theatrical performances are made for making people feel good. I am still trying to process what I witnessed and wish that I had more people to discuss it with as it is very thought provoking. MTC’s Bernhardt/Hamlet was clearly created to make people think, and even further, talk.
MTC’s Bernhardt/Hamlet is now playing at Melbourne’s Southbank Theatre until April 15th.
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Photography by Pia Johnson.