Theatre Review: Bernhardt/Hamlet (Melbourne Theatre Company, Melborune) ★★★★

Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet is probing gender politics and a brilliant showcase for Kate Mulvany in Melbourne Theatre Company’s rambunctious new production. 

Sarah Bernhardt (Mulvany), the Meryl Streep of the late 19th and early 20th century, is looking for a new challenge to suit her towering talents now that she’s aging out playing ingénues. So she decides to throw off all convention and take on the greatest role in history, Shakespeare’s Hamlet! She may have bitten off more than she can chew as the establishment baulks at a woman playing a male role, and she struggles to understand Shakespeare’s most elusive protagonist. But Bernhardt has a plan, to get playwright and lover, Edmond Rostand (Charles Wu) to simply rewrite the script.

Kate Mulvany and William McKenna in Bernhardt/Hamlet. Photo credit: Pia Johnson.

Mark Twain wrote: “There are five kinds of actresses: bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses – and then there is Sarah Bernhardt”, setting the stage for a major showcase role for a performer to portray her. Thankfully, Mulvany is a force of nature here, playing with Bernhardt’s talent, sensuality and humour to form a character that is a complex mix of ego, ambition, and emotional need. Watching the sensual Bernhardt wrestle to get under the skin of the moody Prince of Denmark sees layers upon layers of performance slowly peeled away. The question isn’t simply one of “can a woman convincingly play a male role”, it is specifically “can this vibrant actress ever comprehend the psychology of the cerebral and wordy Hamlet”?

To get there, Rebeck debates the differences between male and female performers, while the play hints at Bernhardt’s rumoured queer liaisons but ultimately focuses on how women are viewed through the male lens. Bernhardt’s power comes from the way men adore her, but that same view limits her own scope.

Marco Chiappi and Kate Mulvany in Bernhardt/Hamlet. Photo credit: Pia Johnson.

The first act is amusing but a little slowly paced, however it sets the scene for a second act that is pure fire. Marco Chiappi absolutely nails his role as Constant Coquelin, an underestimated, ageing actor in Bernhardt’s company who flips from comedy to drama and back again in an instant. His performance is filled with a masterful restraint, until the final scenes where he is allowed to fully unleash his skills. Charles Wu gives us a compelling conflicted lover and William McKenna delivers an adoringly foppish Maurice, Bernhardt’s son.

MTC Artistic Director Anne-Louise Sarks, who directed this production, layers the pieces together, letting the relationships form slowly in the first act before they’re tested in the second. Similarly Marg Horwell’s set and costume design begins in an almost two dimension space before blooming into a maximalist vision, only to all be stripped away later in a truly jaw-dropping moment. 

Kate Mulvany and William McKenna in Bernhardt/Hamlet. Photo: Pia Johnson

While the humour may be gentle and the gag rate slow for a modern comedy, the concepts at play here are anything but. With excellent performances across the board, and a central showstopping turn by Mulvany, Bernhardt/Hamlet is terrific theatre.

By Chad Armstrong

Bernhardt/Hamlet plays at the Melbourne Theatre Company, Australia from March 4th – April 15th, 2023. Click here for tickets and more information.

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