Directing Bernhardt/Hamlet

Melbourne Theatre Company

Melbourne Theatre Company Artistic Director & Co-CEO Anne-Louise Sarks discusses her approach to bringing Bernhardt/Hamlet to life on stage.

What is the world of this play?

The world of this play is late 1890s Paris, when the real-life Sarah Bernhardt, the most famous actress in the world at that time, was preparing to play the title role in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, onstage. Sarah Bernhardt was a French actress of Dutch Jewish heritage who was extremely popular in her native France but also toured the world, including England, America and Australia, in plays such as Iphegenia, Medea and La Dame aux Camelias. The play Bernhardt/Hamlet shifts between Sarah’s newly acquired theatre, where she is in rehearsals for Hamlet, and the streets and cafes of Paris, the centre of significant cultural and economic growth during a period known as La Belle Époque. Having played Ophelia three times, Sarah has decided to play Hamlet himself – a huge creative and financial risk for herself – and the story explores how the people closest to her respond to such a bold choice.

How has your research into the contexts of the play informed your artistic choices so far?

Sarah Bernhardt is a fascinating historical subject for a theatre piece. She was not only a world-famous actress, perhaps the very first one, but also an entrepreneur and an early adopter of mass media who understood how to harness the power of an image to promote herself. She gave the artist, Alphonse Mucha, a six-year contract to paint all of the promotional images for her shows after being impressed by his poster for her Gismonda. She would send posters ahead of her on her international tours to attract attention and would make them available for collectors to buy. Some examples of Mucha’s posters feature in our production and are an excellent example of the Art Nouveau style of the time. Art Nouveau is characterised by curved forms from the natural world, such as plants and flowers, and developed as a response to the overly formal academic styles of the time. Those aesthetics are also something that informed the design process with my set and costume designer, Marg Horwell, one of my frequent collaborators. There are lots of elements from the natural world that make their way onto the Hamlet rehearsal set and into the costuming of the characters as their 1890s selves.

How would you describe the theatre style in which you’re directing this play?

The script, written by contemporary American playwright Theresa Rebeck uses contemporary language and a linear chronology to tell Sarah’s story of staging Hamlet. I have chosen to direct this play in a heightened naturalistic style. The style is not straightforwardly naturalistic as the language, though modern, is a little bit heightened and theatrical. In contrast, there are moments when we see Sarah Bernhardt and her fellow actors in rehearsals for Hamlet and in those scenes, we explore the more formal and stylised acting conventions of the time. Sarah was famous for her expressive poses and gestures so Kate Mulvany, who plays Sarah, and I have worked together to incorporate some of those poses for which Sarah was so famous. A lot of those gestures can be seen in melodrama, a style of acting and performance which has fallen out of favour but was very much in use in the 1800s, and we have taken inspiration from that to inform those rehearsal scenes.

What is something that you’re wanting to emphasise in this production?

I am very interested in the contemporary resonances of the experiences of a historical woman – a trailblazer and a superstar – and the challenges that she faces in achieving her goals. Throughout the play, some of the other characters question whether Sarah can do Hamlet justice – or even play him at all. Even though they all acknowledge Sarah is an extraordinarily gifted actor and that she’s played other male roles, fundamentally, their lack of belief comes down to the fact that she’s a woman. Although the play is set in Paris in the 1890s, the challenges that Sarah faces because of her gender, her determination in the face of them, and her joy at engaging with the process of creative discovery speak very much to today.

Bernhardt/Hamlet is on stage until 15 April at Southbank Theatre.

Header image: Director Anne-Louise Sarks and Sahil Saluja in the Bernhardt/Hamlet rehearsal room. Photo: Charlie Kinross