Review: There are Bad Plays, Good Plays, and Bernhardt/Hamlet


“There are five kinds of actresses: bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses–and then there is Sarah Bernhardt.”

Walking into the Southbank theatre, I’ll admit that I didn’t know what I was expecting, nor did I have an inkling as to what I’d write or feel walking out of it. I’m no theatre or comedy expert by any means. This is also the first play I’ve watched since two lonely plays back in 2019, one of which I fell asleep midway through, and one I loved so much I convinced my best friend to spend $50 a pop for tickets to watch it again with me. Yet, despite my lack of technical knowledge of theatre, Bernhardt/Hamlet blew my unrealised expectations out of the water with its comedy, acting and cast.

The story takes place in Paris, in 1899, where legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt (Kate Mulvany) reigns with mass critic praise, is internationally renowned and… broke. To turn her fortunes around, she sets her sights on the only role worthy of the greatest actress of all time, Hamlet, breaking stereotypes and the expectations the world and the people around her have placed on her in the process.

Throughout the play, we see Kate Mulvany truly bring the character of Sarah Bernhardt to life; we see Sarah as she takes on her most challenging role to date, Hamlet, and how she struggles to make the character her own amidst laughter, jokes and the unmistaken feeling of not being recognised as who you are as a person.

While it starts light-hearted, poking fun at the Shakespeare classic, we soon come to realise that Sarah Bernhardt isn’t just trying to play Hamlet; she’s trying to be Hamlet—and the only way she can become Hamlet is to truly become herself first. She grapples to make sense of Hamlet’s never-ending monologues, and even goes so far as to try and write out the poetry in an attempt to make the play all the more unique to her own personality.

I know, I know. I can already imagine the swarms of theatre-, poetry- and Shakespeare-snobs physically gagging at the idea of such an atrocity—but I think that’s the point. Sarah isn’t trying to fit into the mould the rest of the world has placed her in; she’s trying to break it in a way that has never been seen before, in more ways than one.

It should be noted that Hamlet is a play seeped in tragedy—his father dies, and when he returns as a ghost, Hamlet finds out his father was murdered by his uncle, and then he kills himself. Simplified, of course. The point is that nobody watches or reads Hamlet expecting a happy ending, nor do they expect to feel anything other than melancholy and helplessness. The fact that this was the play Sarah Bernhardt chose to reinvent herself goes to show the inner turmoil she is going through as a character. To then juxtapose this with the comedy and laughter littered throughout the play, it’s safe to say that Bernhardt/Hamlet exceeded my expectations and brought a smile to my face throughout.

The chemistry between actors was palpable. I was on the verge of yelling, “now, kiss!” when Sarah’s love interest was introduced on stage, even before their relationship was revealed. And while some jokes fell flat for me personally, many made me chuckle, and some even made me laugh out loud!

Overall, this play is worth watching and rich in pure entertainment. It served as the perfect first theatre experience for me after so long. Bernhardt/Hamlet is showing from now until the 15th of April at the Southbank Theatre, The Sumner, so be sure to get yourself a ticket and catch it while you still can!

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