Possibly my only encounter with the life of Sarah Bernhardt prior to seeing this production was when she was mentioned some years ago in a church sermon in West London, during which the minister, a former member of the Royal Ballet, wished to admonish his parishioners to strive to be the best they can be. It seemed a suitable setting to hear about someone who retained the Catholic faith since her days at a convent school. Bernhardt was an example of someone who enjoyed a long and distinguished career, which included stage acting, stage management, performing in motion pictures and book writing.
But C’est La Vie – Sarah Bernhardt And Me almost inevitably covers aspects of Bernhardt’s life that a religious homily would prefer not to say too much about. Bernhardt (Hilary Tones, who also plays herself), slept with a Belgian gentleman, producing an illegitimate child, and these were the days when being described as a ‘gentleman’ indicated significant nobility. And yes, it’s a grammatically dubious title that should really have ended in ‘And I’ – but, you know, ‘c’est la vie’.
It was certainly an illustrious life, with Tones reeling off dates, productions, tours and events in Bernhardt’s personal affairs in between snippets of performances Bernhardt received positive criticism for. It may be slightly unorthodox, as this production is, to be reliant on as many biographical accounts and books on stage, as well as some prompting from, well, the prompter, but given its subject had a professional career that began in 1862 and ended in 1923, it’s understandable. There’s nothing wrong with getting all the facts and details absolutely right.
There’s some innovative use of projections that enhance the play, a good range of video and still images. It’s worth mentioning a short silent film, complete with speech cards, delivering the sort of hilarity such pictures were famed for. There are voiceovers of auditioning producers, critics and family members, and the whole thing is delivered with clarity and moderation. Perhaps most importantly, absolutely no prior knowledge of Sarah Bernhardt is required to follow proceedings in this play.
Being a staged performance about a stage actress, there’s much to be enjoyed by those with an interest in the various aspects of theatre that come together to make a production work. I suspect some of it is very relatable to other actors and actresses, especially when Tones finally makes it to her audition and must put up with overly zealous time constraints and a far from soundproof audition room. The backdrop of an audition process helps to make the presented findings come across as a balanced view rather than a rose-tinted one: Tones’ research into Bernhardt is, within the context of the production, all in the name of securing a job.
Some of the monologues were delivered entirely in French, which I really didn’t mind at all, despite not even having a GCSE in the language. I switched to German, finding its grammatical constructs easier to grasp. Given the choice, I’d have ditched languages altogether purely because it wasn’t something I was good at. But this was back in the days when studying a modern foreign language was compulsory. Here, put simply, it was all about the performance, the mannerisms, the emotions, and the emphasis on certain words – one still gets the gist of it, rather like watching opera in its original Italian. All things considered, this is a fascinating account of a celebrated life.
Review by Chris Omaweng
‘C’est La Vie – Sarah Bernhardt and Me’ tells the story of the celebrated and pioneering 19th Century French actress who performed all over the world, becoming the first global superstar. Her sensuality and emotion captured the hearts and imagination of British audiences from London to Edinburgh, Portsmouth to Nottingham, who thrilled to her vivid ‘Frenchness’.
This seventy-minute show incorporates film, music and authentic costumes and is suitable for anyone interested in theatre life – on stage and behind the scenes.
Following a sell-out run at The Camden Fringe Festival 2017 at Cecil Sharp House, On The Brink Theatre invites you to join Sarah as she travels the UK and shares her extraordinary life and legacy once again…