How do you solve a problem like playing Bernhardt?

Sarah Bernhardt might not be as well-known as an innovative actress as Mary Pickford or Mae
West, but she certainly should be.

The pioneering French performer and maverick was ahead of her Victorian and Edwardian time in many ways.

She was the world’s first global superstar, and a proto-feminist.

On the Brink Theatre presents their play C’est La Vie: Sarah Bernhardt and Me in Barnes next week, exploring the life of this trailblazer in a suitably unconventional way.

Female actors had been performing men for hundreds of years, but before Bernhardt, they often felt the pressure to present these characters in a feminine way.

But when she became the very first woman to play Hamlet, she played the role in the same way that a man would.

The reviews were mixed, but one review said: “Madame Bernhardt’s assumption of masculinity is so cleverly carried out that one loses sight of Hamlet in one’s admiration for the tour de force of the actress.”

And Mark Twain said: “There are five kinds of actresses: bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses — and then there is Sarah Bernhardt.”

So she paved the way for the gender-blind casting that is a feature of modern-day theatre.

Bernhardt’s unconventional nature gave her both a bizarre reputation and global fame.

Shewas one of the first modern celebrities: she endorsed products, including soap and clothing. But her mysterious and reclusive private life led to strange rumours, including the belief that she slept in a coffin.

C’est La Vie deals with Berhardt’s complex nature by having its central performer, Hilary Tones, play an actress trying to understand Sarah.

Star Tones (Wire in the Blood, Bliss!, Casualty, EastEnders, The Bill) said: “As a child, I used to strike poses in the mirror and my parents would go ‘Here she comes, Sarah Bernhardt! That has always stayed with me. She is known as an overdramatic actress for modern taste.

“But she was one of the first stars of feature-length films, playing Elizabeth I in 1912.

“She went down very well in England after being introduced to England by Ellen Terry.”

This one-woman show, described as “a bravura performance… a gem on an evening” by LondonTheatre1 , looks at her life but also considers the difficulty of playing a real person, who actually lived and died, on the stage.

C’est La Vie: Sarah Bernhardt and Me is at the Old Sorting Office Arts Centre from Tuesday
January 22-Thursday Jan 24 at 8pm. Tickets can be booked online, or by calling the OSO Box
Office at 020 8876 9885.

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