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C’est La Vie…

by on 23 January 2019

Captivating Canards

C’est La Vie… Sarah Bernhardt and Me

by Hilary Tones

On The Brink Theatre at OSO Arts Centre Barnes until 24th January then on tour

A Review by Eleanor Marsh

“Sarah Bernhardt lied… she lied about everything”, is one of the first statements on the programme written by Hilary Tones, Author and Performer of this piece. And thus the scene is set: everything we are about to see may or not be true. It’s a good device, allowing much potential for artistic licence and guaranteeing that at least one audience member determined to read more about Ms Bernhardt post-show. My Amazon order has just been completed.

cest vie 3

And what an entertaining life Bernhardt (may have) had. We discover tales of train crashes, courtesans, 19th century PR and a life lived in the global spotlight. Some of these tales are related direct to the audience, some illustrated with “silent movie” style projections and some illustrated by excerpts from some of Bernhardt’s famous performances. Of the latter, the “salad days” speech from Antony and Cleopatra was particularly effective and I was also moved by the French pieces. I do not speak a word of French but Ms Tones is a fine actress and proved – as did Bernhardt before her – that language need not be a barrier to understanding.

c'est vie 1-graham-bennettMs Tones has quite obviously done her homework to properly research her subject. The temper tantrums, unconventional background, lack of respect for authority and legendary wooden leg are all covered. But where, amongst the delightful set comprising Art Nouveau screens, glamorous dressing gowns and the obligatory French absinthe was the coffin …? Perhaps it was too difficult to manage in practical terms but I for one was waiting to see La Bernhardt learning her lines or rehearsing in possibly the most famous bed in theatrical history. Would I have missed it had there not been so much other “set”? Probably not, but as we had a chaise longue, screens, dressing table, chest, etc. it did seem to be the missing elephant in the room. Which brings me to the argument “storytelling” vs “acting”:

cest vie 4This play uses both. The initial plot device is that of an actress (we are led to believe Ms Tomes herself) en route to an audition for the role of Sarah Bernhardt. The storytelling element of the play continues as we hear about the research she’s undertaken and her quandary in choosing the correct monologue with which to audition. It’s a nice plot device and an easy way for the audience to relax into the performance. The tube journey projected behind the action, though, is a distraction and on opening night at OSO appeared to be as distracting for Ms Tones as it was for the audience. It is a relief when we meet the actual Bernhardt and the action really begins. This is when our actress seems to be at her most comfortable. As Bernhardt – and a range of her contemporaries – Hilary Tones shines. As herself (if indeed it is herself that she is portraying) she seems less sure and much more reticent; the feeling that she is deliberately holding back is palpable.

It is such a difficult thing to both write and perform a piece and ensure balance. When the subject matter is such a dramatic character in every sense of the word it makes perfect sense that the dramatic “acting” will win out over a more relaxed storytelling style and without more depth to the character of the Actress this it does. The Actress remains purely a device to introduce us to the larger than life phenomenon that was Sarah Bernhardt and on balance I think this is the right way to play the piece. And did we need the coffin? No we did not. Neither does Ms Tones require the distraction of too much back projection and lengthy costume changes. Her acting is beautiful to watch and should be admired for the talent it is without the need to dress it up unnecessarily.

This play is thoroughly engaging, entertaining and educational – Brava!

Eleanor Marsh
January 2019

Photography by Graham Bennett and Sam Parks

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