After Sarah Bernhardt: Frances de la Tour’s 1979 performance as Hamlet

Performing Hamlet cover imageJonathan Croall’s new book, Performing Hamlet, gives a decade-by-decade look (starting in the 1950s) at iconic performances of one of Shakespeare’s most well-known characters.

The book, published this summer by Bloomsbury in The Arden Shakespeare series, also contains the theater historian’s in-depth interviews with five distinguished actors who have played Hamlet in the 21st century: Jude Law, Simon Russell Beale, David Tennant, Maxine Peake, and Adrian Lester.

The excerpt below is about Frances de la Tour’s performance as Hamlet four decades ago, directed by Robert Walker at the Half Moon Theatre in London’s East End. See images from the production as well as interviews with the cast and creative team on the Stages of Half Moon website.

In 1979, in a promenade production at the Half Moon, Frances de la Tour became the first woman to play Hamlet on the English stage since Sarah Bernhardt, the idol of the French theatre, had famously taken on the role in 1899, playing a French adaptation in Paris, London and New York, and a single performance in Stratford.

The tradition went back to the late eighteenth century, with leading actresses demanding to play the role. Those who took on the part included Sarah Siddons in 1775, the first female Hamlet; the American actress Charlotte Cushman in 1861, who also played Romeo and other male roles; and in the 1880s Isabella Pateman. Bernhardt argued provocatively that the role was more suitable for a mature woman – she was 54 – than an immature man, since ‘The woman more readily looks the part, yet has the maturity of mind to grasp it.’ Critics were scathing, stating that her cocking her legs up on a couch, her ‘manly stride’ and ‘gruff howlings’, suggested an ‘angry elderly woman’ rather than a ‘young and emotional man’. In 2014 Maxine Peake carried on the tradition at the Manchester Royal Exchange.

In 2016 de la Tour recalled:

I didn’t approach the part as a woman, I just studied the role as any actor would. I was dressed in trousers and jacket, so I could be seen as androgynous. My hair was long and curly and I wore no make-up, so I was just a young person. I think audiences readily believed this from the first soliloquy. I was told later that I became quite feminine when I was with the male actors, for example when I greeted Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. But I didn’t know that at the time.

Director Robert Walker explained: ‘I wanted a radical re-working of the play, to forge a new language. Frankie was utterly remarkable, it was so powerful what she did. She played it as a woman playing a man, and it was a wonderful embodiment of the role.’ Michael Billington agreed: ‘She is tough, abrasive, virile and impassioned’; he noted ‘a good performance, compact with every male virtue except femininity’. But Milton Shulman was critical: ‘She speaks most of the poetry on a one-note nasal pitch and, in her final death throes, tottered about so long she was in danger of being given a breathalyser test.’

As the Half Moon was in the process of moving within the East End, and there were no seats as the new theatre was not yet ready, they staged Hamlet as a promenade performance. Three separate stages were placed around the edges, with the actors moving through the audience to the relevant stage, sometimes having to shift people off it before they could start a scene. ‘It was a very involving production,’ de la Tour remembered. ‘The audience could touch us.’

With little money available there was a need to improvise. ‘The set was built out of driftwood picked up on the shores of the Thames, and that became the battlements. It looked a million dollars on the outside, but close to it looked manky and rotten – which worked brilliantly with the play.’ Iona McLeish, the costume designer, wanted to create a raw feel. ‘We got hold of old coats, sheets, any fabrics we could find, from Brick Lane and other markets,’ she said. ‘Then we slashed them, in order to create an Elizabethan effect.’

Many people from the nearby flats came to the show. In order to further involve the local community, Walker recruited local children to play some of the Players, and invited children from Tower Hamlets, most of whom had never been to the theatre, to come to the production. De la Tour remembered the result: ‘When I was waiting by the side of the stage for my next entrance they would come and talk to me. They would ask me questions about the story, such as: “Why did your father die?” and “Why do you want to kill your uncle?” I loved that.’

She was less happy when during one performance a group of 13–14-year-old schoolgirls started to laugh, apparently at seeing a female Hamlet.

I was holding a pretend candle at the time. I stopped the show and said to them: ‘You see this candle. It’s not real: I turn it on with a battery. We’re pretending, we’re telling a story. If it’s difficult for you to watch a woman playing a man, I will completely understand. If you would like to go you must feel free to do so, and if you stay that would be great’. It was a risk, but I think it worked – just about.

She felt the rough-and-ready quality of the setting was appropriate: ‘The state of Denmark was falling apart, and so was the building, so everything echoed its breakdown. We had a skeleton structure, and rough clothes, even though we were royalty. There was a rebellious spirit, some of the men wore make-up, and Maggie Steed as Gertrude showed her breasts, which was very shocking.’ She underlined the experimental nature of the work at the Half Moon. ‘They were very special productions, innovative plays being staged in small spaces. Out of that came the Donmar, the Almeida, the King’s Head and similar venues.’

Excerpted from Performing Hamlet: Actors in the Modern Age. Copyright (c) 2018 Jonathan Croall. Used with permission of The Arden Shakespeare.

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