Sarah Bernhardt died in 1923, over a hundred years ago, yet her legend still lives on. In the late 19th century, she was known as a successful, controversial French actress. She played over 70 roles in 125 plays including La Dame aux Camelias by Alexandre Dumas, which was censored in Britain in 1880 as well as portraying Hamlet in 1899; pushing the gender boundaries of the time. Off stage, Bernhardt knew how to command the press and the attention of the world, crafting herself as an eccentric by owning a pet Cheetah and practicing her lines lying in a coffin.

As actor and writer of ‘SARAH Quand Même’ Susie Lindeman must not only authentically embody this infamous woman but captivate the audience well enough to take us on the journey of her life. Lindeman does the former with ease, utilising glamorous dresses and lace gowns and moving elegantly around a set adorned with red velvet furniture. The latter proves to be an unachievable task for a one woman play.

Lindeman introduces Sarah, by hopping daintily on discarded paper to the centre of the stage and muses, "Être ou ne pas être…telle est la question". She helpfully translates in a thick French accent, “To be or not to be, that is the question”.

Lindeman suddenly flips into a child, addressing Bernhardt as ‘grand-mère. She is Lysiane, the 13-year-old granddaughter, asking for a story from her mysterious and sophisticated grandmother.

The sudden split of character is captivating, yet confusing, as Lindeman portrays Sarah Bernhardt in a wistful and childish tone, and Lysiane’s as far more infantile than thirteen. For a one woman show which relies solely on the portrayal of these two characters, this lack of clarity has a jarring effect.

The fervent commitment to showcasing how Bernhardt applied her motto ‘Quand même’ meaning ‘despite all!’ to her life is clear. Lindeman successfully shows that the rebellious side of Bernhardt’s nature was evident in childhood, who upon being sent to Covent school, wanted to become a nun, by shouting, ‘And who cares if I’m Jewish!’. As adult Sarah, she explores the questionable ownership of a pet Cheetah by stroking an animal print coat against her body. This side of Bernhardt’s bizarre life is portrayed with great comic effect.

For the rest of the 90-minute play, Lindeman recounts tale after scandalous tale of Bernhardt’s life; detailing her turbulent acting career that in its peaks took her around the world, being adored by the likes of Oscar Wilde, D.H Lawrence and Henry Irving and at its troughs resulted in a dismissal from the Comédie-Française for slapping a senior actress.

DH Lawrence wrote of Sarah as, ‘wonderful and terrible … she is not pretty, her voice is not sweet, but there is the incarnation of wild emotion that we share with all living things.’ I think the same can be said of Susie Lindeman’s depiction.

Overall, the pace of the play does not keep enough momentum to tackle the sheer volume of Sarah’s stories of scandal and success. Nonetheless Lindeman’s interpretation of her is heartwarming. At the end of the play, the audience hummed with admiration, and I felt inspired to live more fearlessly, ‘quand même’!

Photo credit: Darren Struwig