The Divine Mrs S ★★★ Hampstead Theatre | Mar 22 - Apr 27, 2024

Sarah Siddons was the most influential actress of her day. She was famed for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth and has been credited with the creation of the modern notion of celebrity. Borrowing an epithet most often associated with Sarah Bernhardt, playwright April De Angelis contrasts how Mrs Siddons is celebrated on stage but is confined by both her gender and her marital status when off. She is patronised by her actor/manager brother and her money is taken by her estranged and philandering husband. In the theatre, Siddons may experience power over her audience, but in real life she is subject to the patriarchal hierarchy of her time. This point is made obviously and repeatedly throughout the play which presents the great tragedienne's life in an almost farcical style. While the show exists in a historical context it is not bound, linguistically or factually, by that reality. The plot and characters recall a Regency comedy. They are representations of types, bearing little relation to real people. Siddons is the vain, manipulative self-obsessed diva who speaks of herself in the third person while her brother is a bombastic, chauvinistic ham who bellows on stage and off. The other characters are equally one-dimensional. There's the foolish, easily bamboozled shrew of a censor who does her husband's job, the lecherous painter, and the popinjay critic. All the characters are played for easy laughs while the melodrama plot focusses on a female playwright, Joanna Baillie, who is abused and undermined in a male-dominated milieu. Nevertheless, Siddons recognises the writer, Baillie, as someone who can create strong female characters for an actress to play and champions her. In The Divine Mrs S, De Angelis invokes various genres, and within the play, both on and off stage, the actors maintain the broad brushstroke style of the acting common to the period. This is a show with a clear humorous appeal, and it uses Siddons' life and situation to offer some perceptive insights into the roles of women, both past and present.

Rated: ★★★

Reviewed by J.C.
Photo by Johan Persson

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