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C’est La Vie – Hilary Tones and me… Lauren Gauge interviews an acclaimed British actress whose goal is to revive a celebrated French superstar.

C'est La Vie – Sarah Bernhardt and Me, is a new one-woman show coming to Off West End’s Katzpace this week. Acclaimed British actress of BBC, RSC, and West End repute, Hilary Tones has written it, and her husband the equally acclaimed and accomplished actor, Sam Parks, perhaps best known as Fred Dale in Silent Witness, directs. Tones has graced the stages of The Vaudeville and The Globe, working with Mark Rylance and Vanessa Redgrave (as too has Parks), but is just as enthralled making theatre at the Manchester Royal Exchange and most recently with Hull Truck Theatre. What excites her most is the thrill of a one-on-one encounter with an intimate Off West End audience… Lucky audiences that pack out Southwark’s newest Off West End venue will be able to enjoy her one-woman spectacular based on the life the extraordinary, fierce and original ‘strong woman’, Sarah Bernhardt from 14th January – 23rd January, before they head out on a similarly intimate and exotic tour…

‘C’est La Vie – Sarah Bernhardt and Me’ tells the story of the celebrated and pioneering 19th Century French actress who performed all over the world, becoming the first global superstar. Her sensuality and emotion captured the hearts and imagination of British audiences from London to Edinburgh, Portsmouth to Nottingham, who thrilled to her vivid ‘Frenchness’.

This seventy-minute show incorporates film, music and authentic costumes and will surely beguile anyone interested in theatre life – on stage and behind the scenes. Following a sell-out run at The Camden Fringe Festival 2017 at Cecil Sharp House, On The Brink Theatre invite audiences to join Sarah as she travels the World and shares her extraordinary life and legacy once again…

Hilary you’re no newcomer to one-woman shows having performed in the one-woman show Shirley Valentine at the Derby Playhouse 10 years ago. In contrast, what’s it like performing a one-woman show that you have also written, what are the differences in terms of making the show and speaking someone else’s lines in comparison to your own?

HT: It is interesting because it becomes someone else’s words once they’ve been written down on the page. I find that a bit strange, because I thought I would know them as my words. But they take on a life of their own, except I can cut and rearrange things as I go. Since performing at the Camden Fringe I’ve seen how to develop the text and makes things better. Doing Shirley Valentine was so fantastic because I realised the immediacy of a one-woman show, you absolutely directly related to the audience. That’s what I wanted to feel again, that wonderful connection with an audience. I am really looking forward to performing is at Katzpace – it a wonderful space and Sarah will come alive in that space.

Sarah Bernhardt is a fascinating character to base your story on. The illegitimate daughter of a Jewish prostitute, she first achieved notoriety while still a teenager: she lost her first job with the prestigious Comédie-Française theatre, after refusing to apologise for slapping its star. What was it that drew you to write about her in particular?

HT: My parents always used to call me Sarah Bernhardt. “Here she comes, Sarah Bernhardt”, dressing up like little girls do, floating around in veils, dancing around and being over-dramatic, apparently. So, her name was always fixed in my consciousness. I’ve come across other women who have said, “Oh yes, my parents used to call me Sarah Bernhardt too!” So, all those years ago there must have been a memory of her, which has now been lost. Younger people don’t know about Sarah Bernhardt and that’s why I thought it would be great to bring her back. The stories of her are fantastic and it’s amazing that no one has discovered them and made a film of her. She was wild! She continued to be a wild child through to her death aged 79 – she was still filming a film when she died.

She was fierce. I find it incredible that we haven’t heard of her in the context of gender-blind casting because she played the first female Hamlet on film. It’s bizarre that she hasn’t come up what with the likes of Maxine Peake, Tamsin Greig, and Michelle Terry potentially taking on Hamlet in her first season as Artistic Director at The Globe. It’s amazing that Bernhardt’s name hasn’t come back with more of a punch…

HT: Exactly. The time is right for a resurgence of her. People have now forgotten Ellen Terry. I was inspired to write this when I saw Eileen Atkins’ one-woman show at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre a couple of years ago about Ellen Terry, and she mentioned Sarah Bernhardt. I thought, wow, Sarah Bernhardt was so important to British culture. She travelled all over the British Isles; she should be known as part of our culture, even though she only ever performed in French.

English actresses have to ‘behave’ but this French wild child because she was performing classical playwrights was allowed to be an artform that you could go and see with propriety, but she performed it in such a sensual way that is was fascinating to a British audience.

So, Sam, you have a lot on your shoulders to evoke for a new audience! As a director you’re working closely with Hilary as both writer and performer in the rehearsal room, what constructs or approaches have you put in place to get the best out of those relationships and roles in rehearsals?

SP: This is the first time that I have directed Hilary, but as a husband and wife duo there is a huge familiarity with each other and we have also worked on stage together, which is how we met. I know what Hilary can do and offer, but she also still surprises me. It’s her show, her words and she knows the subject material in greater depth, so my role is drawing out the themes that are going to hit home with the audience and some of the choices Hilary makes. It’s quite useful for her for me to be the confused member of the audience, so if something doesn’t quite make sense to me then I can bring that up and we can address it.

It may seem like a simple one-woman show with a set, but it is a big story and the structure of it is very interesting. We weave two narratives – that of an actress in the present day going to her audition, and that of the icon, Sarah Bernhardt’s life – and the bits we think are fantastically interesting, intriguing or baffling will stand out to audiences.
She was an extraordinary woman and did things first. People who see it at Katzpace can go away and look these things up or speak to us afterwards. I guide the balance of the two narratives so you can connect with Sarah through the actress and vice versa. Even people who aren’t performers will relate as they have inevitably had the excitement and trepidation of interviews and that’s a lot of fun to play with – going between the two.

HT: We have both worked a lot with fantastic directors and companies. I’ve just come back from working with Hull Truck’s Artistic Director, Mark Babych, which was a fantastic experience working with a director who really wants to collaborate. Not all directors are like that. I wanted to carry on in that spirit. This project of ours means we have to call on all aspects of our knowledge, across design, make-up, wardrobe. What has been wonderful is that we have to decide every piece of furniture, every way of speaking, every image and projection. It has been a wonderful experience and I can now go back to working with other directors appreciating the work of all those other departments having enjoyed exercising our abilities and getting them seen.

You’re incorporating film, music and period costume into the piece; what’s the purpose behind that and with that Victorian element of the backdrop how are you going to ignite the audience with the same vigour that Sarah did in those times, and that a more contemporary audience might expect in these times?

HT: We are very excited by the costume; it really has to be shown to get the flavour of the times. The film element brings a great context to her behaviour that makes her stand out as a woman of many firsts, because she is very relatable and contemporary in that sense.

To get the flavour of the 19th century there are several costume changes in this short hour piece and we have made a very short silent movie to show one particular scene, when Sarah came back from touring America in 1880 and her second female lead had been secretly writing about her travels and sneering at Sarah, calling her Sarah Barnham – like the circus. Sarah found this out when they got back to Paris. She was furious and went around to Marie Columbier’s apartment with a dagger and a whip and scared the girl away and wrecked the apartment. We want to use technology and media to really tell the story of her life in the best most dramatic medium.

SP: The selection of music we use is rooted in the period in Sarah’s life to act as triggers to introduce a scene, or a scene shift from City to Country, or to another period in in Sarah’s life. We have La Marseillaise playing when she introduces Paris and the Yankee Doodle Dandy when she does her huge Amercian tour. It’s about trying to add as much colour to Sarah’s life as possible because she would have been surrounded by music herself. The audience reaction to this at Camden Fringe was wonderful so we’re thrilled to have these elements in the show to play with and play off.

HT: There’s also a lot of humour in the show – it’s not a Victorian Melo-drama, it’s very human and very funny, interspersed with speeches that this contemporary actress considers for her speech which are very comedic and dramatic. We are running the gamut of what an actress can do!

Playing someone so famous and so beloved, are you more conscious of your acting and your truth or simply trying to play homage to Sarah and her character?

HT: That’s very interesting because Sarah wrote a book called The Art of Theatre, published in 1924. She wrote amazing things about how to act that were written twelve years before Stanislavsky published his work. Everyone has remembered Stanislavsky’s but they’ve forgotten Sarah Bernhardt. I quote from both of their books – Stanislavsky’s An Actor Prepares and comment on why was Sarah Bernhardt’s work forgotten and why the man’s was remembered?

SP: Sarah’s story is nearly over a 100 years ago, she seems a figure from the past but she was fighting the same fights that women are fighting now with the #MeToo campaign. She was achieving huge amounts considering the time and her autonomy as an artist. But she too had to put herself in situations and no doubt also found herself in situations that many women had to in order to get their work show and be successful in their career.

HT: Her mother was a courtesan, and that is one way that Sarah made money in the early years, was to follow in her mother’s footsteps. It’s a very contemporary issue.

What are you learning about yourself that is perhaps sympathetic towards her character and her sensibility that you think an audience might pick up on and enjoy, or that you’ve enjoyed playing with?

HT: Thinking back to myself playing as that little girl, draping myself in finery I can see why a little girl becomes and actress of a dancer imagining herself into a different world. This is sort of the ultimate dressing up box that I have conjured up for myself. Having worked at The Globe theatre with Mark Rylance I was thrilled and terrified by the closeness of the audience there and the vulnerability of that, realising how amazing that space is – it’s the best place to work. Going back into ordinary theatres with large casts can be tame in comparison. So being on your own speaking to an audience so closely as in Katzpace by yourself and taking them to a different world, I find that so exciting.

Finally, if the audience were to expect one thing from the narrative of C'est La Vie – Sarah Bernhardt and Me, or what you are trying to evoke with the production of it, what would it be?

HT: Don’t dismiss people in the past – the past is yourself. Recently, people tend to think of things up to the internet and easily disregard things that came before then. I think it’s vital that people examine things from the past. That’s why Shakespeare was so amazing because he always surprises us with his being able to be contemporary – the thoughts that people had and have, because we fight similar battles and so can take heed to make greater progress. It’s so important to build on the people who went before us. For drama students to know about who has gone before, not just Lawrence Olivier or John Gielgud, though they themselves are fading in people’s memories. I know as a younger actress I was always fascinated to listen to anecdotes of older actors. I worked with Lauren Bacall and her chats were amazing. To be able to reach back and touch old Hollywood is captivating, and she would know people who could reach back and touch Sarah Bernhardt time. It’s wonderful to have that reach back into the past… and a greater context and understanding of the present and yourself.
C'est La Vie – Sarah Bernhardt and Me runs from Sunday 14th January to Tuesday 16th January and then Sunday 21st January to Tuesday 23rd January at 7.30pm.

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POLIS LOIZOU talks about life, art and CLOTHES TO FALL APART IN

Glenn Chandler and Scouts In Bondage

What is Paul Clarkson doing at The Union?

Bill Bankes-Jones talks about Salad Days and surfing

Carole Carpenter on tour with Jane Austen

Dan Barnard is SHOOTING RATS at an epic new venue

Zimbabwe-born David Dinnell talks about HOW TO COOK A COUNTRY

Director Sarah Norman talks to us from The Finborough

Amy Molloy Interviewed (appearing in Kitty & Damnation at the Lion & Unicorn from 11 Aug 2009 to 12 Sep 2009)

Charlotte Gwinner talks about ANGLE

Kenneth Emson talks about Whispering Happiness and what inspires him....


Paolo Rotondo talks from New Zealand

Writer Stephen M Hunt wishes he had written Slueth


Andrew Olay talks about inspiration, character amd Tom Courtney

Ellie Turner performs with LOVE&MADNESS

Sondheim's Saturday Night with Helena Blackman

Alistair Green directs The Thingumywotsit at The Hen & Chickens

Racky Plews directs Into The Woods

Robert Lloyd Parry is at Baron's Court

Interview with The Umbilical Brothers at The Leicester Square Theatre

Interview with Iain Pears at The Riverside Studios

Interview with Tim Roseman directing Overspill

Interview with Melanie Wilson

Interview with Gillian Plowman, author of Yours Abundantly, From Zimbabwe

Interview with Alex Helfrecht

Interview with Michael Gieleta

Interview with director Rhys Thomas

Interview with writer James Graham

Theatre Student Patricia Low posts her Malaysia Blog

Sabina Arthur performs in Under The Veil

Fin Kennedy talks about UNSTATED

Interview with Andrew Keatley

Interview with Ben Hales

Interview with Ali Taylor

Interview with Matt Ball

Interview with Tim Fountain

Interview with Glyn Maxwell

Interview with writer Coda Quashie

Interview with Sarah Mann

Interview with Yolanda Mpele

Interview with Howard Barker

Interview with Brian Timoney

Interview with Laura Stevens

Interview with John Sandy

Interview with Philly Greenwood

Interview with Dean Stalham

Interview with Jack McNamara

Interview with Caroline Partridge

Meet People Show artist Gareth Brierley

Interview with George Mann

Meet Phillip Brook, star of Uncle Barry at the Blue Elephant

Interview with Fin Kennedy

Interview with James Graham

Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown V

Interview with Cath Whitefield, now appearing at The Gate

Interview with Lavern Archer

Royal Court Announces Autumn Season

Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown IV

Marketing Managers on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown III

Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown II

Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown

Arcola to Create World's First Carbon Neutral Theatre

Interview with Nell Leyshon, Writer of Glass Eels at the Hampstead Theatre

A New Start for the Southwark Playhouse

The Mark Shenton Show

Theatre has moved on - whatever we critics think logo
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