The Divine Mrs S

April De Angelis
Hampstead Theatre
Hampstead Theatre

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Rachael Stirling as Sarah Siddons and Dominic Rowan as John Philip Kemble playing Mrs Halle and The Stranger in Kotzebue's The Stranger Credit: Johan Persson
Anushka Chakravarti as Patti, Rachael Stirling as Sarah Siddons and Dominic Rowan as John Philip Kemble Credit: Johan Persson
Sadie Shimmin as Mrs Larpent, Eva Feiler as Clara and Anushka Chakravarti as Patti Credit: Johan Persson
Dominic Rowan as John Philip Kemble and Rachael Stirling as Sarah Siddons Credit: Johan Persson
Gareth Snook as Boaden Credit: Johan Persson
Rachael Stirling as Sarah Siddons Credit: Johan Persson

Thirty years ago, April De Angelis gave us a play about Restoration actresses in Playhouse Creatures; in this one, she presents an on- and off-stage picture of the woman whom Sir Joshua Reynolds painted as The Tragic Muse. Mrs S is, of course, celebrity Regency actress Sarah Siddons.

Mrs Siddons took herself very seriously, trying hard to control her image and reputation, and the play is vivid reminder of just how little control women then had over their own lives. Under contemporary law, her earnings went to her unfaithful husband, who invested them foolishly and spent them on his mistress, while her younger brother, John Philip Kemble, leading actor and manager of Drury Lane Theatre, decided what roles she would play.

Even in private, every time that she loses her composure, she immediately reminds her dresser and confidante Patti that, “you never heard that!” Despite its serious undercurrents, this is a comedy, and director Anna Mackmin is happy to play for laughs, the male characters caricatures compared to the reality of the female roles.

The play opens with Siddons (Rachael Stirling) and her brother in the final scene from Kotzebue’s melodramatic The Stranger, an audience favourite, but for Siddons, the tragic mother, one of the roles she was sick of playing. Snatches of other plays are also reenacted, including Macbeth (in which her innovation amazed audiences), though sadly of her Hamlet (for which she refused to wear breeches), we only see her rehearsing the fight scene.

In all, there is a contrast between the restrained reality of Siddons’s performance and the elongated vowels and ostentatious posturing of Kemble (Dominic Rowan), who carries this self-conscious grandiosity into his dealings with his company. It is a send-up that is matched by Gareth Snook’s playing of multiple roles that include critic and biographer James Boaden and painter Thomas Lawrence.

There is a jokiness too in the way Sadie Shimmin plays comic actress Cowslip and Mrs Larpent, wife of the censor (she vets the plays, he gets the payment).

Anushka Chakravarti as Patti is lively and fun but real, and so is Eva Feiler’s Clara, a daughter of the Larpents, who wants to escape an abusive husband (there is an intriguing twisting how she solves that), and playwright and poet Joanna Baillie, whose play De Montfort provided Siddons with the kind of strong role for which she had waited. It had been published anonymously in a volume of plays. Kemble also saw it as a great opportunity for him, but when his sister gets all the attention, male control cuts its success short.

As she goes on stage, Rachael Stirling’s elegant but humane Siddons says things like, “enter Siddons, statuesque, dark eyes, dark hair, she moves like a woman of superior rank.” Is she psyching herself up, reminding herself of what she must be, even writing her own review? There’s a critical edge between feeding her creativity and being what’s expected that Siddons had to negotiate, and Rachael Stirling captures that in her portrayal. Is this what Siddons was really like? We can’t be sure, but Stirling makes her come alive, not least when she gets in a paddy!

Lez Brotherston provides a magnificent setting: a dressing room area in front of the stage of Drury Lane that makes you feel in the heart of the theatre. It is as full of detail as De Angelis’s script, which perhaps packs in too much, so it is fortunate that there are plenty of laughs to keep the energy flowing.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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