Angie Milliken, actor, Bernhardt/Hamlet

An opportunity to bring to life one’s own version of an icon as well as a very famous Shakespearean character is equal parts exciting and terrifying, but these are the things that appeal to me as an actor ...

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is not only one of the most frequently staged plays in the history of theatre, and its titular role has long been regarded as one of the greatest parts ever written. At one point in history, a women playing the role of Hamlet was seen as a massive upheaval of the status quo – a bucking of convention that sent theatre traditionalists into an emotional tailspin. Thankfully, pioneering performer Sarah Bernhardt helped alter perceptions surrounding who would play what by gamely staging (and performing as) Hamlet in 1899. More than a century on and Australian star of stage and screen Angie Milliken is not only tackling Hamlet herself, but also stepping into the shoes of Sarah Bernhardt as she tackled criticism and challenged a system that long placed restrictions on women in theatre. We caught up with Angie Milliken before she takes the stage in Queensland Theatre’s production of Bernhardt/Hamlet later this month to talk about stepping into the skin of such an important figure, Sarah Bernhardt’s enduring legacy and where she finds motivation in her daily life …

Before we chat all things Bernhardt/Hamlet, we’d love to know more about you! Can you tell us what first sparked your love for the dramatic arts?
Dancing to music in the lounge room, reciting poems at school, playing every record on the radiogram and acting out the lyrics, impersonating ABBA, school musicals and plays, group-devised work at uni, and literature studies. You wouldn’t be getting the message this is a proud push for the underestimated role of the arts and humanities in our lives now, would you? Next time you sing along to the car playlist …

Most of us have favourite films, television shows and even theatre productions – were there any that had a formative influence on your decision to pursue a career in acting?
So many! Jesus Christ Superstar, Bille Brown in Henry V at the Roma Street Parklands, Bartholomew Fair by Twelfth Night Theatre, The Draughtsman’s ContractMy Beautiful LaundretteTootsie, Terms of Endearment, Flashdance, A Room with a View, Dirty Dancing, Rush, Certain Women, the original Avengers series, The Magic Roundabout, Ordinary People, The Big Chill, Sophie’s Choice, What’s up, Doc?Singin’ in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz and anything with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I loved old movies about dancers, singers and showbiz people!

Your resume boasts numerous roles on stage and screen. Are you able to share any insight into the respective thrills and challenges of performing in front of a theatre audience as opposed to working with cameras?
Over the years I’ve come to understand that on camera, the technology comes to you – but you still have to be mindful to hit your mark and watch out for a boom mic. A theatrical performance is quite different in that you invite the audience into the world you are helping to create. There is also the challenge of maintaining a character for the length of a play, eight shows a week, seven days a week. In the theatre, each moment of the story is very much in the actor’s hands along with the design, music and stage management. On film, the story is, moment to moment, much more in the hands of the director, DP, editor and producers – your part in it is different. The story is often shot out of sequence and more slowly, yet is more intimate. Often the same intensity of feeling is required, just more concentrated on film and more physically expressed in theatre.

We’re incredibly excited to see you perform in Queensland Theatre’s upcoming production of Bernhardt/Hamlet. You’ll be starring as Sarah Bernhardt, a French actress recognised as one of the first international stage stars. What was it about the role and the story of Sarah’s then-controversial goal to play Hamlet that drew you to the production?
I could recognise the wit and flow of the writing immediately, which was exciting and still I found it hard to read alone. In the rehearsal room with the other actors it really lit up. At the story’s centre there is a great love story between Sarah and the writer Edmond Rostand (who eventually went on to write the very famous play Cyrano de Bergerac). They are each other’s muse and together they negotiate their affair while trying to create their version of Hamlet.

I have not and never had a personal goal to play Hamlet and yet still could recognise that Sarah wanted a vehicle to climb an artistic mountain with – something that was/is more easily accessible for male actors who can aspire to the great roles around which the whole story centres. These roles like Hamlet require dexterity, stamina, artistic skill and as Sarah put’s it a subtleness of mind to grasp. Sarah saw herself as more than equal to her male counterparts who had already played Hamlet. Some of the hugely demanding female roles that exist, their lives still often centre around the men in their lives.

In Theresa Rebeck’s writing there is wit, humanity and a powerful woman tackling the physicality of the language of Hamlet. An opportunity to bring to life one’s own version of an icon as well as a very famous Shakespearean character is equal parts exciting and terrifying, but these are the things that appeal to me as an actor. To achieve these goals Sarah herself said that, “It is necessary to have a firmly tempered soul, to be surprised at nothing …” I would love to have those attributes, at least for the time that I get to be Sarah Bernhardt.

Although Bernhardt/Hamlet takes audiences back to the late-1800s, playwright Theresa Rebeck has no doubt crafted a tale that draws parallels between systems as they were then and now. In what ways do you think the story of Sarah Bernhardt resonates with contemporary audiences?
After a painful and traumatic childhood, pimped out by her prostitute mother and brought up by nuns, Sarah was often persecuted for her Jewishness and struggled to find her place in the world. She determined to become the greatest actress in the world. She saw nothing as an obstacle. In the face of criticism and resentment, she was authentically herself – a pioneer, an entrepreneur, a great actor-manager of her own theatre. She was a present and adoring mother to her son Maurice, and also a generous de facto mother to many around her. She challenged ideas of gender and expectations of women. Like the experience of many pioneers now, she must surely have felt that she had to do more and be more in order to be seen, taken seriously and respected. And there is an aloneness, a solitariness about being a pioneer. I would say any contemporary audience would, sadly, recognise that as a continuing idea.

Do you have any particular methods when it comes to approaching and then inhabiting a new role? Was there anything that has helped you slip into the skin of Sarah Bernhardt?
I draw from music, art, rhythm, people, friends, the context of her life and times, images and sometimes just seeing the essence of someone – these all feed into the spirit of Sarah. I’m fortunate in that I have many resources around me to draw upon and friends who inspire me. We’ve talked about the nature of building a big role from the inside out. We’ve agreed that keeping it in the realm of the human being is paramount. If you pitch an important historical figure at that very lofty level then you can lose the person.

Much like Sarah tackling Hamlet, are there any iconic roles you’d absolutely love to have a crack at?
Tackling Sarah for me is much like the thought of tackling Hamlet! Recently the roles I’ve been playing in film and television have been exciting because they are truly characters who are unbound by age or expectation. They’re outsiders with stories you rarely hear about. I’m loving those. The UK and Germany have become far more accepting and broad-minded about casting plays at gender parity. That is something that should be more easily embraced, not thought of as accepting but as it should be. Especially for actresses, age can be a barrier and an obstacle and, ultimately, leads to a sense of invisibility. Sarah Bernhardt talks about that in this piece, that she is horrified at disappearing or, worse, expected to gracefully accept thankless roles of passive, under-expressed and undervalued women. You have to really work hard at those roles to make them real.

Finally, what motivates you on a daily basis in your life and work?
Balance. Kindness. Empathy. Gratitude. Connection. Curiosity. Love. Sarah Bernhardt lived through war and famine and maintained her balance, kindness and empathy. As a great woman of the theatre she elevated herself to these things and with them. I’m aiming to adopt her radiant and generous and courageous spirit.

You can catch Angie Milliken performing in Queensland Theatre Company’s production of Bernhardt/Hamlet from Saturday May 28 to Saturday June 18. Tickets can be purchased here

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