Review: The Divine Mrs S, Hampstead Theatre

Always a joy to see Rachael Stirling onstage but The Divine Mrs S doesn’t quite match her worth at Hampstead Theatre

“She interrupts men”

One of my all-time favourite theatre performances came from Rachael Stirling in the 2010 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rose, Kingston. Though the main draw was ostensibly Dame Judi Dench’s return to Titania, directed by Peter Hall once again, my eye was constantly drawn to the rich detail of Stirling’s Helena and her deeply empathetic work – I was completely sold. These days, her stage appearances are a little more sparing but right now, she’s heading up The Divine Mrs S.

Written by April De Angelis, we’re backstage in the world of 18th-century theatre with Sarah Siddons at its heart. Widely acclaimed as the greatest actress of her time, that time also considered women acting to be utterly demeaning and Siddons still finds herself at the mercy of the men in her life, whether her philandering husband or her meddling brother. Resolved to make the most of her relatively elevated situation, she seeks to take control of her career even as society tries its best to resist.

It’s a bawdier piece of theatre than one might have expected from De Angelis, director Anna Mackmin keeping things going at a lick with an often rollicking tone that goes some way to disguising the repetitiveness of some of the scenes here. The play-within-a-play conceit allows for some pointed injokes which the Hampstead audience laps up greedily but as even as we touch on themes that still resonate today – the misogynistic treatment of female celebrities, double standards across men and women and the paucity of well-written female roles – it all feels a bit surface-level.

Stirling is excellent as Siddons, grieving the loss of a child as we meet her but determined to work to the best of her considerable ability, a forceful character but one who still somehow remains something of an enigma. The often jovial tone ends up jibing against our comprehension of how exceptional she was for doing all this at this time and the frequent hints of darkness in the wider world only serve to amplify that the play isn’t exploring them (Eva Feiler effective in her multiple roles though).

Lez Brotherston’s set design is beautifully realised though, a slice of Drury Lane backstage evocatively lit by Mark Henderson, its sumptuous warmth delightful to behold. Dominic Rowan is great fun as no-mark brother Kemble, Sarah’s manager and fellow performer, though amusingly far inferior in talent. And getting to see an actor of the calibre of Stirling in such relative intimacy remains a thrill, even if the play didn’t grab me in the way I might have liked.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *