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The Divine Mrs S

  • Theatre, Comedy
  • Hampstead Theatre, Swiss Cottage
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
The Divine Mrs S, Hampstead Theatre, 2024
Photo: Johan PerssonRachael Stirling
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Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Rachael Stirling stars in April de Angelis’s sharp and shocking portrait of legendary actress Sarah Siddons

British theatre loves a backstage drama: in the last month alone we’ve said hello to Ivo van Hove’s divisive ‘Opening Night’ and waved goodbye to Jack Thorne’s ‘The Motive and the Cue’, both set behind the scenes of Broadway plays. Now here comes April de Angelis’s new comedy ‘The Divine Mrs S’, which goes behind the curtain of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, circa 1800.

Here, De Angelis trains her lens on Sarah Siddons (Rachael Stirling), the actor known as the Queen of Drury Lane and something of an archetype for the modern celebrity. But though she was probably the greatest female actor of her day, there is still no contemporary biography of her. 

‘The Divine Mrs S’ paints a picture of what Siddons’s world might have looked like – performing on stage every evening, adored by critics and fans. But the brilliance in De Angelis’s script comes in balancing Siddons’s influence with her impotence. Despite being a ticket-selling machine, she is shown as having little to no agency offstage. Her life is ruled by her brother Kemble (Dominic Rowan) – the manager of Drury Lane – and her husband, who spends his days off with a mistress. Together, they sign her contracts, decide what roles she plays and keep control of her finances.

It is very meta: Siddons’s inner frustrations and wishes are said aloud in the form of stage directions that she reads to the audience. The play looks inwards on the stage profession and the construction of theatre: ‘the best way to survive in this business is to adore everything you’re in,’ one actor comments. ‘He’s a dear friend…who also writes our reviews,’ Siddons says of a theatre critic. Everything is about keeping up appearances.

Stirling plays Siddons with a concealed anger beneath a kept exterior – there’s a sense she could snap at any second. Though she grieves for the loss of her daughter, she goes on performing – she has no choice. In her dressing room kingdom, she occasionally screams in rage: ‘you didn’t hear that,’ she tells her assistant Patti. Driven by a desire to find a three-dimensional character she can connect with – ‘all I want is the female version of Hamlet,’ she says – she goes in search of a new play to put on. Once she finds one, she is the happiest she has ever felt onstage – but of course, once people realise it is written by a woman, no one is willing to accept its genius

Anna Mackmin’s production shrieks with life, its atmosphere thickening with each scene. The injustice each woman is served leaks out of them, almost pungently. As Patti, Anushka Chakravarti leaves you near vibrating as she pushes off Kemble's attacks. Eva Feiler transforms from the exasperated playwright Joanne Baillie to a woman gone mad, Clara, so vividly you forget they’re played by one person. To merge sharp comedy with drama that makes you burn at the injustice is no mean feat, but De Angelis has done it marvellously. 

Written by
Anya Ryan

Details

Address:
Hampstead Theatre
Eton Avenue
London
NW3 3EX
Contact:
View Website
Transport:
Tube: Swiss Cottage
Price:
£35-£55. Runs 2hr 20min

Dates and times

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