Duet Review – Theatre at the Tabard

Image: (L) Wendy Morgan as Sarah Bernhardt; (R) Cynthia Straus as Eleanora Duse 

The ghost of Sarah Bernhardt appears

As she prepares for her performance as Marguerite in The Lady of the Camelias, internationally renowned actress Eleonora Duse is visited in her dressing room by the ghost of Sarah Bernhardt. The cause of this manifestation is a mystery.

Duse is in ill health, complaining of a bad cold and clearly suffering with ennui (an unfortunate theatre manager is told that “there will be no performance tonight”), has she unwittingly summoned her fellow acting legend or has Miss Bernhardt returned for her own reasons? We will find out as the evening progresses.

That is the set up of Duet, the new show at the Tabard, written by Otho Eskin and directed respectfully by Ludovica Villar-Hauser.

Images: (L) Wendy Morgan as Sarah Bernhardt; (R) Cynthia Straus as Eleanora Duse 

The bringing together of two of the most feted stars of the stage in the late Victorian era plays up their essential difference: Duse the rather dour and serious “suffering priestess of high art” as her companion calls her, and Bernhardt the diva, the show off, revelling in the adoration of the crowd.

As Duse, Cynthia Straus brings restraint to the role, allowing glimpses of the artist’s troubled soul; “I became obsessed with death” she says, reliving her past, her black dress reflecting her heavy gloom. Her art is “simple, unadorned”, in contrast to Bernhardt’s more showy moves.

Wendy Morgan as Bernhardt has altogether more fun, entering in the harshest of white spotlight, her more colourful patterned dress catching the light (Alice McNicholas costumes are particularly impressive), allowing her to hit poses designed to elicit enthusiastic applause.

Indeed, she takes the opportunity to demonstrate by way of a nifty masterclass, how to milk that applause and draw out a curtain call far beyond its normal length, bringing her far downstage, arms aloft, soaking up the love from her adoring audience.

The third cast member, Nick Waring, plays a series of male roles with enormous gusto, popping in and out of the action and often lifting scenes with his confident energy.

Overall, this is an absorbing evening. That said, the heavily accented language presented a challenge and feels to me, like a mistake; there is an obvious need to indicate the character’s nationalities, but it feels overdone.

“What ‘ave we ‘ere, where ‘ave you been ‘iding?” asks one of Bernhardt’s aristocratic suitors, teetering dangerously close to ‘Allo ‘Allo territory.

Villar-Hauser’s direction brings to the fore the two leads’ inner states. She is aided by Hazel Owen’s atmospheric, musty backstage setting and she uses the full width of the Tabard stage, often placing her characters at the extreme edges, leaving a vast emptiness in the middle, reflecting perhaps the distance between the two stars’ acting styles.

It does feel slightly too low key though, any real confrontation between these two huge personalities seems to be held back.

For serious students of theatre history, this is an absorbing story of two women who attained the sort of stardom that is no longer possible, it is a snapshot from a bygone age.

Duet runs until Saturday 11 May at the Theatre at the Tabard.

Tickets – Duet

Simon Thomsett

Simon Thomsett

Simon Thomsett has worked in the professional theatre for a number of years. He started out as a stage manager and technician then became a venue director and producer, notably at the Hackney Empire, Fairfield Halls and most recently the New Victoria Theatre in Woking.

Since leaving full time work last year, he is now working as a consultant and on some small scale producing projects. He is a Chiswick resident and a passionate advocate for great theatre.