The Divine Mrs S Back

Reviewed on: 29th March 2024

‘How wretched is she who depends on the instability of public favour,’ laments Sarah Siddons, Queen of Drury Lane, fresh from the boards and highly aware of the precarity of her status as a female public figure, the subject of veneration and fascination but equally scrutiny and abuse. April de Angelis’s new eighteenth-century drama at the Hampstead Theatre takes us quite literally backstage, to the dressing room world of the era’s most celebrated actress, revealing that, for women, the role-playing never quite stops.

Tired of taking on characters that belong to the ‘saintly wounded brigade’ – first-class fainters and husband-pleasers – in the opening scenes we find De Angelis’s Siddons (Rachael Stirling) disaffected with theatrical life. For all her acclaim, she’s rendered impotent by a suffocatingly patriarchal system where plays are produced, written and reviewed by men. Kemble, her bumbling brother excellently played by Dominic Rowan, picks her roles and helps himself to her wages. Famed theatre critic, Boaden (Gareth Snook), is set to write the definitive story of her life (at a time when actresses had already started to claim autonomy by penning their own memoirs). Thomas Lawrence (also Gareth Snook) credits himself with constructing Siddons’s alluring public images through his sentimental portraits. ‘The Divine Mrs S’, it turns out, is a highly polished mask – no wonder the actress is left feeling as incomplete as the play’s title.

Enter Joanna Baillie, a charismatic Eva Feiler with a perfect Scots accent, full of exuberance and integrity. She is the scribbler of the anonymous script, De Monfort, which features an unusually ‘ballsy’ and imperious female lead: Jane De Monfort. Needless to say, once the morning papers declare the dramatist a female, the first night buzz dissolves and male critics start fault-finding. The play swiftly closes. Yet Siddons remains clearsighted about Baillie’s radical writing, urging her to make more Jane De Monforts. ‘She interrupts men!’ the actress pronounces with revelatory zeal, admiring the heroine’s assertiveness which she is shrewd enough to know risks imperilling her public favour if replicated in reality. Afraid of the ‘mudraking and scandal’ that abounds in the all-male coffee houses, and which would jeopardise the box-office earnings that support her children, emotional integrity, she decides, for now, comes at too high a price.

A dazzling Racheal Stirling presents Siddons’s inner conflicts masterfully. Throughout the production she balances the actress’ need for emotional expression, particularly suppressed rage, with her advocation of self-silencing and self-abnegation. Informed by Kemble that her wastrel husband has signed contracts for her to return to touring in the provinces, Siddons grabs an undergarment and tears it in two screaming. ‘You never saw me do that’ she tells her maid, Patti (Anushka Chakravarti), with deadpan wit in a moment that feels comically Fleabag. The mask has slipped. And it keeps slipping.

After the censor’s daughter, Clara, reveals she is embroiled in an abusive marriage, Siddons tells her to be a good wife and ‘bury’ her feelings in line with the social script; yet once she leaves, the actress is possessed with an urge to run and save her. The audience is made aware of this in one of De Angelis’s astutely placed ironic third-person asides; read as stage directions, these moments reveal Siddons’s tragic self-alienation. Mark Henderson, the lighting designer, amplifies this effect, placing a spotlight on Stirling’s face to suggest the actress retreating into her thoughts—perhaps the only legitimately private space in the play’s voyeuristic eighteenth-century world—and detaching from the constructed ‘Siddons’, her idealised, public self.

Lez Brotherston’s deftly imagined set intensifies the sense of claustrophobia and transports the audience straight to circa. 1800. All creams and muslin hues, the regency dressing room is front and centre, while the stage and footlights are behind.  The audience sees everything through the actor’s eyes. The dressing room appropriately becomes Siddons’s world – a space in which she prepares and contrives the various faces she wears for the public. Even when the actress ventures to the madhouse to conduct research for her new part in Orra, through canny chiaroscuro and lighting, the dressing room remains visible, drawing a parallel between the two residences as places in which women may lose their minds.  

Importantly The Divine Mrs S sheds light on women’s involvement in theatre-making during the eighteenth century. The collaboration between director, Anna Mackmin, and writer, April de Angelis, grounded in impressive historical research in terms of contemporary biography and acting styles, is greatly successful in its efforts to make popular audiences aware of the existence of pioneering female theatre performers and playwrights, as well as proto-feminist works like De Monfort and Orra. It is a brave and original theatrical undertaking, which should pave the way for more historical dramas that explore the dynamism and complexities of theatre in this period.

April de Angelis’s play is a rallying cry for women to choose their own roles – in life and on stage – and find a continuity between public and private self.  In its final moments, the play may appear to have faltered—no clear narrative arch emerges; it doesn’t feel like Siddons’s situation has improved: she’s still playing parts chosen and written by men. The audience is left with a frustrating sense of stasis, and yet Patti’s exhortation to Siddons to ‘go out and go mad’ is directed at them too. Resolution lies ‘not in here’ in the theatre, but out there in ‘revolution’. Originally titled ‘The Power Inside’, The Divine Mrs S is an urgent appeal for women to externalise their feelings of injustice and emotion. It’s a call for release.


The Divine Mrs S is on at Hampstead Theatre until 27th April 2024.