how much you loved how beautifully I might play the ingenue, it was always
beneath me. It is beneath all women.” So declares the legendary French actress
Sarah Bernhardt, as portrayed by the acclaimed English actress Janet McTeer in Bernhardt/Hamlet
by the esteemed American playwright Theresa Rebeck. It’s being given its
Broadway world premiere by Roundabout Theatre Company. And while you might
question the rationale of this total slam against ingenue roles, it registers
like a storm-the-barricades declamation of feminism, one that at the
performance attended drew a burst of appreciative audience applause.
is well indicative of the play in which matters of theater and gender are
debated with a ferocity and passion that would befit matters of life and death.
But then again, this is theater, so it all seems right, as Rebeck – in
bountiful stretches of dazzling writing, directed with appropriate dazzle by
Moritz von Stuelpnagel -- takes us through the process in which Bernhardt
readies herself to play Shakespeare’s -- and perhaps all of theater’s -- most
iconic role, Hamlet the Prince of Denmark.
playing Shakespeare’s big male roles are no longer a rarity, this is happening
in 1897 in Paris, and the move is seen as tradition-breaking, perhaps even
taboo-breaking, one that could scuttle Bernhardt’s career, which despite its
fame is at the time perilously low on finances. We hear a critic call the idea
off the arguments against her doing the role, arguments that of course are
often more sexist than artistic, Bernhardt is also finding the role difficult
to inhabit. She is confounded by Hamlet’s lack of action and Shakespeare’s
wordiness and poetry. The first act builds to a decisive moment: she commissions
the playwright, Edmond Rostand, with whom she is having an affair, to write an
adaptation minus the poetry.
“You want me
to rewrite Hamlet?” says a confounded Rostand, providing the close of
the first act with a sense of suspense as well as a laugh.
narrative gets a little diffuse in the second act, however. As Bernhardt
continues to rehearse, Rostand’s battle to rewrite Hamlet also takes
center stage. It’s a task he cannot complete as he constantly is forced to
compare Shakespeare’s genius with his own talent. His affair with Bernhardt is
another problem, as he is a man devoted to his wife and children. With all this
going on, though, he is somehow able to write his masterpiece, Cyrano de
Bergerac, but the fact that he has written the role of Roxanne for
Bernhardt inflames her, because of its unimportance next to that of Cyrano.
A scene from Cyrano
is included in Bernhardt/Hamlet. It’s an amusing classic fragment, but
it also feels like an unnecessary distraction from the main story, which at the
final curtain still seems a bit unresolved.
McTeer’s Bernhardt may come across considerably more English than French, she
brings a winning brand of legend-type wattage to the role. She is vibrant,
elegant, funny and deep. with just a slight shadow of Bernhardt self- doubt
occasionally slipping through. We hear about her legions of lovers, but she
radiates a seductiveness that comes more from intelligence rather than
sensuality. At the same time, she looks smashing, both in her swashbuckling
Hamlet garb and her glittering turn-of-the-last century gowns, the costumes
designed by Toni-Leslie James.
terrific suggestions of the power of Bernhardt’s performance…or perhaps more
accurately, they’re displays of McTeer’s own thespian prowess. Whatever the
case, the scene in which she explores Hamlet’s meeting with the ghost of his
murdered father, as she and her fellow actor get ever deeper into the moment,
is a stunning depiction of the acting process, and her interpretation of the
“what a piece of work is a man” monologue is both revelatory and mesmerizing.
In total, her presence brings a sense of event to the entire project.
much of the proceedings, McTeer receives fine support from Dylan Baker,
portraying the revered older actor Constant Coquelin. For Bernhardt’s Hamlet,
he is playing the aforementioned murdered king and Polonius, and when the bit
from Cyrano is interpolated into the mix, Baker takes on the title role,
just as Coquelin did.
impressive is Jason Butler Harner’s rendering of Rostand. His long descriptions
of his feelings for Bernhardt are highly affecting, and he keeps us sympathetic
to the man, making us feel his pain, even as he indulges in his writerly
tendency to self-dramatize. We might wonder about his English accent as well,
but it’s a good matchup with McTeer.
There is also
solid work by Matthew Saldivar as Alphonse Mucha, the Czech artist whose
posters are a significant part of the Bernhardt legend, and Nick Westrate as
Bernhardt’s grown son, who makes a trip home from university concerned about
his mother’s affair with Rostand and even more so about her depleted finances.
Ito Aghayere makes a telling appearance as Rostand’s loving and wily wife, and
Tony Carlin makes the smugness of a Parisian theater critic surprisingly
tolerable. Brittany Bradford, Triney Sandoval and Aaron Costa Ganis also have
their moments as members of Bernhardt’s acting troupe.
of backstage theater and theater history, Rebeck’s script gives us one tantalizing
scene after another – the aforementioned scenes of the rehearsal process, the
analyses of Shakespeare’s genius, the descriptions of the effect of Bernhardt’s
magic on her admirers, a dressing room dinner party where critics are
dissected, including references to the English “Mr. Shaw.” They are played out
against the eye-filling sets of Beowulf Borit, lit by Bradley King and
wonderfully creating the vastness of the bare stage of Bernhardt’s theater,
with its rigging reaching up majestically into the fly space, the colorful
plushness of Bernhardt’s dressing room and the Parisian atmosphere of various
It all makes
for theater with definite class and relevance as well. Its meandering quality,
with story threads left hanging, may give you discomfiting bits of food for
thought. After all the rehearsal and discussion, Rebeck never gets around to
showing us the play in actual production. However, in the final moments,
Bernhardt rhapsodizes about the advent of “a new kind of photograph. It moves.”
And we see a clip of the actual film made of Bernhardt’s Hamlet dueling with
Laertes. It’s an inspired end for a play that despite its shortcomings,
vibrates smartly with affecting love for its subject matter, theater, and the
grandeur of its purveyors.
posted: October 2018
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