Theater review by Adam Feldman
Theresa Rebeck’s boulevard dramedy Bernhardt/Hamlet is set in Paris at the end of the 19th century, and stars the lithe and charismatic Janet McTeer as the world-famous Sarah Bernhardt—the Divine Sarah, celebrated thespian and self-dramatizing celebrity, as renowned for her wild personal life as for her florid performances onstage. In her mid-50s, Bernhardt has decided to grab at the brass ring of the greatest role in dramatic literature: the melancholy and very talky Hamlet, prince of Denmark, king of indecision. While some of Bernhardt’s contemporaries are skeptical at the idea of a woman in the role—one critic dismisses her gambit as “this absurd whim of an aging actress”—McTeer’s performance renders such carping moot; the show offers tantalizing hints of how good McTeer might be in a fully realized production of Shakespeare’s tragedy.
What Bernhardt/Hamlet perversely refuses to give us, however, is a coherent sense of Bernhardt’s performance in the role. The star’s approach is discussed throughout the play: She wants to portray the prince as young, active and vigorous. Yet that’s not the version we see. McTeer speaks her passages from Hamlet simply, maturely and thoughtfully. Further muddying the question is that this was not the real Bernhardt’s kind of acting at all; she was known for her grand gestures, and her voice was heavy with emotive vibrato. Even as it glorifies Bernhardt, the play edits her style into one that seems closer to that of her greatest rival, the naturalistic Eleonora Duse; there is even a scene in which she coaches an overwrought costar, Constant Coquelin (Dylan Baker), into finding a more direct and truthful delivery in his scene as the ghost. (Another confusing factor is Bernhardt/Hamlet’s treatment of language. When she rehearses and analyzes greatest-hits monologues—“To be or not to be,” “What a piece of work is man,” “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I”—Bernhardt delivers them in Shakespeare’s original English. But she would have been using a French verse translation, so her quibbles over specific words like “mortal coil” don’t quite make sense.)
Perhaps Rebeck is afraid that Bernhardt’s take on Hamlet would look dated or worse to a modern audience. In its stead, the play brings a different ham to the slaughter in a long digression into Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, a slice of which is depicted in a quaint-looking period production. In Rebeck’s telling, Rostand (Jason Butler Harner) was one of Bernhardt’s many lovers—he spends much of the play struggling to write a prose version of Hamlet that she has asked of him—and they quarrel over the lameness of the central female role in Cyrano. Here as elsewhere in the play, the characters seem like vessels for larger points about artistic creation and women’s access to power.
But for all of Bernhardt/Hamlet’s limitations, it reminded me of Bernhardt’s own motto: quand même, which translates roughly to “even so” or “at the same time.” While it is sometimes ungainly, the play is amusing on its own inside-theater terms. Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s staging for the Roundabout has a handsome rotating set by Beowulf Boritt and solid performances by not only by McTeer, who is incapable of being dull, but also a strong supporting cast that includes Matthew Saldivar as an Art Nouveau poster artist, Nick Westrate as Bernhardt’s son and Ito Aghayere as Rostand’s plaintive wife. It also features a few well-timed feminist zingers. “All that privilege and he can’t figure out how to do anything? A woman would never have got away with it,” says Bernhardt of the melancholy Dane. “A woman who cannot do anything is nothing. A man who does nothing is Hamlet.”
American Airlines Theatre (Broadway). By Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel. With Janet McTeer, Dylan Baker, Jason Butler Harner. Running time: 2hrs 25mins. One intermission.