In 1899, the legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt took on the role of Hamlet. History records the event largely as a folie. Few critics (male critics, of course) could get past her gender, which on its face made the undertaking outrageous; some also threw in snide comments about her age—55, decades older than we assume Hamlet is meant to be.
Today’s world is, presumably, more woke in both areas, especially the former. One might have hoped a prominent female playwright—indeed, one who defines herself as a feminist—would find a new way to look at Bernhardt’s Hamlet.
Such a playwright might, for example, have focused on Bernhardt’s sincerity as an artist, which I think has rarely been questioned. Or on what is (you should forgive the expression) a heroic undertaking in terms of the demands of the role on an actor of any age. Another way in could be the magic of theater, in which an audience can fully embrace any number of unlikely transformations.
Some of these ideas might be a hard sell, but not impossible. In fact, the Roundabout’s production of Bernhardt/Hamlet has the overwhelming advantage of a leading actress, Janet McTeer, who has something of Bernhardt’s star wattage, as well as the invaluable gift of imbuing every moment with luminous intelligence and commitment.
Alas, the buck here stops with the playwright. Theresa Rebeck is content for much of the time to skim over the comic surface of the story, dwelling on its preposterousness. In fairness, Bernhardt/Hamlet is skillfully crafted and often amusing (McTeer is as funny as she is earnest). But it’s difficult to get beyond its glibness.
Not till Act II does Rebeck go to deeper places—notably, Bernhardt’s complex relationship with playwright Edmond Rostand, her married lover who has not only translated Hamlet for her, but also wrote the role of Roxane in Cyrano de Bergerac with her in mind. When Bernhardt critiques the latter, we have a glimmer of her depth as a person and the limitations of the repertoire that falls to her more “naturally.”
Still, the Cyrano material is mined mostly for humor—specifically, that the show will, of course, be stolen by its lead actor, Constant Coquelin, reducing the Divine Sarah to a mere supporting player. In any case, it all seems an add-on here. Too little, too late.
At least Bernhardt/Hamlet offers McTeer a juicy part in which to shine, not that she’s lacked those on Broadway and elsewhere. Dylan Baker (playing Coquelin) and Jason Butler Harnar (Rostand) are two of our most interesting actors, both known for finding complex subtext. Here, they dispatch their limited duties honorably, but make little impression—frankly, there’s not much to work with in either role.
There’s somewhat more flavorful writing for Rostand’s wife, Rosamond (Ito Aghayere). Yet she too emerges as a theatrical type—the wronged wife who employs sardonic wit as a coping mechanism, à la Charlotte in A Little Night Music.
The characters of Alphonse Mucha (Matthew Saldivar), the painter of Bernhardt’s fabulous posters, and Louis (Tony Carlin), a sniffy critic, also put in appearances that cement our sense of Rebeck’s play as a generic backstage comedy.
Of course, Broadway has a long history of boulevard plays, and Bernhardt/Hamlet—cunningly directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel and sumptuously designed by Beowulf Boritt (sets), Toni-Leslie James (costumes), and Bradley King (lights)—is always entertaining.
One senses, though, that this could and should be so much more. But if you were hoping that Bernhardt/Hamlet would illuminate and deepen your understanding of this fascinating theatrical phenomenon, I’m sorry to tell you that ‘tis not to be.
Bernhardt/Hamlet is currently running on Broadway. For more information, visit the Roundabout Theatre Company website.