At the very end of Bernhardt/Hamlet, a new play on Broadway by Theresa Rebeck, we see an actual 1899 film clip of the renowned 19th century actress Sarah Bernhardt on stage, in the role of Hamlet, dueling.
Perhaps the clip is meant to drive home that the play we’ve just seen, about Sarah Bernhardt deciding to perform Hamlet, was based on a true story. As one character in the play gushes: “It is the greatest part ever written and she the greatest actress ever born.”
The problem is that the brief, blotchy clip is remarkable only in that it exists at all; it is otherwise unimpressive. We have to invest it with importance, the way we’ve had to with many satellite pictures of Outer Space: “Wow, that smudge is the great Sarah Bernhardt, in 1899!”
It would be too harsh to say the same thing about Bernhardt/Hamlet, that the audience invests it with importance only because of the two familiar and automatically revered names in the title. Too harsh, at the very least, because Rebeck’s play is being given a first-rate production, with a winning cast led by Janet McTeer as Bernhardt, lively direction by Moritz von Stuelpnagel (Hand to God) , and a sumptuous design, especially the grand rotating set by Beowulf Boritt and the glorious costumes by Toni-Leslie James. But we don’t leave the American Airlines Theater with any clearer understanding than when we entered of whether or not Hamlet is “the greatest part ever written” or Sarah Bernhardt “the greatest actress ever born” – and if so, what makes them so.
More production photos for Bernhardt/Hamlet (and of the real Bernhardt) at NewYorkTheater.me
Bernhardt/Hamlet winds up using Shakespeare neither for high art (a la Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) nor low farce (a la Something Rotten), but as a middle brow entertainment. We learn a little, laugh a little, even feel lifted up by the example of a bold woman ahead of her time. But we’re rarely surprised. Our biggest surprises are negative: We never see Hamlet with a skull, nor Bernhardt in her coffin (though we do learn about it in passing, as well as about her pet panther, and the rumors of her many lovers)
Bernhardt/Hamlet begins with promise, as we see Janet McTeer as the great actress on stage rehearsing various lines from Hamlet, corralling her cast to try out different approaches, questioning the meaning of some of Shakespeare’s words and the wordiness of some of Shakespeare’s soliloquies. The stage is designed with elaborate pulleys and ropes and props to feel far grander than the actual stage in which this occurs. It represents the theater in Paris that Mme Bernhardt owned, and McTeer looks positively swashbuckling as she stands center stage, presiding.
There are many such scenes of her grappling during rehearsal with Hamlet, the role and the play. As intriguing as some of these are, it’s a bit baffling that these rehearsals and discussions do not eventually culminate in McTeer/Bernhardt giving a performance of Hamlet (unless you count that film clip) – not even just a full monologue.
Oddly, the only formally, fully staged scene within Rebeck’s play is not from Hamlet at all, but from Cyrano de Bergerac. Cyrano was the most famous play by Edmond Rostand, who is a major character in Bernhardt/Hamlet. Rostand is portrayed by Jason Butler Harner, one of the standouts in a cast that include the veteran actor Dylan Baker as the veteran actor Constant Coquelin, Ito Aghayere as Rostand’s wife, Rosamond and Nick Westrate as Bernhardt’s adult son, Maurice.
In Rebeck’s play, Rostand and Bernhardt are lovers: She is his muse; he is her rewrite man. She wants him to rewrite Hamlet in prose, taking out the poetry.
Bernhardt is said to have ordered just such a version of Hamlet, but Rebeck’s play omits an important point – it was a translation of Shakespeare’s work into French, Bernhardt’s native language and the one in which she performed.
Similarly, there’s much talk about how bold, or foolish, Bernhardt is being about taking on Hamlet – not so much because of her age (she was in her mid 50s at the time), but because of her gender.
“Women playing men. It doesn’t work….It’s a disgusting idea,”says Louis (Tony Carlin), who is among the least likeable characters in the play, and thus, of course, is a theater critic.
Perhaps this was a widespread reaction at the time, but I’m dubious, having just read “Playing to the Gods: Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, and the Rivalry that Changed Acting Forever, a dual biography of the two most celebrated late 19th century actresses. According to the author, Bernhardt made a point of performing what were called “trouser roles” throughout her career. Indeed, she had her very first big success, more or less launching her career at age 25 in 1869, by portraying a male character named Zanetto in a play entitled Le Passant.
If not historically accurate, the debate gives Rebeck a chance throughout Bernhardt/Hamlet to score points (often humorously) about gender politics, then and now. “A woman who cannot do anything is nothing,” Bernhardt asserts in the play. “A man who does nothing is Hamlet.”
Bernhardt/Hamlet is on stage at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater (227 W. 42nd St., between 7th and 8th Avenues, New York, N.Y., 10036 ) through November 11, 2018
Bernhardt/Hamlet. Written by Theresa Rebeck; Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel. Set design by Beowulf Boritt, costume design by Toni-Leslie James, lighting design by Bradley King, sound design by Fitz Patton. Featuring Janet McTeer, Dylan Baker, Jason Butler Harner, Matthew Saldivar; Nick Westrate, Tony Carlin, Ito Aghayere, Brittany Bradford, Aaron Costa Ganis and Triney Sandoval. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell