Bernhardt has turned 53 and has aged out of the ingénue roles she had still been playing like her famous Camille. Her last play, Edmund Rostand’s La Samaritaine won critical success but lost her two million francs as audiences stayed away in droves. She has now rented a bigger theater in order to have more seats to sell but she needs a hit vehicle to recoup her loses. Why not become the first woman to play Hamlet, that is the 29-year-old Prince of Denmark – or as she keeps insisting an energetic 19-year-old youth which is how she means to play. And Gertrude, his mother, which is more age appropriate isn’t much of a role.
Bernhardt/Hamlet is structured as a backstage comedy. Sarah rehearses with French stage star Constant Coquelin playing both The Ghost and Polonius, worries that she is losing 29-year-old lover, playwright Rostand to his wife – or to his new play Cyrano de Bergerac, and frets over her son Maurice, at 29 years old still a college student who in need of money. Added to her troubles her illustrator Alphonse Mucha whose posters of her productions have added to her fame and glory is unable to make a sketch of her as Hamlet which suits them both. Worse still all the men in her life – including the Parisian critical establishment – plus the women of Paris are saying that it is not appropriate for her to play Hamlet in breeches as it is a man’s domain. Although the new play is not entirely about women in a man’s world, Rebeck does give this theme major importance. Ultimately, Sarah receives a visit from Rostand’s clever wife Rosamund which leads to the play’s denouement.
The play’s limitation it is that is both light comedy and mainly chitchat. We see Bernhardt rehearse snippets of Hamlet, key scenes, but they are continually interrupted by visitors, Rostand, Mucha, Maurice. Most of these are the soliloquies, a great deal of poetry that she finds difficult, and she assigns poor Rostand the job of rewriting Shakespeare’s play to take out the iambic pentameter and put the verse into prose.
There is much talk of Parisian theater, Sarah’s hits and misses, and rival actors who have played Hamlet, Coquelin, Sir Henry Irving, William Charles Macready, as well as Bernhardt’s own performance of Ophelia. And there is the question of Elizabethan costumes and Sarah’s hair as the young prince, a real sore point as she isn’t happy with the results. Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet assumes a great knowledge of both Hamlet and Cyrano, as well as other plays in her repertoire, Alfred de Musset’s Lorenzaccio, Alexandre Dumas’ Lady of the Camellias, etc. Some in the audience will know them; others may not.
Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, who staged Kevin Kline’s 2017 Tony nominated production of Present Laughter is good with his actors and keeps the play moving along but he can’t overcome the play’s deficiencies. Although the role of Sarah Bernhardt allows McTeer to cover a wide range of emotions, the play never allows her to have a real dramatic scene other than lose her temper with lover and son once in a while. She shimmers, she glitters, she shines, she switches emotions at the drop of a hat, but we never get to see her Bernhardt doing what she was most famous for – emoting in a great role that was all hers.
Jason Butler Harner is saddled with a very thin version of Rostand and is mostly required to whine and complain about his life and his career. Given a few emotional scenes with McTeer, he is always the same. As the famed actor Coquelin, later most famous for his Cyrano, Dylan Baker gives able support but mostly plays straight man to Bernhardt’s jokes. Matthew Saldivar makes the Czech painter Alphonse Mucha (whose posters of Bernhardt were recently exhibited at the Jewish Museum in New York) rather exotic, while Tony Carlin as the French theater critic Louis Lamercier is rather one note as a cynical conservative.
Nick Westrate is amusing as Bernhard’s son Maurice, the only one who can tell her off and speak to her without subterfuge. In her one scene as Rostand’s wife Rosamund, Ito Aghayere almost steals the show with her wily remarks and cunning scheme. As Lysette, the actress cast as Ophelia, Brittany Bradford is fine as a young ingénue in awe of Bernhardt’s talent and fame. As members of Sarah’s company, Triney Sandoval and Aaron Costa Ganis are fine as foils for Sarah in several supporting roles in her production of Hamlet.
Beowulf Boritt’s revolving set used for the onstage sequences as well as Sarah’s dressing room, a café frequented by Edmund and Louis, and Edmund’s study is serviceable but all the revolutions and turns become tiresome for this play in 12 scenes. The costumes by Toni-Leslie James are what you would expect for a traditional production of Hamlet but the women’s gowns for the 1897 period are occasionally breathtaking, while the men’s three piece outfits remain very conventional though most of these men are bohemians. On the other hand, Bradley King’s lighting is mainly undistinguished even though we are on the stage of the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt for rehearsals for the moody and atmospheric Hamlet most of the time.
Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet will be a guilty pleasure for many theatergoers with its backstage theater gossip among so many famous historical characters. For those not familiar with the people onstage, the theme of a woman fighting for her place in a field dominated by men will interest others. While director Moritz von Stuelpnagel keeps the plot moving at all times, the play only goes so far and remains a light comedy, not a major historical drama. British stage star Janet McTeer whose New York stage appearances are few and far between has a chance to dazzle as the greatest actress of her age, but the play stops short of letting us see Bernhardt in one of her great roles in full tilt. Enjoy Bernhardt/Hamlet for what it is but the play ultimately seems less than the sum of its parts.
Bernhardt/Hamlet (through November 11, 2018)
Roundabout Theater Company
American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-719-1300 or visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission