Review of Bernhardt/Hamlet, starring Janet McTeer, on Broadway

  • Our critic's rating:
    October 3, 2018
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    As the leader of this motley crew of fine actors in Bernhardt/HamletJanet McTeer is quite, quite wonderful. Period. She is mercurial and thoughtful. She conveys the feeling that she is looking for just the right word to say, and that she herself is not certain what that might be. She keeps you on alert, which is the job of an actor. Less satisfying is the play Bernhardt/Hamlet in which McTeer is appearing.

    Theresa Rebeck is a smart writer, and in this case she is taking on two towering legends: Bernhardt AND Shakespeare. Rebeck does not hold back and lets us in on the divine Bernhardt tinkering - yes indeed - with Hamlet. When others try to feed her the lines, she explains again and again, like a parent to a child, that she knows the lines. It is the meaning she is trying to decipher. When others have moved into the space of delivering their lines out of habit, she pulls them out of that orbit. She demands that they listen - and this is not an activity that most are used to. In a particularly moving scene with Constant Coquelin (Dylan Baker), Bernhardt strips bare the scene between Hamlet and the ghost of his father. Bernhardt goes at the script like a surgeon with a laser. What is all the poetry for? Why so many words for a man who is bereft of feeling? This Hamlet is eating away at her core. The only thing outside of her passion for Hamlet is her passion for Edmond Rostand (Jason Butler Harner) - the author of Cyrano De Bergerac. Rostand is married, but this is no impediment to their relationship, except when it is. Their passion is matched by their intellect in every way, and their encounters are more like sparring matches.

    There is a lot of sparring in this play. In the first act the journey is focused on dropping deep into the text of Hamlet to the point where Bernhardt asks Rostand to re-write it for her - taking out all that blasted poetry. The second act is a whole other country. The majority of it is a dinner party tucked into Berhardt's dressing room where she takes on four men: Rostand, Coquelin, the artist and creator of her many performances posters Alphonse Much (Matthew Saldivar) and a critic simply referred to as Louis (Tony Carlin). This is a fascinating debate over the propriety of Bernhardt playing Hamlet - the play has not opened at this point, so why the dinner party was in her dressing room is a bit of a mystery. Bernhardt takes these men on the way Serena Williams might engage with four teenage boys on the other side of the net. She dismisses their concerns as plebeian or trounces them with philosophy of her own that she finds infinitely more interesting. It is a fascinating scene that serves to educate us even further on the exploits of Bernhardt, but achieves no other purpose. It is only the awkward entry of Rosamond Rostand (Ito Aghayere), wife of Edmond, that adds a plot point. She brings with her the latest script that her husband has stopped writing because of his devotion to Sarah's whim of a new Hamlet. It is this play that will finally divide the two lovers. In an odd choice we actually see a scene from the play, which is as jarring as it is wildly out of place.

    The most fascinating scenes are between the men who discuss Bernhard, well out of earshot. They don't know how she does what she does, but her performances are beyond anything they have ever experienced.

    As Mucha says: I sketch. You live. Inside something so enormous, and when it rises in you, you transform us all. It is impossible to tell you what we see, when we watch you.

    It is Bernhardt's off-stage choices that these men question, both out of propriety and out of fear that she may do damage to herself. These men are invested, and her choices drag them along with her, whether they want to go or not. Bernhardt cast a wide net at a time when the only way to communicate was by writing a letter or showing up in person and she remains a living legend over 100 years later.

    What is lacking in Bernhardt/Hamlet is a strong plot, a reason to move forward, something that raises the stakes. This is not easy in a biographical drama. We know how it turned out so what is there to worry about? Sadly not a lot, and because of this Janet McTeer, though quite wonderful, never makes the leap into the Bernhardt that everyone is discussing. I never forgot that it was McTeer up there - entertaining and inspiring, but never Bernhardt.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus) 

    What the popular press says...

    "Is it chance or synchronicity that brings Bernhardt/Hamlet, a muscular comedy about a woman unbound, to Broadway at this grim transitional moment in gender politics? Either way, Theresa Rebeck’s new play, which opened on Tuesday at the American Airlines Theatre, is so clever it uplifts, so timely it hurts."
    Jesse Green for New York Times

    "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."
    Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

    "Theresa Rebeck is a gutsy playwright. In writing about Sarah Bernhardt's quest to play Hamlet in 1897, she created a nearly impossible challenge for herself, seeking an actress who could live up to Bernhardt's iconic status as the greatest actress alive. Rebeck did get lucky, casting the incomparable Janet McTeer, but while topically resonant, Bernhardt/Hamlet is dramatically inert."
    Roma Torre for NY1

    "Few performers today have the quicksilver command and agile wit of Janet McTeer, so casting her as Sarah Bernhardt, the famed French thespian of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was inspired. Even more so once the focus tightens onto “The Divine Sarah” as she chafes against the limited avenues open to women in the theater, ignoring naysayers in her determination to tackle one of the greatest male roles in the dramatic canon, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But despite many tantalizing elements and historical material ripe for exploration from a contemporary feminist perspective, Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet doesn’t add up to a play. At least not a satisfying one."
    David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

    "Under Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s tightly choreographed direction, this solid cast of characters encircle Bernhardt like planets following their star. And blazing stars they certainly are, both McTeer and Bernhardt, yoked in a dynamic character study that, for all its shining moments, is no play."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - Time Out - NY1 - Hollywood Reporter - Variety