The late actress Sarah Bernhardt shocked theatergoers when she decided to play the title character in “Hamlet” more than a century ago. Janet McTeer, the actress who currently plays Bernhardt on Broadway in “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” doesn’t think a whole lot has shifted since then.
“I think the conversation hasn’t changed that much,” McTeer said on the latest episode of Stagecraft, Variety‘s theater podcast. “If I said I was going to play ‘Hamlet,’ people would say, ‘That’s wonderful, but why?’ And you’d have to have a really good reason, instead of saying, ‘Well, it’s because it’s a great part and I want to play it.’ Why shouldn’t I play it?”
McTeer, the Tony winner (“A Doll’s House”) who’s had recent stints on “Jessica Jones” and “Ozark” before appearing in the current Facebook Watch series “Sorry for Your Loss,” performs bits of “Hamlet” in the latest play by Theresa Rebeck (“Smash”). The actress has plenty of experience with Shakespeare in pants: She starred in an all-female 2016 production of “The Taming of the Shrew” in which she played Petruchio.
These days, what with all-woman productions like “Shrew” and Glenda Jackson’s role in the upcoming Broadway staging of “King Lear,” it’s almost commonplace for actresses to play male roles in Shakespeare these days. But the endeavor has taken on new resonance in recent months as the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have taken hold.
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“At this moment in time, cross dressing and gender fluidity and all those things are in discussion in the culture in a very different way,” said playwright Rebeck on the podcast. “I felt, as I really just stood in [Sarah’s] story, that this was the moment where those questions started to arise, and that it was vital to all of us to look at the beginning of those questions. I think we skip over it sometimes.”
New episodes of “Stagecraft” are available every other Tuesday in July, August, and September, and then weekly beginning in October. Download and subscribe to “Stagecraft” on iTunes, Stitcher, or anywhere finer podcasts are dispensed. Find past episodes here and on Apple Podcasts.