×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Broadway Review: ‘Bernhardt/Hamlet’ Starring Janet McTeer

The sublime Janet McTeer plays the divine Sarah Bernhardt, who plays the immortal Hamlet in Theresa Rebeck’s new play.

With:
Janet McTeer, Dylan Baker, Jason Butler Harner, Matthew Saldivar, Nick Westrate, Tony Carlin, Ito Aghayere, Brittany Bradford, Aaron Costa Ganis, Triney Sandoval.

Love the boots! The sexy black ones that Tony winner Janet McTeer (“Sorry For Your Loss,” “Ozark”) dons to play the actress Sarah Bernhardt in the role of Hamlet are mentioned more than once in “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” Theresa Rebeck’s flattering account of that diva’s historic 1899 appearance before a skeptical Parisian audience.

In McTeer’s enthralling performance, this is a sexy, proud and very fashionable woman. At 55 years old, the French actress is the toast of the theatrical world, managing her own theater company, playing any role she fancies and having her pick of lovers. At the moment, she’s enamored of the 31-year-old French playwright Edmond Rostand, played with manly vigor and intelligence by Jason Butler Harner.

What heights were left for her to scale but Shakespeare’s most enigmatic hero? (The best Rostand could come up with was Roxane, the conventional ingenue in his play “Cyrano de Bergerac.”) It’s true that some disparaged her daring. The cranky English critic Max Beerbohm was quite adamant that “creative power, the power to conceive ideas, and execute them, is an exercise of virility,” adding that women who dare to take on male roles are merely “aping virility.”

To such criticism, Bernhardt’s response was, essentially: Stuff it. She also had an unassailable intellectual rationale: “I have often been asked why I am so fond of playing male parts. As a matter of fact, it is not male parts but male brains that I prefer.”

That fierce commitment is thrillingly conveyed in an extended scene in which Hamlet confronts his father’s uneasy ghost. If only Rebeck had shown us more scenes of Bernhardt’s mastery of Hamlet, we might have been more convinced of her claim to the role. Instead, the playwright has given a feminist slant to the actress’ daring. And given the fact that Bernhardt spoke out on political issues, and was famously said to sleep in a coffin and keep a pet tiger, she was clearly a rebel.

But honestly, there’s nothing specifically “feminist” about a woman who is a force in her own right and exerts her will to exercise her power. (“No one upstages me,” she famously said.) It’s called character, and Bernhardt had it in spades. During the Franco-Prussian War, she organized a military hospital in the Odeon Theater. After undergoing the amputation of a leg, she continued acting while sitting in a chair. And in World War I, she traveled in a special litter to perform for soldiers at the front. The woman was indomitable.

In any case, stripping the feminist tag from Bernhardt doesn’t diminish Rebeck’s characterization or detract from McTeer’s glowing performance. The challenges of aging, in particular, are handled with extreme sensitivity and a dash of sardonic humor. The fiftysomething diva is more than a bit touchy about playing the 19-year-old Hamlet. “We are told endlessly how young­ he is!” she rages.

But never for a moment does she question her ability to take on the role. “A young actor of, what, twenty cannot understand the philosophy of Hamlet. An older actor no longer looks the boy,” she reasons. “The woman more readily looks the part and feels the part, yet has the subtleness of mind to grasp it.”

This is all interesting, even provocative, but what’s missing is some reasonable dramatic conflict, personal or professional, to challenge her stature, her confidence, her magnificence. A trustworthy colleague who plays Polonius, Constant Coquelin (played by Dylan Baker in a sturdy performance), worries that she’ll make a fool of herself. Without even seeing her perform, Louis, a theater critic played with annoying self-confidence by Tony Carlin, insists that “she doesn’t have the instrument.” But no one seriously challenges her, not the way she constantly challenges herself.

The only character who comes close to that is Alphonse Mucha, the renowned visual artist played with a true artist’s sensibility by Matthew Saldivar, who agonizes over the poster image that keeps eluding him. He drags himself through the theatrical setting — hauntingly realized by Beowulf Boritt’s set and especially by Bradley King’s atmospheric lighting — moaning and groaning about the inadequacy of his art. Eventually, he comes up with the spectacular image — the one with Hamlet looking into the distance — that takes our breath away to this day.

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.

Broadway Review: 'Bernhardt/Hamlet' Starring Janet McTeer

American Airlines Theater, 740 seats; $149 top. Opened Sept. 25, 2018. Reviewed Sept. 21. Running time: TWO HOURS, 25 MIN.

Production: A Roundabout Theater Company production of a play in two acts by Theresa Rebeck.

Creative: Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel. Sets, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Toni-Leslie James; lighting, Bradley King; original music & sound, Fitz Patton; hair & wigs, Matthew B. Armentrout; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis; fight coach, Robert Westley; production stage manager, James FitzSimmons.

Cast: Janet McTeer, Dylan Baker, Jason Butler Harner, Matthew Saldivar, Nick Westrate, Tony Carlin, Ito Aghayere, Brittany Bradford, Aaron Costa Ganis, Triney Sandoval.

More Legit

  • By the Way Meet Vera Stark

    Off Broadway Review: 'By the Way, Meet Vera Stark' by Lynn Nottage

    After writing two harrowing Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, “Sweat” and “Ruined,” Lynn Nottage is entitled to have a little fun. But while this revival of her new play, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” walks and talks like a screwball comedy, it has a real brain in its head. Before we get too serious, let’s meet [...]

  • Merrily We Roll AlongRoundabout Theatre CompanyMERRILY

    Off Broadway Review: 'Merrily We Roll Along'

    Like the optimistic youths at the end — or is it the beginning? — of “Merrily We Roll Along,” creatives keep going back to this problematic Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical, re-imagining the show in the hope that the end results will be different this time around. They’re not. But disappointments are often off-set by new [...]

  • My Fair Lady Laura Benanti

    Listen: Laura Benanti on 'My Fair Lady' and the Secret to Her Melania Trump Impersonation

    Laura Benanti is now playing her dream role on Broadway. At the same time, the Tony winner (“Gypsy”) is also playing her toughest part ever. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “It’s the most demanding part I think I’ll probably play,” said Benanti, now appearing as Eliza Doolittle in Lincoln Center Theater’s well-received revival of [...]

  • Hamilton West End Production.

    'Hamilton' Panic Over Mistaken Reports of Gunfire Injures Three in San Francisco

    Three people were injured after mistaken reports of an active shooter at a San Francisco production of “Hamilton” caused attendees to flee the theater. CNN reported that a woman experienced a medical emergency — later determined to be a heart attack — during a scene in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play wherein Founding Father Alexander Hamilton is shot on [...]

  • The American Clock review

    London Theater Review: 'The American Clock'

    Time is money. Money is time. Both come unstuck in “The American Clock.” Arthur Miller’s kaleidoscopic account of the Great Depression, part autobiography, part social history, crawls through the decade after the Wall Street crash, dishing up snapshots of daily life. In the Old Vic’s classy revival, director Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”) tunes into the play’s [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Off Broadway Review: Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Sea Wall/A Life'

    Comfy? Okay, let’s talk Death: sudden death, painful death, lingering death, accidental death, and whatever other kinds of death happen to come into the receptive minds of playwrights Simon Stephens (“Sea Wall”) and Nick Payne (“A Life”). The writing in these separate monologues — playing together on a double bill at the Public Theater — [...]

  • Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    With an HBO documentary that places strong allegations of abuse against Michael Jackson premiering in two weeks, the late singer’s estate announced Thursday that it’s canceling a scheduled Chicago test run of a jukebox musical about him. The estate and its producing partner in the musical, Columbia Live Stage, said that they’re setting their sights on going [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content