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.