REVIEW: “Bernhardt/Hamlet”—bold and incoherent

REVIEW: “Bernhardt/Hamlet”—bold and incoherent


Roundabout Theatre Company bills itself as New York’s home for “enduring classics and brave new works”.  With Theresa Rebeck’s largely incoherent “Bernhardt/Hamlet”, the first new play of the 2018/2019 Broadway season, the company lives up to both aims of its mission.  

Starring the dynamic Janet McTeer as legendary French actor Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), this discursive new play ambitiously sets out to dramatize Bernhardt’s famed 1897 turn playing Hamlet at her theatre in Paris—the greatest actor of the 19th century tackling the greatest part available—and along the way touches on a panoply of themes and ideas.

Among them: the casting predicament facing an aging female actor; the policing of women under the male gaze; limits of the critic’s imagination; breaking of gender conventions in Shakespeare productions; the birth of naturalism on stage; the complex and frustrated relationship between playwright and actor (both literally and figuratively); the nature of performance as translation; and—as a surprise late in Act II—the debut of Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac”.

In attempting to explore all of these varied things in one play, “Bernhardt/Hamlet”, under the breakneck direction of Moritz von Stuelpnagel (“Hand to God”), ends up doing none of them well.

A backstage comedy of historical fiction commissioned by Roundabout, the play so often amounts to not much more than an animated rendering of the musings of a college thesis paper in dramaturgy—a study of process on parade with politics.

While Ms. Rebeck’s Bernhardt is liberal with her charge that Shakespeare’s poetry is prolix, she indulges in her own flights of verbosity in scenes that operate as mini-plays themselves, each centered around an argument or idea, the threads of which do not amount to a cohesive total.

The play opens as Bernhardt, often considered the world’s first celebrity, now in her 50s, makes the groundbreaking decision to play Hamlet, a boy whose age is debated among the characters (is he 19 or is he 30?).  While it had been the custom for men to female characters in the Elizabethan theatre, a woman playing a male character was widely frowned upon, if not outright unheard of.  Throughout the balance of the play, Bernhardt works to discover her Hamlet in a never-ending series of sprawling rehearsals, tasking her lover, the otherwise married playwright Edmond Rostand (Jason Butler Harner), with drafting a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s play stripped of its poetry.

Among several B-plots are a visit from Bernhardt’s only-child, a son named Maurice (Nick Westrate), and the trial of painter Alphonse Mucha (Matthew Saldivar)—the father of Art Noveau—as he struggles to capture Bernhardt’s Hamlet for a lithograph poster.

There are other tangents, too, each capturing some other aspect of the artistic continuum (actor, writer, painter, critic, patron), but they are beside the point—and that is my point.  In the end, Ms. McTeer, who no doubt possesses a commanding stage presence, is set up to fail. 

Sarah Bernhardt is known as the greatest actor of her, or perhaps any, generation, and the text takes care to make this point.  Short of casting Meryl Streep, though, I don’t know what actor could possibly match that expectation today.  What’s more, the power of Bernhardt’s feminism, and the play’s discourse about gender politics, is muted by the lack of any serious foil, and blunted by the shallowness of its one-note presentation.

As we live amid a potential tectonic shift in female power and representation in government and media, the play, despite its foundation and the history it recounts, has nothing particularly interesting or illuminating to say to us about this subject.  Bernhardt’s achievement feels like old news (Phyllida Lloyd recently staged all female productions of “Julius Caesar”, “Henry IV”, and “The Tempest”; Glenda Jackson plays Lear on Broadway this spring), and the character’s self-evident speech about women’s equality in act two feels unearned, ill-placed, and cynically applause-seeking. 

Mirroring the play, Beowulf Borrit’s revolving set provides a confusing sense of place that hovers between realism and symbolism, but mostly dwarfs the action it accompanies in scale and frame, though providing richly appointed moments, particularly in Bernhardt’s backstage dressing room. 

Likewise, handsome period costumes by Toni-Leslie James couple with fine performances throughout to make “Bernhardt/Hamlet” watchable, despite its illegibility.  If your idea of fun is watching a rehearsal, this is the play for you.  For my money, I’d much rather see Ms. McTeer play Hamlet.

Bottom Line: Theresa Rebeck’s “Bernhardt/Hamlet” is a backstage comedy-drama of historical fiction recounting Sarah Bernhardt’s groundbreaking 1897 turn as Hamlet in Paris; discursive, incoherent, and verbose, the play has nothing particularly interesting to say about gender politics as it ambitiously attempts to tackle a panoply of themes and ideas.  I’d much rather see Ms. McTeer play Hamlet than watch an endless series of rehearsals.

Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street,
New York, NY 10036

Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: September 25, 2018
Final Performance: November 11, 2018
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