Chief New York Theatre Critic
Outer Critics Circle / Drama Desk Member
Sarah Bernhardt (an intense and commanding Janet McTeer) struggles with her decision to play Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” not because of self-doubt or weakness, but because she is not sure William Shakespeare wrote the tragedy all that well or fully understood the play’s protagonist. During rehearsals for the play and for Bernhardt’s groundbreaking role as Hamlet, she argues with her cast about Hamlet’s age and demeanor and wonders why the ghost of Hamlet’s father “comes in armor? I’m his son. Why doesn’t he just talk to me?” In Theresa Rebeck’s “Bernhardt/Hamlet” currently running at Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre, Bernhardt is so convinced the Bard got it wrong that she urges the French dramatist – and her married paramour – Edmond Rostand (a passionate and somewhat languorous Jason Butler Harner) to adapt the tragedy to her specifications.
Ms. Rebeck’s compelling new play explores in depth Sarah Bernhardt’s struggles with playing “Hamlet” and her compassion for being a “thinking” actor who works her craft with “feeling.” Bernhardt takes no prisoners in this effort; rather, she draws upon her power to navigate her journey to authenticity and believability on the stage. When Rostand fails in his efforts to adapt “Hamlet” to her liking and spend his time on “Cyrano de Bergerac,” Bernhardt replaces him with Marcel Schwob and Eugene Morand whose translation (with Bernhardt as Hamlet) is staged in Paris in 1899. Not even “love” gets in the way of Sarah Bernhardt’s passion for the theatre.
That passion is exemplified in Bernhardt’s conversation with Constant Coquelin (Dylan Baker) during a rehearsal of “Hamlet” when he is delivering his lines as the ghost of Hamlet’s father. “Yes, I have it Constant I have the words it’s the sense of it that eludes. I cannot make it out! “Is it not monstrous that this player here but in a fiction, in a dream of passion could force his soul so to his own conceit” how is that monstrous. He is a player. It is what players do.” For Sarah Bernhardt, nothing stands in the way of the actor tackling a role with thoughtful feeling. Ms. Rebeck captures that passion with ethos, pathos, and logos. Her writing connects with the audience on significant and enduring levels.
Janet McTeer (Sarah Bernhardt), Dylan Baker (Constant Coquelin), and Jason Butler Harner (Edmond Rostand) deliver towering performances under Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s exacting direction. Together with the rest of the ensemble cast, they find the delicious layers in Theresa Rebeck’s script and expose them to the audience with conviction and grace. Brittany Bradford is an intense and gracious Lysette and Ito Aghayere is a jealous and commandeering Rosamond. Matthew Saldivar (Alphonse Mucha), Nick Westrate (Maurice), Tony Carlin (Louis), Aaron Costa Ganis (Raoul), and Triney Sandoval (Francois) round out the cast.
Beowulf Boritt’s massive revolving set allows the action of the play to easily open from the commanding stage to Bernhardt’s dressing room and other locations. Toni-Leslie James’s costumes are period-perfect and Bradley King’s lighting drapes the stage in luminous folds of splendor.
At the end of “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” the audience sees a clip from the 1900 film adaptation of “Hamlet” in which Sarah Bernhardt appears as Hamlet dueling Laertes. This is a fitting conclusion to an important dramatic exploration of the life and passion of Sarah Bernhardt and a celebration of women and power.
Bernhardt/Hamlet stars Janet McTeer as “Sarah Bernhardt,” Dylan Baker as “Constant Coquelin” and Jason Butler Harner as “Edmond Rostand.” The cast also includes Matthew Saldivar as “Alphonse Mucha,” Nick Westrate as “Maurice,” Tony Carlin as “Louis,” Ito Aghayere as “Rosamond,” Brittany Bradford as “Lysette,” Aaron Costa Ganis as “Raoul” and Triney Sandoval as “Francois.”
The creative team includes Beowulf Boritt (Set Design), Toni-Leslie James (Costume Design), Bradley King (Lighting Design) and Fitz Patton (Original Music and Sound Design).
“Bernhardt/Hamlet” runs at the American Airlines Theatre on Broadway (227 West 42nd Street) through November 11 on the following performance schedule: Tuesday through Saturday evening at 8:00 p.m. with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2:00 p.m., and Sunday matinees at 3:00 p.m. Tickets at $49.00-$139.00 are available by calling 212-719-1300, or online at www.roundabouttheatre.org. Running time is 2 hours and 25 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Photo: Jason Butler Harner and Janet McTeer in “Bernhardt/Hamlet.” Credit: Joan Marcus.