Theresa Rebeck’s play, directed with by Moritz von Stuelpnagel for the Roundabout Theatre Company, evokes the moment in the late 1890s when Bernhardt, then 55, became the first woman to play the Bard’s ultimate tragic antihero. She did this at the Parisian theater that then bore her own name, and which is now the Théâtre de la Ville.
We first see Bernhardt on stage, in white shirt and tight trousers and boots, about to soliloquize seriously. But she stops, queries, isn’t happy. And in all the actorly kerfuffle of rehearsals with the other members of the company, we see Bernhardt the actress: dramatic, bawdy, serious, focused, searching, scatty, and utterly in control.
McTeer’s Bernhardt is her own capricious weather system. She says she slept in a coffin to know the meaning of “the sleep of death” Shakespeare invokes in Hamlet. Bernhardt is all fun and games, until she is not. “No one upstages me,” she says with meaningful severity. Everyone is suddenly on edge. But she is goosing them; she laughs, they laugh.
Her foil on stage is Dylan Baker’s twinklingly lugubrious Constant Coquelin, who is playing the Ghost, Hamlet’s father. The duo, and their castmates, are a riot of miscues and joshing, and then suddenly they perform a section of the play in character and for real, and it is as sharply interpreted as you would wish. Beowulf Boritt’s revolving stage design takes us to a the theater’s bare stage, backstage, Bernhardt’s dressing room, and a lightly realized Parisian exterior.
McTeer’s Bernhardt is a towering person and personality, her own ship sailing her own ocean. The words “sexism” and “misogyny” were not common parlance, but Bernhardt faces both, and sheer puzzlement, from the men around her about the role she is taking on.
They latterly include her love interest, the married playwright Edmond Rostand (Jason Butler Harner). At first they seem equals. He is a mixture of strong opinions and grating devotion. Rostand is one of the few who can challenge Bernhardt, but you wonder what the hell she saw in him. Like most everyone on stage, he wilts in her presence.
This is one of the play’s chief weaknesses: McTeer’s Bernhardt is so strong and commanding you don’t see why, or how, anyone’s sexism would have affected her or her performance.
“All of theater is an act of ego,” Rebeck’s Bernhardt says. “If I am celebrated the world over as the greatest actress alive, that is not because my ego has failed me.”
Bernhardt knows her worth, and she refuses to be treated in any way lesser than because she is a woman. She relishes the dress of Hamlet; the immediate, swaggering, socially codified male command it gives her. (Toni Leslie-James’ costume design deserves special mention, not least for the beautiful, glittering, beaded dress Bernhardt wears for a party.)
Hamlet isn’t the only male part she would like to play, Bernhardt says: Mephistopheles, Tartuffe are others. “Why shouldn’t I play Hamlet? I am perfectly suited. Nobody cares about his masculinity. So called. They care about the magnificent nuance of his heart.” Characteristics and inner qualities cross genders, she insists.
A critic, Louis (an amalgam of Bernhardt’s male critical detractors) wonders why she can’t keep playing “Camille”: “She dies so beautifully.” The idea of her playing Hamlet is “grotesque” to him. But as Rostand says to him, men have been playing women’s roles in Shakespeare for years. Why can’t a woman play a man?
This is the central cultural argument of the play. It is well-made, and weakened only by being on focused on the commanding figure of Bernhardt, who doubts nothing and who is nobody’s fool or naif. Sure, she must worry if audiences will come, but of course they will come. It’s her.
She fascinates all those orbiting her. For Rostand, “everything brings me to her.” Brittany Bradford’s Lysette (playing Ophelia in the production) has an all-too-visible crush on Bernhardt,and doesn’t mind at all to be straddled for a few seconds too many in one scene. But Bernhardt, brutally, doesn’t consider her an equal, and doesn’t consider her much at all. Her narcissism is clear in this brief exchange, and then she corrects herself.
Matthew Saldivar’s Alphonse Mucha is the artist trying, frustratedly, to capture Bernhardt-as-Hamlet for the theater posters.
As defiantly individual and celebrated as she is, Bernhardt also feels the creeping ravages of age. She doesn’t want to play Camille anymore. “I cannot die every night anymore. I am simply done dying.” All men love Camille’s “beautiful whore,” who dies conveniently so he can continue with his life, she adds.
Her desire isn’t just to be able to play men, but—like female actors today—to be able to play female characters who do more than “sit around and mope for love.” She insists: “I do not want to be a man… I am not a tragic figure.”
In quieter moments, Bernhardt contemplates Hamlet’s relationship with his father, and how it echoes her own. We don’t hear much detail about their estrangement, but the pain is clear. “My own father was a ghost. Nowhere near this amusing. He just... didn’t exist.”
Bernhardt charges Rostand with rewriting Hamlet, just as her own son Maurice (Nick Westrate) re-enters her life. They are more like buddies, or naughty girlfriends, than mother and son. He seems censorious at first, but they are each other’s worlds and favorite mischief-makers. (He would eventually take over the theater when Bernhardt died in 1923, aged 78.)
We see Bernhardt lose her cool and primacy only once, in her dressing room confronted by Rosamond (a commanding Ito Aghayere), Rostand’s wife.
The puzzling, jarring late introduction of Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, featuring a female character Bernhardt hated, is used again to make a cultural point.
“I will not go back to playing flowers for you fools,” Bernhadt says. “Not because I am too old. But because I was never a flower, and no matter how much you loved how beautifully I might play the ingenue, it was always beneath me. It is beneath all women.”
Bernhardt was ahead of her time. According to this play, her strength and self-certainty, her outrageousness, her singularity, were her massed strength and shield. Bernhardt/Hamlet is an acting tour de force certainly, but it lacks a dramatic tension or trajectory to test its central feminist thesis.
Bernhardt, and the principles she aimed to enshrine in putting on this play, in insisting she was the right woman for the part, would prevail. The end of the play collides past and present.
Flickering through time, we see the real Bernhardt on film, playing Hamlet in the late 1890s. And as we applaud the barnstorming McTeer, we also applaud Sarah Bernhardt.
Bernhardt/Hamlet is at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, New York City, until Nov. 11. Book tickets here.