In 1899, Sarah Bernhardt decided to take on the role of Hamlet. The most famous actress of her—perhaps of any — time was no longer comfortable playing ingenues, and the parts written for women in their 50s held no interest for her. Her daring gender crossing is considered a seminal moment in the history of performing arts. She could keep a pet tiger and a fleet of lovers, and even sleep in a coffin, but her decision to play a man was treated by critics at the time as one “eccentricity” too far. The event should have made for a compelling play, at least for theater buffs and cultural historians. Unfortunately in Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet, the excitement is smothered by too much talk and upstaged by scenes written by the Bard himself.
Bernhardt/Hamlet is the first commissioned original work that Roundabout has brought to Broadway. Despite a lengthy development process, the piece still feels like it was created by committee and at the very least could do with another round of editing. There are a number of enlightening themes explored in Rebeck’s script including the inner life of Shakespeare’s famed Danish Prince. It becomes obvious that Hamlet and Bernhardt share an almost crushing doubt about their purpose. Strongest of all are Bernhardt’s observation about gender issues that persist to this day, especially the challenges facing talented women who are too old to play 20 something convincingly and too fierce to take a tiny supporting role. Bernhardt had successfully portrayed Cleopatra, Cordelia, Desdemona and Ophelia, all of which had become inappropriate. What was left for an actress of her range to play except Shakespeare’s most defining role? Sadly, too much of the banter sounds like it’s coming from the head instead of the heart, robbing the exchanges of any emotion that could move and inspire the audience. The production comes across like someone sharing the love of ballet by drawing it on a chalkboard.
The characters’ nattering is made worse by the static direction of Moritz von Stuelpnagel. Even the more crackling stretches of Rebeck’s dialogue are choked off by the lack of movement. The enclosed feeling is made worse by Beowulf Boritt’s suffocating set. Never has Paris seemed less lively. This lack of energy becomes is most noticeable during fast paced scene changes, which are accompanied by dramatic original music by Fitz Patton. At least costumes by Toni-Leslie James and hair and wigs by Matthew B. Armentrout are appropriately jazzy.
What’s happening front and center is worthy of the Divine Sarah. Like the one-of-a-kind star she is portraying, Janet McTeer dominates the stage with her honeyed voice, graceful stature and sheer presence. Slightly more exaggerated is Dylan Baker’s performance as Constant Coquelin, Bernhardt’s frequent leading man. Though he can’t match her vigor, he injects wit into their banter. Jason Butler Harner as her lover Edmond Rostand embodies a realistic combination of lust and haplessness. As his wife, Ito Aghayere who sparkled in Junk last season, is disappointing and flat in a significant scene.
At nearly 2 1/2 hours, Bernhardt/Hamlet will likely be a slog for all but the most dedicated lovers of “straight” theater. It’s a missed opportunity to share a shining moment when a talented actress took charge of her own career. Bernhard, Hamlet, and Ms. McTeer all deserve better. Tickets are on sale through November 11 at https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/Shows-Events/Bernhardt-Hamlet.aspx.