“The Divine Miss M Plays the Divine Sarah”
Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet, now being given a rumbustious but only partly satisfying Roundabout Theatre Company production, is a mixture of high comedy, theatrical history, dramaturgic satire, and feminist polemic centered on a brief period in the life of French theatrical star Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). Playing the Divine Sarah with an eye- and ear-catching mix of vinegar and vigor is the Divine Miss M, that is to say, British actress Janet McTeer, one of today’s most admired stage stars.
In her day, many considered Bernhardt the world’s greatest actress, at least until she was rivaled by Eleanora Duse. She was also one of the most notorious stars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her many love affairs, fashionable clothes, and personal eccentricities, like sleeping in a coffin or keeping a menagerie that included a pet lion, were fodder for public consumption.
And speaking of consumption, her most famous role, performed hundreds of times, was the tubercular courtesan, Marguerite Gautier, in La Dame aux Camelias, known in English as Camille.
The point of Bernhardt/Hamlet is to show the middle-aged actress (who was then, like McTeer, in her mid-50s) at that moment in her career where she wanted to move away from playing young women like the dying Marguerite and take on challenges like Hamlet. It was a natural progression, after all, since she had recently succeeded in another breeches role, Musset’s Lorenzaccio.
Of course, female stars playing iconic Shakespearean males were not unknown then, and are now rather common (as Glenda Jackson’s forthcoming King Lear demonstrates) but were rare enough for Bernhardt’s ambition to create a major artistic controversy That controversy (embodied in the presence of a critic named Louis [Tony Carlin]) and its discussion of the values and drawbacks of women playing male roles, would seem to be one raison d’être for the play. Another would be to confront the fear of women’s empowerment. As one man says, “A woman with power is a freak.”
Bernhardt/Hamlet occupies much of its two-hours and 20 minutes backstage and in the star’s dressing room (at Paris’s Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt, unnamed in the play), recently leased by the actress (who changed its name from the Théâtre des Nations). Her recent financial setbacks and extravagant lifestyle have necessitated a move to a larger venue than her most recent one.
The year given in the program is 1897, which should more likely be 1898 or 1899 (Hamlet opened in May 1899). Bernhardt, in white blouse and black tights and boots, is rehearsing scenes with a small group of actors. In addition to the one playing Ophelia (Brittany Bradford), there are three men, two of them (Aaron Costa Ganis and Triney Sandoval) playing multiple roles. The rehearsal scenes offer the familiar comical contretemps involving hammy actors, line troubles, and the like.
Also involved is Benoit-Constant (simply called Constant) Coquelin (Dylan Baker), cast by Rebeck as the Ghost, a secondary role, in Bernhardt’s Hamlet, even though he was already one of France’s top stars at the time. (This appears to be one of a number of dramatic liberties taken in Rebeck’s conflation of events.) One of the play’s most interestingly acted scenes involves Coquelin’s adjusting his overly exaggerated readings to more colloquially natural ones under Bernhardt’s astute direction.
Another dramatic liberty forms the principal dramatic backbone when it assumes that Bernhardt is having an affair with the dandified playwright Edmond Rostand (Jason Butler Harner), married with two young children. She wishes him to write a prose version of Hamlet for her because she has trouble with Shakespeare’s poetry. In reality, her Hamlet was a prose version created by Eugène Morand and Marcel Schwob.
While attempting to do this, Rostand, saying Bernhardt is his muse, keeps referring to a new play he’s working on for her, which those familiar with the period will immediately guess is Cyrano de Bergerac. In one of Rebeck’s fictional devices, he’s thinking of her for Roxanne. There’s even a scene when Rostand’s wife, Rosamond (Ito Aghayere), visits Bernhardt’s dressing room, not for the reason Bernhardt fears, but to drop off her husband’s manuscript. It’s obviously based on a roughly similar event a couple of years earlier when the wife, Rosamond Gérarde, a respected poet, had presented Bernhardt with the manuscript of Rostand’s La Princesse Lointaine.
The fact that Cyrano was produced in 1897, two years before Bernhardt’s Hamlet, is ignored in Rebeck’s time scheme. That’s because it allows important dramatic revelations to be made in a big scene during which she rejects the innocuous role of Roxanne and launches into a powerful feminist diatribe.
Toward the end, by the way, irrelevant as it is, we get not only a full-fledged scene from Cyrano starring Coquelin, for whom it became the role of a lifetime, but a film of the actual duel scene from the 1899 Bernhardt Hamlet, available here on YouTube.
McTeer gets lots of opportunities to rehearse material from Hamlet, even trying out radical ideas like making physical love to Ophelia. She argues that Hamlet isn’t a bearded 30-year-old, insisting he’s a beardless 19, and that nobody can understand the prince’s heart the way a woman can.
We see her in rehearsal clothes and, ultimately, in a semblance of the billowy costume Bernhardt wore in the role and which Alphonse Mucha (Matthew Saldivar), who plays a significant role in the play, memorialized in one of his most famous art nouveau posters.
The episodic play itself, despite Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s brisk direction, meanders through its scenes on the footlit stage (with its ropes, props, and beams), the star’s elaborately decorated dressing room, Rostand’s study, the street outside a café, and so on, all given attractive visual life on Beowulf Boritt’s revolving set. It’s handsomely lit by Bradley King and charmingly garbed in Toni-Leslie James’s period costumes. Rebeck’s dialogue is smart and engaging but the plot lumbers along from scene to scene without much dramatic thrust and laden with lots of talk and numerous emotion-wrought moments.
As expected, McTeer gives a tour de force performance of Bernhardt, whom she resembles not in the least, including the fact that she’s 6’1” and the Divine Sarah was 5’2”. But she has the fire, the gumption, the humor, and the fury, not to mention the voice, the energy, the presence, and the intelligence to make us watch her no matter what she does.
Most of the rest of the cast offers standard Broadway performances, sturdy, vocally strong, and unremarkable. Dylan Baker, always solid, is not quite the actor to portray so bold a thespian as Coquelin, and Jason Butler Harner flexes his histrionic muscles a bit too obviously. Nick Westrate, however, who portrays Bernhardt’s feckless son, Maurice, has some fine moments with McTeer late in the play.
Bernhardt/Hamlet is a lumpy but often enjoyable play about a theatrical legend, with a feminist message that our current generation will appreciate. In the end, though, the question Bernhardt/Hamlet asks is when will we see McTeer’s Hamlet?
Roundabout Theatre Company/American Airlines Theatre
227 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through November 11