Review: ‘Bernhardt/Hamlet’ at the American Airlines Theatre

By Jonathan Spira on 19 October 2018
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Sarah Bernhardt was a force of nature, one that perhaps even today’s celebrities with millions of Instagram followers could not begin to replicate.

What other actress had her own theater, in this case Theater Sarah Bernhardt, the former Théâtre des Nations or, after suffering the amputation of a leg late in life, was carried around in a palanquin decorated in the Louis VI style.

She was one of the first prominent actresses to act in motion pictures and to make phonograph recordings, the latter significant because it archived what Victor Hugo called her “golden voice” for eternity.

Over 30,000 people attended her funeral and followed her casket from the Church of Saint-Francoise-de-Sales past her theater – pausing for a moment of silence – en route to the cemetery.

In 1899, she appeared – cross-dressing – in the lead role of “Hamlet” and “Bernhardt/Hamlet” is Theresa Rebecca’s account of that historic performance that set Paris abuzz.

Janet McTeer stars as an indomitable middle-aged Sarah Bernhardt in this mostly wonderful Roundabout Theatre production.

It’s Bernhardt versus the men in her life, most notably the great Edmond Rostand (Jason Butler Harner), known for his play “Cyrano de Bergerac”; Alphonse Muca (Matthew Saldivar), the brilliant Art Nouveau artist behind Bernhardt’s magnificent posters; her son Maurice (Nick Westrate); and theater critic Louis (Tony Carlin), who doesn’t hold back.

At the turn of the century, some were disparaging of the idea of Bernhardt as Hamlet, with one critic going so far as to say that women who would play men’s roles were “aping virility.”

Bernhardt would have none of that. She did not see herself as a feminist or as groundbreaking, but merely as Bernhardt (the sole word that would be written on her tombstone). “No one upstages me,” she famously said. (T-shirts quoting that sentence are available at the kiosk outside the theater for $40.)

If you can make it through the first act, which moves painfully slowly, the payoff comes in act 2.

Here we see Bernhardt as Hamlet in a rather haunting scene in which Hamlet confronts his father’s looming ghost.

The combination of Beowulf Boritt’s magnificent revolving set, with Bradley King’s lighting, creates a mood that figuratively brings Bernhardt back to life.

Once it gets moving, “Bernhardt/Hamlet” is witty, thought provoking, and thoroughly modern in its look on gender roles.

Indeed, when all was said and done, all that was missing was her famous coffin.

THE DETAILS

Bernhardt/Hamlet
227 West 42 Street
New York, N.Y. 10036
Runtime: 2 hours and 25 min.
www.roundabouttheatre.org

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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