In the online edition of today’s Wall Street Journal, I review the Broadway premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet. Here’s an excerpt.
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To most people, the name of Sarah Bernhardt is a dead metaphor, a faded reference to over-the-top stage acting (as in “Don’t be such a Sarah Bernhardt, for God’s sake”). Truth to tell, though, even seasoned theater buffs tend not to know all that much about Bernhardt, legendary though she is. This makes sense, since she was chiefly active around the turn of the 20th century, performed exclusively in French and didn’t live long enough to make sound films, though she did cut a few records prior to her death in 1923 on which she sounds to modern ears rather like a comedian spoofing the excesses of an old-fashioned ham actor.
So why has Theresa Rebeck now written a Broadway play about her called “Bernhardt/Hamlet”? Because Bernhardt famously essayed the title role of “Hamlet,” in which she appeared in Paris and London in 1899, well over a century before such exercises in theatrical gender-bending became, if not quite commonplace, then increasingly frequent. Max Beerbohm, who saw and reviewed Bernhardt’s Hamlet in London, dismissed it as humorless and absurd, naughtily claiming that “the only compliment one can conscientiously pay her is that her Hamlet was, from first to last, très grande dame.” But all that survives of her interpretation is “Le duel d’Hamlet,” a two-minute film in which Bernhardt can be seen clashing swords with Laertes, which doesn’t exactly tell you what her acting was like.
The good news is that this leaves Ms. Rebeck plenty of room in which to maneuver. The bad news is that she doesn’t seem to be sure what to do with it. I wish I could say otherwise, for her premise is promising, but “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” in which Janet McTeer plays the title role(s), fails to deliver the goods….
“Bernhardt/Hamlet” never manages to decide whether it’s a comedy à la “Noises Off” or a dead-serious play about a great artist stymied by the prejudices of the 19th-century culture into which she was born. The rehearsal scenes, whose over-obvious humor is mostly rooted in clichés about the vanities of actors, endeavor to be much funnier than they really are, while the serious scenes, in which Bernhardt explains why she is equal to the task of playing Hamlet her way, are unintentionally funny…
Ms. McTeer, perhaps not coincidentally, also played Petruchio in Phyllida Lloyd’s 2016 Shakespeare in the Park production of “The Taming of the Shrew.” She is a distinguished stage actor, but I was struck on that occasion by how completely unfunny she was, and I came away from “Bernhardt/Hamlet” with the same impression….
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Read the whole thing here.
Excerpts from Bernhardt/Hamlet:
“Le duel d’Hamlet,” a 1900 silent film directed by Clément Maurice in which Sarah Bernhardt is seen in an excerpt from Shakespeare’s play. The film was originally released with a synchronized soundtrack—one of the earliest attempts of its kind—but the sound elements have not survived:
A 1903 recording of Sarah Bernhardt speaking a monologue from Racine’s Phèdre: