Playing the great Belle Époque actress Sarah Bernhardt, who is herself, preparing to play Hamlet, Janet McTeer proves to be a woman not only for all seasons, but particularly and triumphantly for this one. Theresa Rebeck’s world premiere play, “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” is an investigation of creative genius in female form. The part gives McTeer not only a potentially career-defining star turn, but one that is uncannily tuned in to the current zeitgeist of traditional gender power dynamics that continue to challenge newly empowered women.  

McTeer, who won a Tony Award almost 20 years ago for her indelible portrayal of “Nora” in “A Doll’s House,” is now at the height of her very considerable powers. In “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” she plays an actress who could legitimately claim to be the most famous and charismatic woman in the world, and one utterly in command of her both her art and her engineered celebrity. Happily, McTeer meets this challenge with unswerving authenticity and prowess.

The action begins in 1899 with Bernhardt, at age 55, sorely in need of a commercial success bolstered by a recognizable title. To that end, Bernhardt is determined, against all advice to the contrary, to tackle the part of Hamlet. She takes on the role partly because she is tired of endlessly recycling her previous successes, and she alone can claim the privilege of taking on a great classical role considered off-limits to women. But, she is also a savvy producer, as the owner and manager of a newly built 2,600-seat theater, and realizes that the “Hamlet” controversy will likely be good for business.

That is, if she can make her version of “Hamlet” a success. Going so far as to defy Shakespeare’s place in the pantheon of male brilliance, Bernhardt is impatient both with iambic pentameter and with elevated poetic language. She wants to liberate Hamlet from previous renditions by focusing not on his reflective qualities, but instead on his actions. Hamlet is to furiously pursue vengeance, without the handicap of ennui. Moreover, he is to do so with dispatch, as Bernhardt also argues for significant cuts to the text. (“The audience will thank us!”) Radically, she does not want to exploit the conventionally feminine ability to convey emotion, but rather she wants to “man up” Hamlet, a choice that makes the men around her question just how much power they are willing to grant the “Divine Sarah.”

That question also affects Bernhardt on a personal level. The actress is involved in a conflicted adulterous relationship with the playwright Edmond Rostand (Jason Butler Harner, a worthy foil to McTeer) — he has a wife and infant children — but both are locked in a consuming passion fueled by their mutual creative narcissism. To Bernhardt, he is the greatest contemporary playwright and a singular soul mate; for the obsessed Rostand, only the sublime gifts of Bernhardt can elevate his drama. He does not however fully approve of her resolve not only to play Hamlet, but also to do so in an original adaptation that challenges traditional interpretations of the play. This quickly exacerbates tensions between the two, especially when Bernhardt compels Rostand to write the new version she envisions. (That’s one strategy for keeping an elusive lover close at hand.)

The critics too appear primed to attack Bernhardt’s Hamlet, with one of their representatives, Louis (Tony Carlin), asking why Bernhardt considers it necessary to attempt such pointed female irreverence. “A woman with power is not holy,” he piously opines. Even her grown son Maurice (a sympathetic Nick Westrate), who appears to share a profound bond with his mother, arrives on the scene questioning her choice of role, as well as her choice of suitor.

How does Sarah respond? “There will be other Hamlets. But I will not be told that I cannot create my Hamlet. A Hamlet who is vital and fierce.”

Bernhardt is assisted in her staging of “Hamlet” by the eminent actor, Constant Coquelin, played by Dylan Baker, who delivers a generous and multilayered performance as Bernhardt coaches Coquelin toward a more naturalistic acting style. The troupe also includes an adoring and loyal young woman set to play Ophelia (a heartfelt Brittany Bradford), comical bit players whose upstaging antics Bernhardt tolerates with surprising restraint and artist Alphonse Mucha (played by Matthew Saldivar in a warm and wise performance), who has long created theatrical posters for Bernhardt and is part of the inner circle of men who surround her and attempt to adjudicate her decisions.

Presumably we are meant to admire Bernhardt’s temerity in insisting on creating the role entirely on her own terms. It is hard to argue that she has not earned the right, especially since it is solely her reputation and finances that will suffer if the gamble goes against her. And it is kind of great, in fact, to watch a woman in charge defiantly take a big risk with such great hubris. “I am a celebrity, Hamlet is not,” Bernhardt says. Certainly in the case of male genius that attitude is often regarded as both expected and deserved. (History tells us that Hamlet à la Bernhardt was reduced to 12 separate scenes and, of course, performed entirely in French.)

But, the manipulative, mercurial and often self-serving Bernhardt envisioned by Rebeck is far from a postfeminist icon, and not only because of her unbridled sense of her own consequence.

This Bernhardt appears to care only for the opinion of men, while the real-life Bernhardt had many long-standing significant friendships with women, both romantic and otherwise. Some of her female employees appear to dislike her — though the grumbling in the costume shop may be more about the difficulty of working for a woman, and of that woman trying to figure out how to be “acceptably” in charge. Even ordinary women apparently envy her freedom and strength. If this is an attempt to point to the modern trope that women do not support successful women, it also points out one of the challenges of the play: Rebeck is attempting to make the play feel both contemporary and convincingly historical, as it pertains to Bernhardt.  That’s a tricky balancing act, which sometimes works, but sometimes does not.

Furthermore, in her relationship with Rostand, Sarah demonstrates no compunction about the claims of his family, which make her eventual reckoning with those social forces all the more sobering. (A compelling Ito Aghayere plays the resourceful and selfless Madame Rostand with a hand of steel in a velvet glove.) But Bernhardt does not need to be a paragon of current political gender correctness in order to be worthy of our attention as both an artist and a genre-defying personality.

I was very happy to spend an evening in her sphere, and share her frustration about the paucity of parts for extraordinary women. Part of that happiness comes, of course, from McTeer’s acting, but also from the direction of Moritz von Stuelpnagel, who keeps the action moving smoothly and helps illuminate the humor in this deftly constructed and idea-rich play.

Now that “Bernhardt/Hamlet” has proved that McTeer is a master of Shakespeare’s poetry, wouldn’t we all like to see her do “Hamlet” in its entirety? Meanwhile, we will have to content ourselves with the snatches we glimpse in this fine new American play.

 

“Bernhardt/Hamlet” opened at the American Airlines Theatre on Tues., Sept. 25, 2018. 

Creative: Written by Theresa Rebeck; Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel; Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt; Costume Design by Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Design by Bradley King; Original Music and Sound Design by Fitz Patton.

Producers: Roundabout Theatre Company.

Cast: Janet McTeer, Dylan Baker, Jason Butler Harner, Matthew Saldivar, Nick Westrate, Tony Carlin, Ito Aghayere, Brittany Bradford, Aaron Costa Ganis, Triney Sandoval, Matthew Amendt, Jenelle Chu, Kate Levy, Chris Thorn.