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The Incredible True Story Behind 'Bernhardt/Hamlet'

Category Broadway

|by Ron Fassler |


A century before empowering women in theater became a topic of note, Sarah Bernhardt tackled the lead in 'Hamlet'

In accessing how best to spend hard-earned dollars for entertainment, particularly on Broadway, where ticket prices inch up with every new season, certain criteria should be evaluated: 1) Is the subject interesting? 2) Is the star actor someone you would see in just about anything? 3) Is the playwright someone whose work you’ve admired in the past?

In regard to Bernhardt/Hamlet, the first new production of the Roundabout Theatre’s 2018-19 season, my answer is “yes” to all of the above. Opening Sept. 25th at the American Airlines Theatre, and starring Tony Award-winning British actress Janet McTeer, this new comedy-drama from the Pulitzer Prize finalist Theresa Rebeck (SeminarDead Accounts) in a production directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel (Present LaughterHand to God) promises a behind-the-scenes look at a theatrical milestone set in another century. Its central figure, Sarah Bernhardt, was the greatest actress of her day. Having Janet McTeer, certainly one of the finest actresses of the present moment, embody this artist, would seem a perfect fit as appointment theatre.

Janet McTeer as Sarah Bernhardt in ‘Bernhardt/Hamlet’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Janet McTeer as Sarah Bernhardt in ‘Bernhardt/Hamlet’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Born on October 22, 1844 in Paris, France, Sarah Bernhardt’s path to becoming the leading actress in the latter part of the 19th century was a fascinating one. But playwright Rebeck is interested in just a short period of time in her career (one that lasted sixty years), and sets her play in 1899, when “the Divine Sarah,” as she was known throughout the world, took on the title role in Shakespeare’s masterwork: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

She was fifty-five years old.

With glimpses of the play in rehearsal, Bernhardt/Hamlet shows the actress valiantly plumbing the depths of Shakespeare’s play, while at the same time fighting a feeling she is coming up short. Somewhat insecure (and who could blame her?), Bernhardt turned to the poet and playwright Edmond Rostand (Cyrano de Bergerac) for help in rewriting the Bard’s great work, perceived by many at the time to be something of a sacrilege. To complicate the situation, Bernhardt was in the midst of conducting an extra-marital affair with Rostand, furtively attempting to prevent his wife from finding out. Other characters in the play include such real-life contemporaries as Constant Coquelin, the French actor who created the role of Cyrano; Bernhardt’s only child, Maurice; and Alfonse Mucha, an artist who created iconic Art Nouveau posters of Bernhardt’s great stage roles.

McTeer – whose performance as Nora Helmer in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in its 1997 Broadway production deservedly won her every conceivable theatre award, including the Best Actress Tony – will be joined in Bernhardt/Hamlet by stage veterans Dylan Baker (The Front Page; The Audience) and Jason Butler Harner (The Crucible, The Coast of Utopia). The director, Moritz von Stuelpnagel, has gone two-for-two in his two prior Broadway outings: the 2017 revival of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, which won Kevin Kline his third Tony Award, and Robert Askins’ Hand to God, for which von Stuelpnagel was Tony-nominated as Best Director.

In Bernhardt’s ambitious attempt to take on the role of Hamlet, Rebeck has set the bar high for the character, as well as for McTeer. Bernhardt bravely went out on a limb, putting her reputation on the line and challenging the naysayers of her day. With the subject of women’s empowerment at the forefront of our current climate in 2018, this play, set such a long time ago, should be ideally poised to resonate with audiences now. And with its mix of drama, comedy and romance – plus an added dash of Shakespeare, to boot – who could ask for anything more?

Bernhardt/Hamlet is currently in previews, with an opening night set for September 25th. Tickets are on sale now through November 11th.

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