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Theatre in Review: Bernhardt/Hamlet (Roundabout Theatre Company/American Airlines Theatre)

Dylan Baker, Janet McTeer. Photo: Joan Marcus

"I am Sarah Bernhardt. Like all actors, I am air." Yes, but what rarified and invigorating air, at least when the divine Sarah is being interpreted by the irrepressible, impossibly gifted Janet McTeer. Fitted out with a tangle of golden fleece for hair, a voice as melodious as a lute, and a glint in her eye that alternately suggests genius, madness, and a taste for mischief, just for the hell of it, McTeer is, like The Tempest's Ariel, an air sprite, enchanting and confounding in equal measure. From her first entrance, in which she goes up in the middle of Hamlet's "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!" soliloquy -- the play has just begun and already she is quarreling with the spirit of Shakespeare -- she instantly convinces us that she is a fascinating, maddening, willful talent.

Indeed, age cannot wither nor can custom stale the panoply of quicksilver emotions that flow from this being. To put it in twenty-first-century terms, she is the ultimate disruptive force. "No one upstages me," she decrees to her fellow players, catching a couple of supporting players in the act, making everyone, including herself, laugh nervously at her imperiousness. She interrupts a tryst with her lover to make a bluntly practical announcement: "Your wife sent a man to my dressing room looking for you. I think we can safely say she suspects." Dispatching, once and for all, the prospect of another Camille, one of her most successful roles, she says, "I have revived her so many times she is death personified. I cannot die every night anymore." Coolly dismissing her son, who shows up to deliver a few unpleasant truths, she murmurs, "You were more pleasant when you were a tiny boy, telling me you loved me all the time." As befits the world's greatest actress, she is forever in rehearsal, trying on emotions like a succession of hats, flirting with different shadings, and running through one balletic gesture after another. Mere mortals must struggle to keep up.

Ironically, so fluent is McTeer's work, she threatens to undermine the premise of Theresa Rebeck's feminist high comedy. It is the playwright's notion that Bernhardt, in taking on the role of a certain melancholy Dane, is putting herself on the line, risking career disaster. It's not just that she is, once again, on the edge of bankruptcy -- this is a regular fact of her free-spending life -- and it's not just that she is well into her fifties and the roles that made her famous are behind her. (To assert that Hamlet is thirty, not nineteen, as she imagines, is to risk her displeasure; she airily dismisses the lines, in the graveyard scene, that note Hamlet knew Yorick twenty-three years earlier: "Another example of how careless Shakespeare is.") What drives much of the play is Bernhardt's sheer bafflement over Hamlet, her inability to come to terms with the character's luxuriating verse and prevaricating ways. By the end of the first act, she will have dragooned Edmond Rostand, her frequent collaborator and sometime lover, into rewriting the sacred text to suit her needs.

It's an amusing idea, and Rebeck gives Bernhardt an eloquent argument: "Hamlet is Shakespeare himself...It is why every actor hungers after him, finally, because we are convinced this is how you know him, soul to soul, but within this web of words what if he is nothing but annihilation?" But, in scene after scene of Hamlet rehearsals, McTeer's handling of the verse is so supple, so intelligent, so like everyday speech that one cannot possibly imagine what the problem is supposed to be. In one of the most delightful sequences, Bernhardt struggles with the stentorian delivery of the actor Constant Coquelin, who has been cast as the ghost of Hamlet's father. (As played by Dylan Baker, Coquelin is a fount of good, hard theatrical sense; for example, he prefers the role of Polonius: "You play him, you go home, you go to bed.") She suggests that they run their lines casually, imagining the scene as a kind of intimate father-son talk. Suddenly, the exchange comes alive; the give-and-take between the characters acquires considerable emotional heft, and the actors' eyes light up with the joy of discovery. It's an extraordinary depiction of how magic can appear out of hard work, but it also dispels the idea that Bernhardt is lumbered by the role she has taken on.

There are other oddities in Rebeck's script, which, most of the time, functions as a graceful, witty, old-school star vehicle. It's not clear that the idea of Bernhardt playing Hamlet was all that scandalous; after all, she had had successes in other trousers roles. And, as a friend pointed out at the performance I attended, her apparent distress at handling iambic pentameter would probably be a non-issue, since Shakespeare translated into French would most likely be transformed into alexandrine verse, which has a different meter. Most strangely, as opening night draws near, the playwright declines to show Bernhardt enjoying a triumph, instead throwing the focus to the success of Cyrano de Bergerac, Rostand's masterpiece, which he has put aside, in unfinished form, to help "fix" Hamlet. Like Bernhardt's life, the action of the play becomes increasingly scattershot, focusing on one thing, then another, without pulling the strands together to reach a coherent conclusion.

Still, Rebeck's portrait of this unleashed force of nature, spreading enchantment and havoc in equal measure, thoroughly convinces; especially compelling are her refusal to bend to conventional notions of feminine behavior and her insistence on setting her own artistic terms. (Dismissing the role of Roxane in Cyrano, she furiously informs Rostand, "I will not go back to playing flowers for you fools. Not because I am too old. But because I was never a flower, and no matter how much you loved how beautifully I might play the ingenue, it was always beneath me. It is beneath all women.") And, in addition to Baker, McTeer benefits from a stellar company of supporting players. These include Jason Butler Harner as Rostand, driven by Bernhardt from uncontrollable passion to teeth-gnashing frustration; Tony Carlin as a pontificating theatre critic ("We're paid to have opinions and then everyone gets angry when we do"); Matthew Saldivar as the artist Alphonse Mucha, who struggles as hard as Bernhardt to understand her Hamlet; Nick Westrate as Maurice, her bemused offspring, with whom she plays a variant of Hamlet's closet scene; and Ito Aghayere as Rostand's wife, who, playing her cards deftly, manages to scotch the affair that threatens her home.

The director, Moritz von Stuelpnagel, orchestrates these dramatics with considerable panache, suggesting, once again, that he is the go-to person for this kind of highly stylized fun. He has also overseen a richly attractive production design. The turntable on Beowulf Boritt's set, framed in a gorgeous black-and-gold proscenium, spins to reveal the stage of Bernhardt's theatre, her impossibly cluttered (in the Victorian style) dressing room, and other locations such as a café and Rostand's study. Toni-Leslie James' costumes include a shimmering peignoir and stunning evening gown for Bernhardt, an imposing day suit for Rostand's wife, and superbly tailored suits for the men. Bradley King's lighting turns an empty stage into a thing of mysterious depths. Fitz Patton's sound design includes nervous bursts of string instruments and the sound of applause and cheers.

If Bernhardt/Hamlet sometimes seems to be in search of a strong dramatic spine for these extravagant goings-on, the writing is usually a pleasure, and holding it all together is the supremely confident leading lady, giving a performance that makes one wonder if she isn't the Bernhardt of our time. Indeed, having seen pieces of Bernhardt's Hamlet, what about McTeer's? -- David Barbour

(1 October 2018)

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