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Phil Willmott

Review: BERNHARDT/HAMLET at the American Airlines Theater, Broadway

I hope we get this scintillating Broadway comedy with its British star, Janet McTeer, in the West End soon. It certainly deserves a transfer. Not only is is an enjoyable backstage comedy and a dramatisation of a fascinating historical event but it also tackles the red hot topicality of women in theatre at a time when so many of us are hungry for women to excel outside of the secondary roles historically allocated to them.

Janet McTeer and Brittany Bradford in Bernhardt/HamletJanet McTeer and Brittany Bradford in Bernhardt/Hamlet. Photo by Joan Marcus

The witty, charismatic McTeer plays the superstar of 1890s theatre Sarah Bernhardt at a time when she’s becoming too old to play young women like Hamlet’s love interest, Ophelia. At the height of her fame, and in her 50s, she makes the radical decision that she should play Hamlet herself. These days that decision wouldn’t surprise anyone, we’ve recently seen a number of accomplished performances from women in traditionally male classical roles, however in 1899 it shocks the Paris Theatre community to the core.

In Theresa Renbeck’s play Bernhardt persuasively argues that the character is virtually sex-less and that the young man is better played by a boyish woman then by older men who may have the necessary experience to play the demanding role but who are long past being able to convey his youthfulness.

The first half mostly concerns rehearsal and dressing room antics as Bernhardt rehearses the role. She’s struggling with the oceans of poetry and decides to commission her lover, the playwright Edmond Rostand, to write a new version that conveys Shakespeare’s ideas more directly. Her lack of reverence for Shakespeare is amusing and refreshing. She may be right, her fans, may enjoy the production more if not required to sit through four hours of verse and elaborate imagery.

But as the plan, and her affair with Rostand - who wrote CYRANO DE BERGERAC -unravels it forces everyone to examine the power of that poetry and the effectiveness of great acting, regardless of gender.

The gorgeous set design by Beowulf Boritt revolves through a series of on and off stage settings so handsomely that it would sit very nicely at London’s National Theatre, where I’d like to see it end up after Broadway has done with it.

It’s a career defining performance from McTeer who must herself, struggle to find good enough older female roles to be worthy of her talents. If you’ve never heard of Bernhardt, fear not, there’s plenty of Wikipedia style background information woven into the dialogue.

The play beautifully captures the warmth of theatre friendship and the crazy irrational business of risking financial ruin with a show.

The Edwardian actresses’ ability to keep her name in the headlines is extraordinary and rivals Madonna at the height of her fame or Lady Gaga today. But what I particularly loved about McTeer’s performance is the easy rapport she conveys with her fellow Hamlet cast members who obviously adore her. The play beautifully captures the warmth of theatre friendship and the crazy irrational business of risking financial ruin with a show.

Does Bernhardt succeed and make Hamlet a success? Hopefully an enterprising London theatre will give you a chance to find out soon. McTeer certainly triumphs and I expect to see her nominated for a Tony award for her warm and witty portrayal of a maverick diva.