Review: “Bernhardt/Hamlet” Starring The Divine Janet McTeer

Christian Lewis
4 min readOct 1, 2018

The last time we heard from Theresa Redbeck she was writing for “Smash,” letting two major actresses embody and tell the story of an even more famous actress from the past, Marilyn Monroe. In a similar vein, Redbeck, in her new play commissioned by the Roundabout Theatre Company, gives Janet McTeer the opportunity to become Sarah Bernhardt.

Perhaps you don’t know who Sarah Bernhardt is, a confusion that is representative of the general problems of the play — it is often too historical, too dramaturgical, too smart. “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” currently playing at the American Airlines Theatre, tells the true story of a celebrity actress in late nineteenth century France who boldly chose to play Hamlet. In many ways, it comes across very similar to a Tom Stoppard play. In fact, while watching this piece I ironically kept thinking about “Travesties,” the Stoppard play that Roundabout produced in the same theatre this Spring.

Both plays are rooted in both literary and biographical history, and assume the audience can follow along as the throw obscure references out left and right. What makes both play ingenious, however, is that they both parallel the structure of their source text: the language of “Travesties” mimics “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Dada poetry, limericks, and political manifestos. Similarly, “Bernhardt/Hamlet” is seemingly structured on “Hamlet” and its characters, plot structure, and most noticeably, its excessive talking and lack of action.

Although the device of mirroring the text the play is based on is quite creative from a literary perspective, from a theatrical perspective it is not necessarily noticeable or convincing, unless you are very well versed in the original. To make matters worse, this type of play only works when the source text is enjoyable, like “Earnest,” but when you base a new play off of a lengthy, brooding, melancholic, overly poetic play, your are bound to bore the audience with too many “words words words.”

Throughout the play Sarah and the other characters debate Hamlet’s age, women playing male roles, the concept of authenticity, sexuality…

--

--

Christian Lewis

Theater Critic. Vassar College alum, current PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center.