Sarah Bernhardt was a towering figure in world theater. The French stage actress performed in classic plays of the time, made theatrical tours around the world, including across the U.S., and owned her own theater in Paris. She also was one of the first actresses to make sound recordings and to act in films. Bernhardt/Hamlet by Theresa Rebeck is the story of Bernhardt’s decision to play Hamlet, which scandalized many theater critics and audience members. Nevertheless, she persisted.
The backstage dramedy, which premiered on Broadway last year, is now on view at the Goodman Theatre, directed by Donna Feore, the notable Canadian who has directed for years at the Stratford Festival. Terri McMahon, a veteran of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, makes her Goodman debut as Bernhardt and approaches the performance standard set by Janet McTeer on Broadway.
Bernhardt is bored with the roles that made her famous: she’s tired of dying every night as Camille and killing her children as Medea. The new challenge she wants is playing Hamlet, the moody Dane who has been played by the world’s finest actors—all male. She insists a woman of her age (she’s in her early 50s at the time of the play in 1897) can play the role better than a young actor or one who is too old. (She also insists throughout the play that Hamlet is a young man of 19, when everyone remembers the gravedigger scene with Yorick’s skull unearthed after 23 years, thus proving that Hamlet is at least 30.)
Bernhardt is surrounded by famous artists of the period, all of whom love to be in her presence. The artist Alphonse Mucha (Gregory Linington) designs her posters—and is supremely frustrated trying to paint the right image of “the divine Sarah” for the Hamlet poster.
Her lover, the married playwright Edmund Rostand (John Tufts), is writing a new play for her. In their first love scene, he removes her Hamlet costume and says, ““It is delightful to undress a man and find a woman inside.” Bernhardt responds, with a lusty sigh, “It is equally delightful to undress a man and find a man inside.”
The theater critic Louis Lamercier (William Dick) admires Bernhardt but tells Rostand. “Someone needs to talk her out of it. She’s a great actress, but Hamlet? It’s grotesque. If Shakespeare meant for Hamlet to be a woman, he would have named the play Hamlet Princess of Denmark.” Edmond replies, “The men played the women for all those years. If it’s all right for a man to play a woman, why not a woman play a man?” Louis settles it thus: “It was the custom. Men playing women, that’s all right. Women playing men. It doesn’t work.“
Constant Coquelin, Bernhardt’s friend and mentor, is played with gravitas and joy by the supremely talented Larry Yando. Every line he speaks sings. Constant has played Hamlet four times but he’s happy to be playing Polonius to Bernhardt’s Hamlet. He says, “I like Polonius. He’s a bit of a fool, but he has a good heart. Straight ahead fellow, really. You play him, you go home, you go to bed…. [But Hamlet] Oh god no. You play him, you go home, you’re up all night. It’s a cage really, his mind. That’s what it feels like. Everywhere you turn, there’s another problem.“
Bernhardt is flummoxed by Hamlet. Getting to the heart of the character is driving her mad. “He has stature, but he balks, he clings to thought. He hides. in words words and more words.” She asks Rostand to write a new version for her: all the meaning without the poetry. Forget the iambs, she says. No more da DA da DA da DA.
What is it about Hamlet that makes him so complex? It’s more than the iambs. Harold Bloom, the Shakespeare scholar and author of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, would say it’s because Hamlet is the first self-aware character in literature. “More even than all the other Shakespeare prodigies—Rosalind, Shylock, Iago, Lear, Macbeth, Cleopatra—Falstaff and Hamlet are the invention of the human, the inauguration of personality as we have come to recognize it.” In Hamlet, he continues, “Inwardness becomes the heart of light and of darkness in ways more radical than literature previously could sustain.” No wonder it is so challenging for an actor to go beyond the poetry to reach the soul of Hamlet.
The play that Rostand is writing for Bernhardt is Cyrano de Bergerac. And when the play is finally ready for a reading, Bernhardt, the feminist, is incensed because Roxane, the character written for her, does nothing but stand around looking beautiful while the men get the good lines. (There is an overly long scene from the Paris Cyrano premiere near the end of the play; it could well be eliminated since it somewhat detracts from the flow of the Bernhardt story. However, it does give Coquelin/Yando a chance to play Cyrano.)
The rehearsal scenes—a series of Hamlet’s Greatest Hits– threaded throughout the play are meant to demonstrate Bernhardt’s frustrations with the bard’s poetry. They also give the cast the opportunity to showcase the gorgeous language of Hamlet, the language that drove Bernhardt mad.
Rebeck’s dialogue is witty and whip smart and Feore’s direction moves the play along briskly. Rebeck is the author of many plays, films and TV scripts. One of her other feminist plays, What We’re Up Against, was staged here in January by Compass Theatre.
Narelle Sissons is responsible for scenic design, which is mostly set in Bernhardt’s rehearsal room. Lighting is by Robert Wierzel and costumes by Dana Osborne. Original music and sound design are by Joanna Lynne Staub.
Bernhardt/Hamlet continues at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., through October 20. Tickets are $25-$80 for performances Tuesday-Sunday. Running time is 140 minutes with one intermission.
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