Review Roundup: The Critics Weigh In on BERNHARDT/HAMLET on Broadway
Roundabout Theatre Co. presents the world premiere Broadway production of Bernhardt/Hamlet, opening on Broadway tonight.
Mark Twain wrote: "There are five kinds of actresses: bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses. And then there is Sarah Bernhardt." In 1899, the international stage celebrity set out to tackle her most ambitious role yet: Hamlet. Theresa Rebeck's new play rollicks with high comedy and human drama, set against the lavish Shakespearean production that could make or break Bernhardt's career. Janet McTeer, "one of the finest classical actresses of her generation" (The Telegraph), brings the legendary leading lady to life.
Bernhardt/Hamlet stars Janet McTeer as "Sarah Bernhardt," Dylan Baker as "Constant Coquelin" and Jason Butler Harner as "Edmond Rostand" with Matthew Saldivar as "Alphonse Mucha," Nick Westrate as "Maurice," Ito Aghayere as "Rosamond," Brittany Bradford as "Lysette," Aaron Costa Ganis as "Raoul" and Triney Sandoval as "Francois."
Let's see what the critics had to say!
Jesse Green, The New York Times: Either way, Theresa Rebeck's new play, which opened on Tuesday at the American Airlines Theater, is so clever it uplifts, so timely it hurts.
Michael Dale, BroadwayWorld: Playwright Theresa Rebeck offers her star many such pithy moments in her fact-based comedy/drama Bernhardt/Hamlet. Her explanation as to why a woman would be the most sensible choice to play Shakespeare's "passionate, confused boy with the mind of a man of forty," is inarguably logical. Her act one curtain line is a real kicker and there's a glorious scene of intellectual fury as she justifiably chastises a playwright who has written a role for her that he regards as "the embodiment of female perfection," but she immediately recognizes as "some statue for you to throw your genius poetry at."
Matt Windman, amNY: One wonders wonder whether Hillary Clinton's unsuccessful run for the presidency played a role in the development of "Bernhardt/Hamlet." There is an obvious connection between the hostility faced by both Bernhardt and Clinton as they ventured into traditionally male territory. "Bernhardt/Hamlet" is an inspired, timely and interesting idea for a play - if only it had been better executed.
Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune: Perhaps everyone was worried that would have limited the play's appeal, rendering it nerdy and overly Shakespearean. Come on, it's only the greatest play, ever. I say it would only have deepened its truths, and it would have freed McTeer in the process.
Adam Feldman, Time Out New York: But for all of Bernhardt/Hamlet's limitations, it reminded me of Bernhardt's own motto: quand même, which translates roughly to "even so" or "at the same time." While it is sometimes ungainly, the play is amusing on its own inside-theater terms. Moritz von Stuelpnagel's staging for the Roundabout has a handsome rotating set by Beowulf Boritt and capable performances not only by McTeer, who is incapable of being dull, but a strong supporting cast that includes Matthew Saldovar as an Art Nouveau poster artist, Nick Westrate as Bernhardt's son and Ito Aghayere as Rostand's plaintive wife. It also includes a few well-timed feminist zingers.
Greg Evans, Deadline: As Bernhardt/Hamlet widens its scope to examine the very nature of art itself, pitting actor against playwright, performer against critic, truth against commerce, things get talky. Very talky. There are witticisms galore - A woman who cannot do anything is nothing. A man who does nothing is Hamlet - and a good amount of genuine laughs, but points are made and remade past any need to convince.
Robert Hofler, TheWrap: Under Moritz von Stuelpnagel's sumptuous direction and production (set and costume design by, respectively, Beowulf Boritt and Toni-Leslie James), Rebeck/McTeer's approach the material ultimately delivers despite some problems in the first act.
Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly: Writer Rebeck (Seminar) and director Moritz von Steulpnagel (Present Laughter) keeps the action moving with brisk, chamber-piece choreography: The ingenious set (by Tony winner Beaowulf Borrit) makes the most of its two-plus sides, and supporting players (including Brittany Bradford and Dylan Baker as a bobbling fellow thespians and Nick Westrate as Sarah's grown son) swan around in Toni-Leslie James's dazzling costumes - crisp britches and white linens, richly piled velvets and shimmering silk.
David Cote, Observer: I do wish Rebeck had taken her protagonist's utterances to heart in this energetic but scattershot period homage, Bernhardt/Hamlet. Brimming with ideas and saucy banter, it's lively but exhausting, manic and overstuffed, too much-possibly like the Divine Sarah was in life.
Marilyn Stasio, Variety: Under Moritz von Stuelpnagel's tightly choreographed direction, this solid cast of characters encircle Bernhardt like planets following their star. And blazing stars they certainly are, both McTeer and Bernhardt, yoked in a dynamic character study that, for all its shining moments, is no play.
Melissa Rose Bernardo, New York Stage Review: And there's simply no one better suited to embody Bernhardt than Janet McTeer, who first took Broadway by storm more than a decade ago with her titanic Tony-winning turn in A Doll's House. As soon as the lights go up and she begins soliloquizing-"Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I!"-we are immediately, completely, utterly, spellbound.
David Finkle, New York Stage Review: Theresa Rebeck was the subject of a recent article in which it was implied that reviewers resisting her output were merely being snarky. So I'll have to accept that what is about to be declared here may be received as just some more snark-asm. So be it. It may be, however, that Bernhardt/Hamlet, Rebeck's latest work, is one of her better plays. It isn't yet, but that may have to do with its being vastly overwritten. What it needed before being put into production was someone like its director, Moritz von Stuelpnagel, or a strong dramaturge to work more closely with Rebeck at maximizing its potential.
Roma Torre, NY1: In Shakespeare's tragedy, Hamlet famously says, "The play's the thing." In "Bernhardt/Hamlet," the thing is not so much the play as the performances, and it made me yearn for another title: "McTeer/Hamlet." A better play about Bernhardt will have to wait.
Barbara Schuler, Newsday: ...it's the intimate, almost reverential look at this actress and all her eccentricities (say, sleeping in a coffin) that allows us to forgive the flaws in the work and makes it so stimulating, especially for those with any interest in theatrical history. Rebeck loses no opportunity to remind us of the stature of her subject, most notably with a line attributed to Mark Twain. "There are five kinds of actresses," he is quoted. "Bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses - and then there is Sarah Bernhardt."
Sara Holdren, Vulture: While von Stuelpnagel seems intent on out-Heroding Herod, McTeer and Rebeck are caught in a trap that's at once more difficult and more sympathetic. They're torn between the seduction of Bernhardt's myth and the more unknowable essence of her humanity - between the compulsion to hold up this spectacular woman from history as both an artistic legend and a feminist hero, and the less flashy, much more personal impulse to tell the story of a woman of the theater who's wrestling with ego, uncertainty, mortality, and Shakespeare. I know which story interests me more, but Bernhardt/Hamlet never fully makes the leap. Instead, it spends its time plucking low-hanging fruit and getting its characters into arguments that feel like cul-de-sacs. It can't decide whether it wants to ridicule or re-envision Hamlet's lack of resolve, and in the meantime, it never quite finds its own.
David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: Few performers today have the quicksilver command and agile wit of Janet McTeer, so casting her as Sarah Bernhardt, the famed French thespian of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was inspired. Even more so once the focus tightens onto "The Divine Sarah" as she chafes against the limited avenues open to women in the theater, ignoring naysayers in her determination to tackle one of the greatest male roles in the dramatic canon, Shakespeare's Hamlet. But despite many tantalizing elements and historical material ripe for exploration from a contemporary feminist perspective, Theresa Rebeck's Bernhardt/Hamlet doesn't add up to a play. At least not a satisfying one.
Nicole Serratore, The Stage: The play takes shots at critics and explores evergreen issue of the sexism faced by audacious women. But Rebeck circles around these points too often. While the subject is fascinating, the level of inquiry does not deepen. Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel brings a breeziness to the comedy and gives McTeer ample space. Her performance is shaded and nuanced. She gives the audience an insight into Bernhardt's character with the smallest gesture. She pats her female co-stars legs as if they are her own and is the centre of her universe, a woman who does not know any boundaries.