BWW Review: BERNHARDT / HAMLET at Unicorn Theatre
A strong cast presents an excellent Unicorn production of a very new play, "Bernhardt/Hamlet, A Woman Unbound" by Theresa Rebeck. "Bernhardt/Hamlet" is a smart, comedic, reasonably accurate portrait of a middle-aged, financially strapped, giant of the nineteenth century French stage still with her powers intact, but with a paucity of mountains she still desires to climb. The play opened September 25, 2018 on Broadway after about a month of tryouts at the American Airlines Theater and closed on November 18, 2018 not quite two months later.
Unicorn Theatre's Kansas City premier production of "Bernhardt / Hamlet" is directed by Unicorn Artistic Director Cynthia Levin. The year is 1897. The place is Paris.
I knew little about Sarah Bernhardt the actress prior to preparing to see this excellent production and not very much more about Shakespeare's "Hamlet." Hamlet is the agreed to gold standard part for young classical actors, but until this show I've never had much occasion to delve deeply into the bard's masterpiece.
"Bernhardt/Hamlet" is a good play. It is written as comedy in a modern dialog style. It was well cast. But why did it enjoy such a short time in the klieg lights? I suspect the answer lies in the perceived classical subject matter in both the person of Sarah
Bernhardt and the character of Shakespeare's doomed Prince.
The show is a clever mixture of imagination and history. Sarah is pretty much broke in 1897. She has made lots of money, but she has spent even more. Sarah has announced that she will become the first female ever to tackle Hamlet. A new theater space has been acquired, but rehearsals are not going well.
In the play, the divine Sarah (Carla Noack) is desperate to reconnect with her current lover, the French playwright Edmond Rostand (Doogin Brown). Rostand has been among the missing for the previous two weeks. He tells Sarah he is working on his next, secret, play project at a country house. He is working on the play, but also attempting to remain remote from Sarah. Edmond is smitten with Sarah, but unwilling to desert his wife and young children for the actress.
Sarah complains to Edmond about the complexity of Shakespeare's dialog. They argue about Shakespeare's prose, Hamlet's age, his level of maturity as a young man, and the propriety of a woman playing the part. She demands that Edmond adapt Shakespeare's longest compilation. He reluctantly and ultimately unsuccessfully agrees.
Here's where history and the playwright's imagination become a bit of a mixed metaphor. In the middle 1890s, Rostand and Bernhardt did have a professional relationship. She was in her middle 50s. He was barely 30. Sarah had already developed a habit of sleeping with her leading men. It is unlikely she had a romantic relationship with Rostand.
The plot moves on the completion of Rostand's most famous play "Cyrano De Bergerac." Rostand's wife pleads with Sarah to release her husband from their supposed romantic relationship and his commitment to adapt Hamlet. Sarah releases Rostand.
"Cyrano" was actually produced prior to the time that Sarah played Hamlet in 1899. "Cyrano" was a huge success that ran for hundreds of performances. Sarah hired Eugène Morand and Marcel Schwob to adapt Shakespeare. The production got reasonably positive reviews both in Paris in a lavishly remodeled theater renamed for the actress and later in London. A short film of her as Hamlet from 1902 still exists acting a stage sword fight.
The Unicorn has produced a quality version of "Bernhardt/Hamlet." Carla Noack and Doogin Brown are excellent as Sarah and Edmond. Sarah Bernhardt was famous for her presentational style of acting. Carla Noack is wise to have adopted it. This entire cast is quality and fits together well. Robert Gibby Brand does an excellent job as Benoît-Constant Coquelin. The historical actor by that name was Rostand's original
Cyrano in 1898.
Special notice should go to Director Levin and Scenic Designer Kate Winegarden. The entire set is designed on a three sided turntable between scenes. Most of the play happens in the theater and neighboring spaces. As the scene changes, actors are positioned in place on a set between scenes. It is a clever device that shows the audience what is going on in the rest of the theater building as we move to a new scene.
What motivated Ms. Sarah Bernhardt to attempt Hamlet in the real world? She was broke. She has just signed a lease for a 1700 seat auditorium with a huge stage. Was it a pure business decision? Was Sarah trying to bust through a glass ceiling? Was she tired of playing secondary female roles? Was she looking for a path to overcome advancing age? Was this a calculated stroke for other female actors? Was she simply a prima donna? Sarah Bernhardt, stylistically aside, appears to have been the most modern of women and worthy of remembering.
Especially as a young woman and into middle age, this tiny lady was an exceptional beauty. She was also hard to handle and something of a wild child. Sarah Bernhardt was also, in many ways, prescient. She saw the value of film and recording early on. Limited examples of the living Sarah are still existent on film and on recordings she made.
Perhaps "Bernhardt/ Hamlet" did not enjoy a longer run in New York because we have forgotten the details of Sarah's life and can be overwhelmed by "Hamlet." Sarah Bernhardt died in the mid-1920s, a century ago, at almost eighty years old. "Hamlet" by William Shakespeare was first performed about 1600 based on earlier material and possibly on a proto-version of the story by Shakespeare or another playwright some years earlier. This was not an unusual genesis for a Shakespearean play. Many were taken from other sources. It is the poetry of Shakespeare that keeps us coming back to him. Shakespeare's "Hamlet" is FIVE acts long. It can take up to FOUR hours to see the whole thing.
"Bernhardt / Hamlet" is two acts and less than two and half hours including intermission. It continues through December 29 at the Unicorn Theatre. Tickets are available online at www. unicorntheatre.org or by telephone at 816.531.7529. This production is worth your time.