A theater goddess walks among us. Clearly, British actress Janet McTeer is one of the greats. Anyone who saw her “Doll’s House” back in the day can attest to this. Anyone who sees Theresa Rebeck’s half-baked “Bernhardt/Hamlet” will wonder why this acting colossus is attempting this pygmy play.
And of course, the answer is “There are no great parts for women.” Or few great parts as the play makes abundantly clear. Over and over and over again. Pedantic, didactic and I agree with playwright Rebeck’s conclusion. And frustration. But the means she uses to execute her thesis, and this is a thesis play. Collegiate. If she were in college, and she wrote this at the time she was in college, say roughly the 1970s, it may have seemed like something sparkling and new, but as “Bernhardt/Hamlet” as presented on Broadway by the redoubtable Roundabout, it is trite, trite, trite.
However the sublime Janet McTeer makes you almost forget all these things. Almost. If Hamlet was a vivacious housewife who just solved her servant problem.And she is surrounded by some of the best young actors working today. Dylan Baker, Matt Saldivar, Nick Westrate and main among them, Jason Butler Harner. And they are all defeated by this mediocre material that the Roundabout is trying to foist on us as a silk purse, when it’s really the sow’s ear. Or in this case, the entire sow.
McTeer is a gargantuan presence. She is six-foot five at least, with the deepest and most resonant of voices. She has played many, many male roles herself, recently a remarkable Petruchio, in the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park’s all female “Shrew” a few seasons back. And on-screen she was the transvestite lover of Glenn Close in “Albert Nobbs.” So she is no stranger to cross-dressing. Nor, evidently, was the diminutive Bernhardt, who was barely five feet.
Considered to this day, the greatest actress of the 19th century, she was a dyed-in-the-wool eccentric. She slept in a coffin. She had a leopard for a pet, and wore a hat made out of bats’ wings. The only way we non-time-traveling mortals can experience her greatness today is by reading about her in the many, many books and biographies of “La Divina” as she was known. And the contemporary reviews of her critics. Don’t forget the critics! George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde both adored her and wanted her in their plays.
None of this is in “Bernhardt/Hamlet.” Rebeck the writer makes her seem smaller than life and seems to have tailored this play as simply as a vehicle for the dynamic McTeer. Who deserves to have plays written for her. Just not this one.
She seems like a socialite, a gad-fly, someone who likes to have a beer and pal around with the guys, rather than sleep with them. She had many, many lovers and yes, McTeer kisses Butler Harner (As Edmund Rostand) again and again and again. As if to prove some kind of heterosexual point.
The great French playwright wrote “Cyrano de Bergerac” for her, but the part of Roxanne is hardly what you remember Cyrano for. And she chastises him, but he doesn’t make the part any better, and she still continues her affair with him. And yes, they kiss and they kiss and they kiss at every opportunity. Rebeck even presents us with Rostand’s wife,(Ito Aghayere) who in a very bizarre scene, seems to condone the affair, but that’s about as eccentric as this earth-bound Berhhardt is allowed to get.
Rebeck has made the great Bernhardt seem very everyday as an actress. She seems remarkably superficial, constantly complaining the Shakespeare’s greatest play had too many words in it. And constantly going “up” (forgetting her lines) in rehearsals, which this Bernhardt seems to treat as a schlog and a joke.
Ah! But then McTeer is allowed to do “Hamlet” straight on, it is just wonderful. And a great gift to those who witness it. There are only TWO niggardly moments that Rebeck allows her to play Hamlet at full throttle..
At the beginning of Act Two, she gets to do the entire “What a piece of work is man” scene with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And she and Dylan Baker play the Ghost scene as if it were a love scene and it works. (pictured above^)How it works! These two moments really are worth the price of admission. I just which we had a chance to see the great Janet McTeer do ALL of the real Hamlet and not just this shoddy imitation.
And would that the witty and wonderful late playwright Wendy Wasserstein was still with us. SHE would’ve made Bernhardt scintillating, rather the mundane feminist Rebeck leaves us with.