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Bernhardt/Hamlet review at American Airlines Theatre, New York – ‘a riveting performance from Janet McTeer’

Jason Butler Harner and Justin McTeer in Bernhardt/Hamlet on Broadway. Photo: Joan Marcus

It would be a real thrill to see Janet McTeer do Hamlet. In Theresa Rebeck’s new play Bernhardt/Hamlet we get glimpses, though this is McTeer as “the divine” Sarah Bernhardt attempting to play the Danish prince.

Rebeck’s play juggles a lot — women on stage, gender and power, love and ambition. Yet a lot of this gets bogged down in speechifying. Though McTeer gives a magnetic, precise performance, the play itself meanders.

Bernhardt needs her Hamlet to be a success because she is on the brink of financial ruin. But she’s struggling with the character’s inaction and with Shakespeare’s poetry. So she begs her married lover, playwright Edmond Rostand (Jason Butler Harner), to do a re-write (!). He views the idea of taking the rhythm out of Shakespeare as blasphemy but cannot say no to her, even though this is keeping him from finishing his new work, Cyrano de Bergerac.

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.

As Rostand, Harner physically folds in on himself as he suffers agonies, with Sarah and without her. Matthew Saldivar, as the Czech Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha, brings a welcome wryness to the production.

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Janet McTeer is nuanced yet riveting as Sarah Bernhardt in a play that wanders