How much must one person risk to break down a barrier? Perhaps everything. In 1897, a small revolution has begun in a theatre in France. The most famous stage actress in the world has announced that she will be playing the most famous character in the world, and the theatergoing elite are ill at ease. The actress is Sarah Bernhardt, whose ingenious and wildly popular portrayals of some of the canon’s greatest heroines and ingénues in the preceding decades has made her into the world’s first-ever international superstar. The character is Hamlet, who, with his enigmatic machinations and relentless soliloquies, has been the undoing of so many actors throughout history. Bernhardt, for all her immense and seemingly unstoppable talent, might just be no exception.
The story of Sarah Bernhardt’s star turn in Hamlet is a true one. Sarah Bernhardt really was the world’s foremost stage actress at the turn of the 20th century, and she really did play Hamlet in a legendary production that ultimately premiered in 1899. Yet despite her unparalleled celebrity and renown, she initially faced a hostile audience, one skeptical of her gender-bending defiance of tradition and ready to pounce at the slightest hint of weakness. A single slip, then, could disintegrate the entirety of Bernhardt’s career – her reputation, her livelihood, her name. This crossroads between personal risk and social progress is what playwright Theresa Rebeck, one of Roundabout’s esteemed Associate Artists, explores so meticulously in Bernhardt/Hamlet. Through her fierce and vivid storytelling, Theresa leads us into the mind of an expert actress pursuing artistic excellence even as the world waits for her to fail. Under this pressure, rehearsals become wildfires, collaborations become duels, performances become odysseys – and a romance, especially one between artists, becomes a whirlpool of creative energy, a vortex of mutual strength and vulnerability. Theresa’s ingenious writing, brought to fiery life by our incomparable star Janet McTeer, captures Bernhardt’s unparalleled drive and boundless ambition, keen wit and intense humanity, painting an intricate portrait of a luminary who resists any conventional frame.
I am proud to say that Bernhardt/Hamlet, a completely new play from Theresa, marks a landmark moment in Roundabout’s New Play Initiative as the first-ever commissioned original work that Roundabout has mounted on Broadway. In collaboration with Roundabout, Bernhardt/Hamlet has been developed over the past several years from a seed of an idea into the phenomenal production that you will see in the coming week. What has compelled me most about this piece from the outset is not just its powerful exploration of one woman’s courage in the face of overwhelming doubt, but also its implicit spotlight on those frontiers that even today remain to be conquered. A woman playing Hamlet in 2018 wouldn’t stoke the ire of critics and audiences as it did 120 years ago, but so many other shattered ceilings still could, and do. Why attempt to break a barrier that might break you? For the present and future Sarah Bernhardts of the world, I hope that Theresa Rebeck’s magnificent play provides an answer.
I am so excited for you to experience Theresa Rebeck’s wonderful work with this exceptional cast and under the direction of the extraordinary Moritz von Stuelpnagel. As always, I am eager to hear your thoughts, so please continue to email me at ArtisticOffice@roundabouttheatre.org with your reactions. I can’t tell you how greatly I value your feedback
I look forward to seeing you at the theatre!