Long before Margot Robbie, Angelina Jolie or Meryl Streep made their debuts on the silver screen, there was Sarah Bernhardt. Not to be confused with Sandra Bernhard of “Roseanne” and “Hudson Hawk,” the French actress was one of the greatest theatrical performers of her day and became an icon well before the time of movies, yet she’s far from a household name in 2023.
The team behind Plano-based Rover Dramawerks’ next show is looking to change that by bringing Bernhardt’s larger-than-life persona to the stage once again with its upcoming production of “Bernhardt/Hamlet.”
“Bernhardt/Hamlet” is a character study of the actress as she makes the pivotal decision to play Hamlet in an 1899 production of the famous Shakespearean play. It was a move steeped in controversy from the start but one that Bernhardt felt would allow her to play greater roles as the middle-aged actress leveraged her immense fame to try to push past gender norms amidst a torrent of backstage drama swirling around the production.
“Bernhardt/Hamlet” Director Janette Oswald described the play as a “fictionalized comedy-drama” that looks at the “trials and tribulations (Bernhardt) suffers and laughs at” while working on “Hamlet.” She described Bernhardt as the “Lady Gaga/Madonna/Michael Jackson of her time” as a flamboyant personality with equally larger-than-life talent that captured the public’s imagination.
“It was before the age of mass communication, much less the internet, and she managed to grab headlines,” Oswald said, detailing the research she had done into her many attention-grabbing exploits like sleeping in a coffin or caring for exotic animals.
“I read the play and just fell in love with this amazing diva,” Carol Rice, the executive artistic director of Rover Dramawerks and star of “Bernhardt/Hamlet” said of first realizing she wanted to play the actress.
Rice explained that Bernhardt’s daringness in taking on roles like Hamlet and pushing for the parts that she wanted to play drew her to the actress.
“I never really thought about the fact that because I’m a woman, I don’t have the opportunities that other people do. I just kind of went and did things. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t, but I just always said, ‘This is something I want to do. I’m going to do it, and you (can’t) tell me no,’” Rice said. “I think that speaks to Sarah’s attitude as well.”
“When Sarah Bernhardt didn’t have the opportunities she wanted, she gained the power to create them for herself,” Oswald said of the story’s empowering feminist undertones. “That’s a lesson that I think women continue to learn (and) I think I’ve learned a lot by now, but I think we continue to have to break through those barriers and find a way to do it ourselves and not to depend on anyone else to do it for us.”
In echoing that relevant messaging for today’s audience, Oswald said the play itself is “very up-to-date” with its mixture of comedy and drama, even as it infuses recognizable scenes from classics like “Hamlet” in a turn-of-the-20th-century setting.
“That’s why I say this cast is at their ‘A’ games because not only can they do the modern drama-comedy of Bernhardt/Hamlet, they can also do the Shakespeare of ‘Hamlet.’ They’re really talented,” Oswald said.
Overall, both Oswald and Rice said that they hoped the Rover Dramawerks production of “Bernhardt/Hamlet” would entertain audiences first and foremost while simultaneously sparking an interest in either the legendary actress or the famous Shakespearean work she starred in.
“That would be a tremendously successful run for me if that’s what happened,” Oswald said. “People were entertained, enjoyed themselves, learned something and it piqued their interest in some aspect of the show, whether it be ‘Hamlet’ or Sarah Bernhardt.”
“Bernhardt/Hamlet” runs from October 12 through October 28 at Cox Playhouse in Plano. For more information about the show, including how to purchase tickets, visit https://www.roverdramawerks.com/. This interview has been edited for clarity.