“Hedda Gabler” at the Shaw

Thursday, Sep. 6, 2012

First up at the Shaw Festival:  Last night’s Hedda Gabler, by Henrik Ibsen.  I’m a long-time fan.  I keep a picture of Ibsen’s own inspirational totem, an inkwell supported by devils, on the bulletin board in front of my desk.   By now, I’m sure I must have seen a dozen or so productions of it, going back some forty years or more.    Written late in his career, around 1889, it’s a play any director would love to be challenged by, including myself.  And it’s the juicy, classic title role often labeled “the female Hamlet,” that any young actress worth her salt would love to play, maybe in rep with Lady Macbeth.

Hedda is indeed an actor’s nightmare.  She is both victim and victimizer;  she is a wielder of power and a sniveling slave to the powerful; she loves and lusts, and she is filled with revulsion.  She is irrational, yet driven by reason;  she is completely insane, yet far more sane than the world around her. From her initial return to a new new home with her new husband to her final act of despair, she remains a swirling bundle of conflicting emotions and actions.

Just why this woman is such a popular figure, so fascinating to me and others, is yet another enigma.  Hedda is a desirable role, certainly, and historically a controversial one.  Critics have indulged themselves in biting attacks on various productions from brilliant to God-awful.   In the last seven years or so, I’ve seen at least five, collecting ideas and do’s and don’t’s in case I ever have the opportunity to direct it my way.  It’s perhaps useful to review three of the most memorable.

In 2004, the New York Theatre Workshop mounted one of the more brilliant productions, with Elizabeth Marvel, directed by Ivo van Hove.  His minimalist staging, in a huge unpainted and fully lit warehouse, purported to eliminate the trappings of realism in order to focus on “the empty screen of Hedda’s mind.”  Exciting, yes.  And daring.  True to our times, yes in many ways.  But perhaps a little too artsy for my taste.  My own preference leans toward substance over gimmicky concept.

The following year, Joan and I were fortunate enough to be in London and able to catch the Almeida Theatre’s production of Hedda.  This one was both translated and directed by Richard Eyre, following his 9-year tenure as director of Britain’s National Theater.  It featured a young Eve Best in a riveting performance, sometimes scheming, sometimes hysterical, her strange observant smile suddenly bursting into fits of laughter or tears, full of adolescent irrationality and righteous passion.  She was both victim and perpetrator, madwoman and controller.  And it was very clear that Ibsen had been unwilling to resolve those contradictions; that’s what made her so recognizably human.   Hedda is of course trapped in a life of boredom, with a young, mindless would-be man who expects and wants nothing of her but conventional obeisance.  Her horrifying actions may never be explainable, but they must be made understandable.  They were in Eyre’s production, and on top of all that, he staged the best suicide scene of all, and no one giggled.  More on that later.

Then there are some productions of Hedda which never should have seen the light of day.  On 2009 there was a Broadway production featuring Mary Louise Parker, at one point clawing the air every bit as melodramatically as Cruella DeVil in 101 Dalmatians.  Somehow, she was directed by Ian Rickson, late of London’s esteemed Royal Court Theatre.  Translation is of course a persistent problem with American and British Ibsen productions.  This particular adaptation, by Christopher Shinn from a literal translation by Anne-Charlotte Harvey, was a ludicrous amalgamation of contemporary Americanisms and Victorian babble.   There was little depth or insight into Hedda’s motivation and character beyond Parker’s portrayal of a nasty Class A “Bitch”!  Altogether forgotten is the notion that she’s not only dangerous and vicious, but like a caged tiger, she is also a victim who has to earn our pity, our empathy as she yearns for an escape and fights for her freedom, however cruelly.  With no balance, this production had to rank right up there among my worst experiences and disappointments in the theater.

Okay, ‘nuff said of earlier productions.  What I was looking for in this one should by now be clear.  Except I was not to get it.  The Shaw Festival’s Hedda was directed by Martha Haney, and featured an obviously talented Moya O’Connell as Hedda.  It is clearly an integral part of a season intertwining many different approaches to the issue of femininity and feminism, suffrage, women’s rights, and the role of women in turn-of-the-century society.  All three of the other plays we will see revolve around those themes, from Shaw’s own Misalliance through the hit musical, Ragtime.   This one, should have done it best.  It did not.

One of the many things I loved about the Shaw Festival since we first experienced it two years ago is the quality of the work on view.  No exception here:  The design on the thrust stage of the Festival’s original Courthouse Theatre had a beautiful and functional appeal, mixing elements of realism and clever stagecraft.  Much attention was given to the necessary details, like Hedda’s pistols and the burning of Eilert’s  manuscript.  The acting was consistently superb, from Jennifer Phipps’ Berthe, the housekeeper, and Mrs. Elvsted, to the three men who believe they are in one way or another in charge of Hedda’s fate.  And O’Connell is a terrific actor, but she was certainly not Hedda.

Sadly then, neither Joan nor I were particularly moved by the production, nor could we resist the almost inevitable but deadly giggles at Hedda’s final utterances, “What about me?”  — hopelessly delivered in the most melodramatic manner conceivable.  And giggles are NOT what is needed!  As I’ve indicated, it’s a perennial problem in Hedda productions, particularly if we have not been given the tools to develop any empathy for her predicament.   This Hedda was pure malice, as if the decision had been made by either the director or the actor that she had to be one thing or the other, but not both.   Whatever legitimacy she may have had as an “enslaved woman” at the mercy of a male society, her screeching, whining and evil glaring prevented the kind of humanity that should have remained at her core, an unanswered and unanswerable conundrum.

Next up?  Ragtime.

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3 Responses to “Hedda Gabler” at the Shaw

  1. Given your rich theatre experience, not to mention years of preparation for directing Hedda Gabler, let’s hope that LiveArts or PlayOn or UVA invites you to do so.

  2. Francine Brady says:

    You always say so skillfully what I think and feel but can’t put into the right words

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