Reviewed by James Karas
*** (out of five)
Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is one of the plays offered at the Shaw Festival this year in Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell’s wide-ranging choice of productions. The new version of the play by Richard Eyre is staged at the Court House Theatre and directed by one of Canada’s best actresses, Martha Henry.
Hedda Gabler premiered in 1891 and the heroine is seen as a prototype of a powerful, independent woman who is trapped in a stultifying social structure. Her situation grows desperate and her only way out is to end her life with a bullet.
That may all be true but I failed to grasp it from the current production. This Hedda as played by Moya O’Connell struck me as arrantly cruel, selfish, manipulative, domineering, bored, vindictive, destructive and a plain bitch.
O’Connell brings out all those characteristics of Hedda but there is more to our heroine than that. Hedda is pursued by Judge Brack (Jim Mezon) and she is clearly a magnet for men. Brack is prepared to go to great lengths, including concealing a crime (remember, he is a judge), in order to gain sexual dominance over Hedda. In other words, Hedda is a sexual siren. O’Connell, with her high cheekbones and full mouth is a beautiful woman but her sexual attraction is almost eliminated in this production. Her hair gathered in pigtails and plastered on her head and her general demeanour emphasize Hedda’s monstrosity and minimize her sexuality.
Patrick McManus is perfect as Hedda’s pathetic husband George Tesman. Bespectacled, slightly stooped, over-eager to please, the poor man married a monster and he is thrilled when she calls him by his first name. In the end, he will find a decent woman.
Mezon is the ideal Judge Brack. A big man with a shaved head, he exudes confidence and sexual desire. He wants Hedda not just as his mistress but as his slave almost. He is indeed scary.
Brack’s counterpart is the idealist and visionary historian and recovering alcoholic, Eilert Loevborg (Gray Powell). He had a relationship with Hedda before her marriage but now she rebuffs him because of social pressure. He has found inspiration from Thea Elvsted (Claire Julien). When Loevborg loses a manuscript, i.e. everything that he has worked for and contemplates suicide, the nice Hedda tells him to do it beautifully.
Thea went to school with Hedda where our heroine basically tortured her and threatened to burn her hair. Now she pretends to befriend the decent Thea in order to get at Eilert. Julien does a fine job as the caring woman who has none of Hedda’s negative traits.
Jennifer Phipps shuffles onto the stage and off as the ancient servant Berthe. She trips during one of her exits and when a stage hand reaches to give her a hand she asks “who are you?” I am not sure how much of this is acting and how much of it an old woman being able to do no more than get her handful of lines. Let’s give her credit honoris causa and assume that all of it is a fine example of acting like a very old and infirm woman when she is in fact only almost old and spry.
The set by William Schmuck presented a reasonably well-appointed living room with a door and window stage right, leading to the garden. The door and window give the impression of a cage without overdoing it. There is a large couch for Hedda to lounge on but the limited stage area of the Court House does not permit much else.
The acting and staging were very good but my problem with the production is that it fails to explain sufficiently men’s attraction to Hedda and is not convincing in its portrayal of her as striking out for freedom as a new woman.
The thought that occurred to me was that a century or so later Hedda could easily become a CEO of a major corporation. Put her in low management and she will become such a master of company politics that she will manoeuvre herself to the top no matter how many bodies she left in her wake.
Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen in a version by Richard Eyre runs in repertory from July 25 to September 29, 2012 at the Court House Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.