HEDDA, GARBLED: BELVOIR’S HEDDA GABLER

July 3, 2014

The role of a reviewer, John McCallum has said (quoting Katherine Brisbane), is to articulate why a team of people have spent upwards of six months of their lives bringing this play (or this version of a play) to the stage, and communicate it to an audience. Additionally, the role of a reviewer is to comment on a production, on its strengths and weaknesses, to review a production in all its nuances. I write reviews because I find it the most effective way to record my thoughts about a production and because, as John McCallum so eloquently said in his Philip Parson’s speech in 2010, I’ve been “theatre-fucked,” and I want to share the experience with others, encourage them to be “theatre-fucked” too. Favourable reviews are only written when a production deserves it (you can find a selection of them on this site) and they are always a challenge because you can’t say everything; your average review is the most common, but is no less easy or hard for being so – the bad things mustn’t outweigh the good, but the good things can soften the bad. Unfavourable reviews are perhaps the hardest to write because of the time investment that Brisbane-via-McCallum talked about, because I don’t believe that any production is ever truly ‘bad’.

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It may surprise you then, to know this is the first production of Hedda Gabler that I’ve seen on the stage. Granted, I’ve read the readily available translation of the play twice, read Andrew Upton’s exquisitely rendered 2004 adaptation for the Sydney Theatre Company half a dozen times, and seen the documentary In the Company of Actors about the same production another half-dozen times. I know the play, what it is capable of, but to see Belvoir’s latest offering, in Adena Jacobs’ adaptation of Ibsen’s play, is to watch your dreams dashed upon the rocks, squashed under the heel of a boot, crushed before they’d had a chance to grow wings.

The first thing we see in the dimly-lit Belvoir corner is a shiny stately black car, a room with large glass windows, and a small square swimming pool; Hedda lies in a black swimsuit on the pool’s edge, and it’s very clear where the design and directorial influences are drawn from. As soon as the lights brighten and the play begins properly, it becomes very clear very quickly this is not Ibsen’s play. At least, not as he wrote it.

It’s another case of Belvoir’s evasive marketing strategy, whereby productions are marketed as the classic play when they are really rewrites or radical adaptations which bear allegiance in character names and loose plot structures only. If you’ve seen any of Simon Stone’s productions in Sydney over the past three years, you’ll know what I mean. And just as Barrie Kosky seemingly begat Benedict Andrews, and Andrews in turn begat Simon Stone, so too it seems that Simon Stone has begat Adena Jacobs, in her directorial decisions, influences, modus operandi and style. While I am not an admirer of Simon Stone’s practices (his stagecraft, perhaps, but not his dramaturgical methods), this Hedda Gabler shows, if nothing else, just how easy Stone makes it all look, just how ‘well’ he does what he does. Jacobs’ script is modernised to the detriment of Ibsen’s play; where Stone uses the spirit and energy of the original’s dialogue to inform his own, uses the classic to create something new (even if it is not billed as such), Jacobs creates a confusing mix of Ibsen’s plot, modernised setting and vernacular, flourishes and tics that do not sit well together. The result is a dramaturgically confused and boring production which is a very dangerous thing to have created from a play of Hedda’s ilk.

Ibsen’s play is set in the late nineteenth century, in an age when the predominant social and cultural climate was one of examining a woman’s role, her agency and independence; it was the era of the suffragette movement, of the exploration of an individual’s independence and their right to choose their own life; the age of Ibsen, Chekhov, George Bernard Shaw. Part of the allure of plays like Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House, of The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters, of Pygmalion, Man and Superman and Mrs Warren’s Profession, is how their characters (and writers) negotiate the socio-cultural constraints of the time and how they ultimately transcend them, choosing their own endings. Hedda, a rich general’s daughter, recently married to Jorgen Tesman, a scholar, does not want to be defined by someone else, does not want to be someone’s daughter or wife, but rather her own person, and so takes the only way out she can find. In Jacobs’ Directors notes, she says how her thoughts kept returning to America in her conceptualisation of this production, of what America “represents for the contemporary Western world, as Athens was to the Ancient Greeks. Through this gaze of the American Dream, Hedda becomes the daughter of the military, living in the gleam of a Hollywood billboard… A fantasy of beauty mingled with destruction.” Be that as it may, but when you take characters and, indeed, the play out of its late nineteenth century context, you’d better have a very good reason for doing so. Otherwise Hedda turns into a bored rich woman, born into privilege, a woman who has known no true hardship nor struggle, who doesn’t really want for anything, who has no real reason to escape. She could, as Jacobs continues, “at any moment… get up and leave [so] why doesn’t she?” She is bored, watching her is boring, and the production instantly becomes devoid of any kind of dramatic tension; the climax is ruined instantly, well before you get there ninety minutes later, and there is no chance of rescue.

We are drawn to Ibsen’s Hedda, the character, just as much as we are to the play, because of the stifling sense of claustrophobia we feel, because of the sense of claustrophobia we share with her, and which we want to alleviate and share the burden of. Watching Ash Flanders (who has made a career out of performing strong iron-willed women for Sisters Grimm, his company with Declan Greene) as Hedda, I repeatedly asked myself why he was cast in place of a woman, what did his playing of the role bring to the production? And I still have no answer, days later. Instead of a stifling claustrophobia, we got near-nudity, a costume that barely deviates from the black swimsuit of the opening scene, wigs that were worn for a minute before being discarded, entire scenes played out wearing nothing more than a fur coat… At one point, Flanders’ Hedda sits in front of a flat-screen television playing an x-box; I’m still trying to work out whether it was a stylistic choice, a seemingly-clever analogy to show how much she liked playing with her father’s pistols (and that is not a euphemism), or just a directorial choice to show how bored she was. Either way, whatever was happening on the television screen was more interesting than what was happening on stage, and that is not a good thing. After the Broadway premiere of Hedda in 1902, one reviewer wrote of Hedda – “degenerate, selfish, morbid, cruel, bitter, jealous, something of a visionary, something of a lunatic.” In Jacobs’ production, we get selfish, morbid, cruel, bitter and jealous, definitely, more than ‘something’ of a lunatic, and also a weird alienating sense of voyeurism, of wealth and the apathetic lack of aliveness it can bring; a woman who will think nothing of burning a friend’s hair or manuscript, nothing of locking a friend and neighbour in the car overnight (in a very literal reading of the action).

The rest of the cast try valiantly to climb out of this apparently ‘post-gendered’ production’s sinkhole and, for the most part, succeed. Lynette Curran as Aunt Julie brings a genteel English warmth to what could have become a cousin to her clownish Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Oscar Redding’s Lovborg, whilst a caricature of a person, brought a desperation to his performance and we realised just how tortured a character he is, plagued by his own insecurities and self-doubts, his dependence on other people for success and well-being, and how quickly and cruelly that can all be undermined by someone like Flanders’ Hedda. Tim Walter’s Tesman seemed to drift in and out of scenes, more often that not in running clothes, though his final scene with Hedda in the car brought out just how giving he could have been, had Jacobs allowed him more room. Branden Christine as Berte, the maid, was underused and seemed to be part stage-hand, clearing flowers and boxes away, clearing up after other characters had discarded their clothes or belongings on the stage and moved on with their sad and interminable lives. (Also, if I see another person strip down to their underwear on Belvoir’s stage any time this year, I might just scream.) Marcus Graham’s Brack brought a loose warmth and charisma to a limply updated role, and ensured that we really did feel like there could be something of a triangle between he, Hedda and Tesman. Anna Houston as Thea had all the bearing, the restraint, the poise and coldness that Hedda could’ve had, and seemed miscast as Hedda’s old schoolmate-cum-neighbour.

Here’s the thing with Jacobs’ production: at one point, Lovborg calls Thea an idiot and Hedda a coward, and his words are echoed minutes later by another character; Berte is chastised and threatened with dismissal because she left a soft drink can on the bonnet of Hedda’s car. It seems women, in Jacobs’ version – and vision – of Ibsen’s play, serve no other function than to be ciphers, the subject of a man’s whim and desire, to be there when needed and then discarded, tossed aside like a manuscript in the middle of the road, to be collected and burnt out of spite and jealousy. Is this really where we want to be in the twenty-first century? Have we really come so far from the nineteenth century world that Ibsen was writing in, that the play is set in, to be calling and depicting women as idiots and cowards for wanting to be their own person? Are we really vilifying women for daring to speak their mind, the truth as they see it? It’s not a recent phenomenon either, not just something that’s just appeared with this production, but something that has been bubbling around Sydney’s main-stages and particularly Belvoir’s productions since mid-2012.

With regards to the physical production elements – the set, costumes, lighting, sound – the influences are only too obvious, and in the same space too. Just as Simon Stone has seemingly begat Adena Jacobs’ directorial style, so too has he blatantly influenced her design choices, most noticeably in the use of a car on the stage (Death of a Salesman, 2012) and dim pools of crepuscular lighting used to create seemingly disparate spaces (Hamlet, 2013). The car seems forced, contrived, unnecessary, especially when Hedda locks Thea in there overnight and tosses the keys into the swimming pool (itself perhaps a nod to Benedict Andrews’ Every Breath). There is nothing to make Hedda and Tesman’s new house stand out from the blackness of the stage, nothing to set it apart and make it seem like an ideal place to live. Consisting of a series of glass windows on what was essentially a corridor, the room ended in a study-cum-wardrobe with a small portrait-sized window facing the audience. Like Benedict Andrews’ Seagull in 2011, it effectively alienated a full third of the audience, and prevented them from seeing what was happening at several times during the play’s languorous ninety-minute running time. Flanders’ frequent (and pointless) costume changes added nothing to the character, the performing of her, or Jacobs’ staging, apart from foregrounding just how bored a person she is, ‘trapped’ in her world. David Fleischer’s costumes, normally carefully tailored to the world of the production (see Mojo or Romeo and Juliet for just two examples) were here bland and uninspired, with Thea’s costume perhaps being closest to Ibsen’s imagined world; his costumes for the finale, a plain and sombre black palette in various styles, blended with Dayna Morrissey’s bland set (with black curtains turning the windows into obsidian mirrors, reflecting the audience back at themselves; Morrissey’s black set seems to be the mirror opposite of the one she created for Jacobs’ staging of Bergman’s Persona at Belvoir last year). Danny Pettingill’s lighting is, for the most part, effective, though there are some peculiar choices – like the lights in the grille of the car which light in time to the music at the end of the play, or Hedda’s death-glow. Similarly, Kelly Ryall’s music sounded here like electronica-infused glam-punk, and did not fit the glamorous Hollywood world created by Jacobs and her team. Played primarily in scene-changes (or act-changes, to be more precise), Ryall’s music plays for too long, just as the blackouts run almost a full five minutes at their longest; they disrupt the already jagged flow of the production and make you eager for that inevitable gunshot, the one you know is coming, even if you haven’t seen or read the play before.

Which brings us to that inevitable gunshot, the conclusion of this review which you know has been coming. After one of Jacobs’ unendurable blackouts – in which Hedda sits alone at the wheel of the car, and stares into the oblivion of downstage; while the lights in the grille of the car flash in time with the music; in which our patience is sorely tested – Hedda dons her long auburn wig, climbs out of the window of the car and onto its roof. After a beat, she proceeds to unclasp her dress, shrugs one arm out of the sleeve, then the other, rolls the dress down around her waist, unclasps a revolver that’s been concealed on her side, and holds it to her temple. After maintaining her steely gaze for another beat, she fires – finally!; as she falls backwards, caught in a slow-motion limbo, weightless, between sitting and lying crumpled on the car’s roof, she is hit with an eerie green glow, making her look like a pale lifeless zombie. She lies there, unmoving, and Berte, the maid, dressed in black mourning clothes, enters and walks closer to the car, backlit by a hazy golden light, before it too fades into the blackout.

I don’t know what Jacobs was hoping to achieve by casting Ash Flanders as Ibsen’s Hedda; despite her assurances in the program that it will become clear, that the “production [will] speak for itself,” I am still wondering why Flanders was cast, days later. Why couldn’t a female actor play Hedda? Is it that Flanders was somehow ‘better’ than any woman? Is his performance of a woman more womanly than anything a woman could perform? Does he somehow understand women better than women do themselves? Or is the whole performing gender thing part of the issue here – Hedda feels trapped in a predominantly male world, thereby a man playing a woman’s role somehow feels appropriate? Jacobs writes that Hedda’s “‘dream home’ [is] both a zoo and marketplace, where one’s identity becomes the most prized possession.” Here, though, you are only all too acutely aware of Ash Flanders performing Hedda (unlike, say, Felicity Huffman’s performance in Transamerica, where the boundaries of gender blur in the opening scenes) and this performative aspect only foregrounds the distinctly “unfeminine” actions Cathy Hunt discusses in her ‘On Hedda Gabler’ essay in the program. The issue here, I think, goes deeper than merely performing a role, or performing gender, and questions the validity of a woman’s performance or a woman’s ability to perform such a role, either believably or at all. While Jacobs’ intention might have been to problematise and break down the perceived boundaries of gender, of gendered performances, of performances of gender, I don’t think it works anywhere nearly as well or effectively as it could have. Hunt cites Judith Butler and Simone de Beauvoir as key theorists in this regard, and says how both saw gender as an unnatural and constructed situation which is comprised of actions “functioning as statements which ‘congeal over time to produce the substance of a natural sort of being.’” Hedda is a strong character and, in theory, the gender (and/or sex) of the actor who plays her should not really matter as much as it does. What I take issue with is when directors, theorists, commentators &c claim that someone is somehow better suited to the role than any other simply because they ‘play’ tragic heroines better, or that their performances are ‘more truthful,’ whatever that means. Yes, Flanders’ creative practice as an actor might allow him “deep identification with difference and duality through his [particular] embodiment of this contested character,” but I don’t think that it should be stated or inferred that he is somehow better than anyone else at ‘being’ or ‘performing’ a woman.

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We were promised a “primal close-up of Ibsen’s electrifying marriage tragedy,” but instead got a languid, bitter, overly cynical, cruel and apathetic Hedda, garbled in adaptation, and not really what we were promised at all. I miss the period setting, the corsets and dresses, the coats and canes, boots and jackets; I miss the aching need to break free from the cage Hedda finds herself in and to leave, to walk out that door in whatever way she can. I miss Hedda Gabler, the character, the woman; I miss Ibsen’s play, I miss the very real sense of claustrophobia you get from seeing someone in a corset and long dress, physically restricted by the clothes they wear, the conventions that make them dress that way. I miss what Hedda is capable of, what I know she can be.

In short, I miss Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, and I want her back.

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