Monday, September 17, 2012

Overthinking Hedda: Hedda Gabler at the Shaw

Moya O'Connell as Hedda Gabler (Photo by Emily Cooper) 
More than any other playwright, Henrik Ibsen was responsible for bringing the theatre into the modern age, which is why his plays – not just the most frequently performed masterpieces, A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler, but also The Wild Duck, Ghosts, The Master Builder, Rosmersholm and Lady from the Sea – feel freshly startling, even devastating, when you pick them up again. (The Shaw Festival did a revelatory staging of the seldom performed Rosmersholm in 2006.) It’s one thing to talk about the modernist qualities of these works, however, and quite another to forget that Ibsen’s heroes and especially his heroines are trapped like flies in amber in the intractable mores of nineteenth-century Norway. A director who ignores the repressed Nordic Victorianism of Ibsen’s age does so at his or her peril. (Anyone remember the Joseph Losey movie of A Doll’s House, with Jane Fonda as a Nora who seemed to have sprung, consciousness fully raised, from the early 1970s?) Hedda Gabler’s sexual curiosity can’t be satisfied in drawing-room banter because she’s a woman; she has to get the information she craves through witty but decorous innuendo and delicately framed allusions. Yet in Martha Henry’s production at the Shaw, when Eilert Loevborg (Gray Powell), who once courted Hedda (Moya O’Connell), meets her at the house she has just moved into with her new husband, George Tesman (Patrick McManus), Eilert puts his hand unabashedly on Hedda’s leg while Tesman and family friend Judge Brack (Jim Mezon) are in another room drinking glasses of punch. When Hedda finally admits to her husband that she’s (unhappily) pregnant with his child, a subject discussed in polite Victorian society with only the most indirect phrasing, O’Connell thrusts his hand onto her belly. When the judge returns in the last act to bring the news that Loevborg has shot himself, Mezon’s gestures make it explicitly clear that the fatal bullet lodged in his groin. When he blackmails her by threatening to expose the fact that Hedda let him have one of her father’s pistols, this Brack practically forces himself on her (presumably in case we miss the aim of the blackmail).

These aren’t the only infelicities in Henry’s interpretation. It’s full of ideas, but almost none of them works. The most baffling: to confirm the fact of Hedda’s pregnancy (which Tesman’s Aunt Juliana, played by Mary Haney, intuits in the opening scene and hints around about), Henry has her throw open the upstage double doors and vomit offstage into the garden, yet a few minutes later Brack exits that way with apparent impunity and not even a moment of distaste. The most flamboyant is the way Henry stages the last minute of the play, when Hedda shoots herself in the piano room: the stage is plunged briefly into expressionistic darkness before her blood sprays the scrim sealing off that room from the salon where the main action takes place. It also sprays the symbolic portrait of General Gabler, Hedda’s father. Now Ibsen makes a point of placing the portrait (which looks pretty amateurish in this version) above the mantel in full view of the audience, so in order to effect hercoup de th√©√Ętre Henry has to interpolate an awkward piece of staging earlier whereby Hedda, for no reason, removes it from its accustomed spot and replaces it on the other side of the scrim.

Patrick McManus, Moya O'Connell & Claire Jullien (Photo by Emily Cooper) 
The Shaw fixed on the recent Richard Eyre translation of the play, which is a good one. It keeps all the humor that less sensitive versions sometimes dry out, and instead of repeating “Eh, Hedda?” in that risible way, Tesman just appends “No?” to his sentences, which makes the same point about the banality of his language (and imagination) without burdening the actor who has to make it sound like it comes out of a real human being’s mouth. McManus’s George is bespectacled and balding; he’s dull and clumsy and forgetful – an absent-minded professor type – but not ridiculous. But Henry sticks him with melodramatic gestures you just don’t believe. When Hedda confesses that she burned Eilert’s manuscript – in a desperate move to wield control over his life, though she lies to her husband that it was out of a desire to see him win a professorship over Eilert – McManus becomes hysterical and shakes her, which the mild-mannered Tesman would never do in a million years. (In the puzzling-textual-reading category, I also couldn’t make out Aunt Juliana’s obvious hostility toward Hedda: it isn’t in the text and it turns the benign old aunt, who lives for her nephew George’s happiness and is overjoyed that he’s married the town catch, into a character from some other play. And there must be some point to William Schmuck’s fussy set, with curtains draping the upstage arch that look like moth-eaten gingham and squares above the double doors that look like photographic slides, but I have no idea what it could be.)

Hedda Gabler is notoriously difficult to pull off. You have to have exactly the right actress in the title role, someone who can filter the character’s hauteur and her misery at the dead-ended life she’s signed up for (because she couldn’t see any alternative) and the impulse that drives her away from life and toward death (the first thing she does on stage is to close the windows and throw away the fresh flowers) through a brittle style – the style of a high-comedy heroine – and a force of personality that makes her the undisputed belle of any ball. I’ve seen only two actresses manage it: Claire Bloom on stage in the early seventies and Diana Rigg in a British TV production that’s now available on DVD. (Bloom played Hedda and Nora in repertory, but unfortunately the one that got filmed was A Doll’s House, which she didn’t score in.) The strikingly slender O’Connell looks magnificent in the sumptuous gowns, also designed by Schmuck, especially the long silvery-white one in act one and the burgundy print with black lace sleeves in act two – the costumes are outstanding at the Shaw this season – but her performance is all affectation. I can’t work out why Henry wanted all this melodrama: McManus gets caught up in it, too, and so does Mezon as the judge. When almost all the characters show up in the last act, the cross-staging is so self-consciously theatrical that you can’t take any of them seriously.

But Claire Jullien is excellent as Thea Elvsted, Hedda’s old schoolmate and – to Hedda’s increasing exasperation – Eilert’s helpmate. Jullien plays her as plain-spoken, unassuming, incapable of authenticity, which makes her appear a fool in this stylish, over-educated society. And Gray Powell may be the only plausible Loevborg I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t play him as Byronic but as sardonic, removed, almost misanthropic, with a cloud over his head; he seems to walk through this world with difficulty, with a kind of self-disdain. The show livens up considerably when he arrives in the second act, and his scenes with Thea are the highlight of the production. And Jennifer Phipps does something clever and hilarious with the tiny role of the antiquated servant, Berthe, who is permanently befuddled and wears her hair (in act one) in pigtails like a young girl. Phipps’s rhythms are so odd that she seems to belong to a different age, maybe on a different planet, but they’re very entertaining. I recall with pleasure her performance as the old Italian grandmamma in The Magic Fire at the Shaw in 2006. She’s a treasure.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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