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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
by Les Gutman
Ibsen was one of the first playwrights to employ explicit stage directions in his scripts. Of particular significance is the extent to which he used parentheticals describing his characters' behavior. In this play, it is interesting to note he used the word "cold" [Norwegian: kald] on seven occasions to color the title character's demeanor.
This creates particular challenges in BAM's presentation of Sydney Theatre Company's Hedda. For starters, it's the hottest show in town at the moment, and its star is one of the hottest actresses in the world. Also, this Hedda is the most physically energetic I have ever witnessed. (She even wrestles!). So how does one go about cooling down that fever pitch? A good chunk of the solution is that adapter Andrew Upton (who happens to be Ms. Blanchett's husband) and director Robyn Nevin have concocted a Hedda who is more bitchy than cold. Tispe [English: bitch] doesn't appear anywhere in Ibsen's text, but it's fair to say Ms. Blanchett's Hedda is, if nothing else, a bitch on wheels. I found it a reasonable if different contemporary choice, and it folds well into the play's ending, both dramatically and emotionally.
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the rest of the production, but I must report this is also the most muddled Hedda I've experienced. The show's other actor with some degree of starpower, Hugo Weaving, is interesting enough to watch as Brack, but offers no clue as to why he is there. Ditto for Justine Clark's Elvsted (a freak show) and Aden Young's Lovborg (effective in conveying that he is a relapsing alcoholic, but -- again -- bereft of any indication of why he is there). Anthony Weigh, like Blanchett's Hedda, has a different-but-reasonable take on the usually slump-shouldered Tesman, but Aunt Julle (Julie Hamilton) and Berte (Annie Byron) are cartoon characters. At times, it seems we are watching a drawing room comedy, or a 50's sit-com, channelled through a Hepburn movie.
Somewhere in Upton's adaptation and/or Nevin's direction, the basic story-telling gets away from them. The whole is thus rendered especially not a great staging for those who don't arrive with familiarity. (The "synopsis" including in the playbill is only four lines long, and written in a truncated-sentence style that seems to be Mr. Upton's signature; it aids little.)
Many of the design elements add to the confusion. The previously-mentioned set is wide and airy -- the two rooms being side by side and open to one another. They completely contradict any sense of claustrophobia Hedda should feel, and also obliterate the notion of inner and outer Hedda that Ibsen considered essential. In an adaptation that seeks to update the time, Kristian Fredrikson's costumes are strictly period pieces. And, in the case of the subsidiary women, over the top. (Though I must say Ms. Blanchett is striking in each of hers.) Nick Schlieper's lighting is faultless, but composer Alan John's emphatic music is almost absurdly inappropriate.
Andrew Upton writes, in notes included in the press materials, of Ibsen's way of "tilting the story and unbalancing the dynamics between the characters". He goes on to applaud how "Ibsen can tell seven [stories] and... create this enormous, constantly shifting work" that he goes on to describe as "a symphony of misunderstandings" not a "sonata of grievances". He's right, of course, but Upton is not Ibsen and none of these misunderstanding are here understood.
LINKS TO PREVIOUS REVIEWS OF HEDDA GABLER (INCLUDING VARIATIONS)
New York Theatre Workshop
Heddatron (Les Freres Corbusier at HERE)
Speed Hedda (La MaMa)
Claudia Legare (DiCapo Opera)
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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