Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Review of Brooklyn Academy of Music's production of Hedda Gabler, 3-25-06 (starring Cate Blanchett!)

I consider Cate Blanchett one of the most talented and versatile actresses of our time. Similarly, Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is a play I regard as one of the best, most coherently structured plays ever written. So when I read that the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) planned to stage Hedda with Blanchett in the title role, I quickly bought tickets, eager to see an actress of her talents tackle one of the most difficult female roles in the dramatic repertoire. (And it didn’t hurt that they had also cast Hugo Weaving, of Agent Smith in The Matrix fame to play Judge Brack, one of the male leads.)

What I didn’t realize was that this production, by the Sydney Theater Company, was a new adaptation of Ibsen’s work, by Blanchett’s husband, the Australian playwright Andrew Upton.

Between Upton, and the director Robyn Nevin, I don’t know who to blame more for how badly they ruined Ibsen’s play and thereby eliminated any chance of a good production. It’s bad enough that Upton’s adaptation mangles the characters and butchers the play from beginning to end. But on top of that, Nevin’s directorial choices force Blanchett, Weaving, and Anthony Weigh (as Hedda’s husband Tesman) into portrayals of their characters that further cripple any revelation of the subtleties of Ibsen’s work.

First, but not foremost, in adapting Ibsen, one must realize that the man began his career as a poet—and that five of his first seven plays, plus his two early successes after those (Brand, and Peer Gynt) he composed in rhymed verse. Hedda Gabler, while written in prose that might sound stilted to 21st century ears, still demands that any updating embrace the complexity and fullness of the characters and text. Unequal to this task, Upton makes the decision to substitute common language in favor of Ibsen’s measured prose—which by itself isn’t bad. I could stand the modern dialogue if it was a mere transposition of Ibsen’s original lines and intent. But Upton avoids this, carving up the play to the extent that diluted the characters and made watching the entire first act no different from a weekly episode of Desperate Housewives.

More problematic though, is the fate to which Upton subjects the characters, especially the title role. Hedda’s character is mangled beyond recognition—and compounding this, Nevin has Blanchett play her without any of the motivations or intentions found in Ibsen’s text. In Hedda Gabler, her restlessness stems from a lifetime of cowardice and a failure to act. Consequently, her outbursts and petty games are scratches against the prison cell of her own choices—albeit one in which she stills strives to maintain freedom enough to entertain herself from boredom. In this way, Ibsen makes of Hedda a theme that he frequents often: a condemnation of those who fail to live according to their own stated principles. Hedda longs for a hero with “vine leaves in his hair,” fully aware that when she had her choice to do so, she backed down in cowardice. She affirms this in the play, stating unequivocally, “Ah yes, courage! If one only had that…Then life would perhaps be livable after all.” But it is courage that she lacks, and to compensate, she turns her own self-loathing outward, amusing herself in the manipulation of others.

No sense of this is found in the Hedda Gabler put on by Upton and Nevin. Throughout the first act, we get only a bored, restless housewife, struggling to come to terms with a marriage made beneath her station. Her treatment of the other characters is done by Blanchett with a childish malice; she throws flowers and cushions on the floor, she makes faces, she tries to peek into letters addressed to others. Meanwhile, though many motives are alleged for Hedda’s behavior—jilted lover, young girl afraid of the commitment of pregnancy, unwilling seductress when it goes too far—all of these are only airs put on by Blanchett, none of them capturing the essential quality of the role. Blanchett does act all of this with great skill, but her overt childishness throughout causes believability problems at the end of the play.

In this case, no one would believe that this Hedda would kill herself, especially not after seeing only a childish temper tantrum lashing out against the world in Act One. (Upton carved the play into two acts.) The early interpretation of Hedda only embodies a will to control or destroy others, but in no way did Blanchett develop the pathos that even in the face of blackmail, would have led her to suicide. Children may rail against the world, but children are easily subdued, and the Hedda seen on the BAM stage would have similarly capitulated. In contrast, the Hedda of Ibsen’s play displays this necessary pathos throughout—at the beginning of Act Two, Judge Brack comes in through the back way and Hedda, though seeing him, shoots at him with her pistol for fun. In Upton’s version though, she calls out to the judge, levels her pistol, then like a schoolgirl, cries “Bang!” and the two then share a little laugh. More important are the lines in the final act that Upton leaves out, when Hedda, learning of Lovborg’s suicide remarks, “At last, a deed worth doing!....I say there is beauty in this…Eilert Lovborg has made up his account with life, he has had the courage to do—the one right thing.” And then later, when pressed, she replies, “Oh what a sense of freedom it gives, this act of Eilert Lovborg’s…it gives a sense of freedom to know that a deed of deliberate courage is still possible in this world—a deed of spontaneous beauty.” Ibsen’s Hedda embodies a lifetime, not of being spoilt by always getting her way—as Upton writes her—but a lifetime of feeling not only that one has nothing to live for, but barring heroic deeds, that no one else has anything to live for either. Consequently, when cornered, by a blackmail, near-poverty, and an expecting pregnancy that all threaten her with both a loss of freedom and a scandal she dreads, Ibsen’s Hedda takes the only way out. Moreover, where Ibsen gives us a Hedda who shares beliefs that many hold at one or another point in their lives, Upton’s Hedda is completely unsympathetic in any regard, no more than one can understand or sympathize with a bratty child.

The direction and adaptation are equally disappointing for two of the other main characters, Tesman and Judge Brack. While Tesman is a pathetic character, I’ve never seen a production where the director so openly encourages the audience to spitefully laugh at him. Tesman is pathetic enough as written—not only does he spend a six month honeymoon making his beautiful bride wait in his hotel rooms while he scours libraries for research material, but he is overjoyed when his wife finally begins calling him by his first name! But this is obviously too subtle for Nevin, who not only makes him look and act like a taller Rick Moranis, but also makes him somewhat nasty in his negligence. By so doing, this production totally downplays his sincerity—not only of his love for Hedda (which is genuine), but of his devotion to his two aunts, and his untainted admiration for Lovborg as a man of greater ability. And this detracts from the production in two ways: it not only reinforces Hedda’s overt childishness when she mocks him (as he now deserves it), but it also makes him, at the end of the play, break out into what is by now an uncharacteristic sob when he learns of the death of his Aunt Rina.

Although this production gives glimpses of the kind of performance that Hugo Weaving could have given, his talent, like Blanchett’s, is wasted. In the original play, Brack competes equally for lines and stage time with the two other male parts. In this adaptation though, Upton has whittled his part away, emptying his character in the process. Most of his lines from (the original) acts one and two disappear, and you get no sense of him here, seeing him only as a threatening womanizer. This damages the production in the end, as Weaving has no other choice but to nearly yell his threats when he blackmails Hedda—and making this the very thin basis upon which she commits suicide. In Ibsen’s original, there is no need for such a clumsy approach, as Brack is more of a clever nuisance, only taking advantages where he can. Consequently, for Ibsen, Brack’s threats are necessarily muted ones, by themselves not insuperable, and only the final tipping point in Hedda’s decision to kill herself.

The production did contain some highlights, in addition to Blanchett’s performance. The director made one interesting and exciting choice, when she cleaved the play around the appearance of Lovborg. This served to further center the action around his character, making a nearly night and day performance between the two acts presented. Moreover, Aden Young’s performance as Lovborg added to this effect. He ignited the stage, and every character was completely warped by his presence. Indeed, Upton’s text-butchering left only his character unscathed—and Young gave it the full dimension that Lovborg’s character deserves.

Upton’s mutilation of Ibsen’s work ruined what could have been the theatrical production of the decade. He failed to do what a bare minimum requires: to capture the essence of the play one is trying to adapt. And this failure isn’t even to the audience’s advantage—because not only did they not get to see Hedda Gabler, but what they did see made no sense regardless. I did enjoy Blanchett’s performance—she did everything she could to inspire belief in this play. And in this, she left no doubt that she could play Hedda Gabler better than any other actress living—completely justifying why I went to see the play in the first place. But Upton’s unfortunate adaptation wastes her talent; and in the end, Blanchett gave a virtuoso performance, but of nothing.

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