by Lynn on August 25, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Courthouse Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Written by Henrik Ibsen. Adapted by Richard Eyre. Directed by Martha Henry. Designed by William Schmuck. Lighting by Kevin Lamotte. Music by Todd Charlton. Starring: Mary Haney, Claire Jullien, Patrick McManus, Jim Mezon, Moya O’Connell, Jennifer Phipps, Gray Powell.

Produced by the Shaw Festival. It plays until September 29.

Hedda Gabler is the late General Gabler’s beautiful, imperious daughter. She is prized by her husband George Tessman who can’t believe his luck that he actually won her favour and married her. George is so devoted to her that he tries to give in to her every whim; going into hock doing it. Hedda intimidates George’s aunt Juliana and Berthe, the family’s elderly housekeeper. Men are attracted to her. Women are afraid of her. Audiences are wary of her.

But for all Hedda’s privilege and dazzling aura, her life is not as peachy as we would think. I can imagine her father puffed her up to expect a life of privilege and servants. That won’t happen on George’s professor’s salary. He was the only suitable man she could marry–sweet, studious but basically dim to the ironies of life. She is attracted to unsuitable, wild men. Eilert Loevborg, her passionate former lover, and Judge Brack, oily, watchful for the weakness in a person and ready to pounce when it’s to his advantage. Hedda loves listening to their exploits (oh to be a fly on the wall where these men are) but does not dare to indulge because of possible scandal. Hedda is terrified of scandal. She longs to have control over another person’s life, but has none over her own. She is pregnant. With morning sickness. She is bored to distraction, almost to madness. When she realizes that Brack has her in a compromising situation she knows she is trapped in that life and does the only thing left that she has control over.

The Shaw Festival’s production of Hedda Gabler is stunning under Martha Henry’s perceptive and illuminating direction. At times I found the production even revelatory. Designer William Schmuck has created a living room full of comfortable chairs, a settee and other furniture, waiting for endless company to entertain. Suspended up stage is a large portrait of General Gabler, every present, a constant reminder to Hedda of what she should have in life and doesn’t. At one point Hedda is so unsettled she aims a gun at the portrait—the implication is clear. And while she doesn’t shoot at it, she moves it to a back room out of her sight, but not ours. Through clever design and lighting (Kevin Lamotte) we can see through the wall to the back room. The portrait bleeds through the wall, still ever present.

Every single performance is full bodied and establishes the world that Hedda inhabits and often resents. Even the small part of Berthe the housekeeper, has huge implications. In Jennifer Phipps’ capable hands Berthe frets that she will not be able to keep up to Hedda’s exacting demands. Phipps is breathless, always on the move picking up things that Hedda has thrown (the object of choice is a pesky cushion that is usually in the wrong place); her brow is often furrowed with concern; and yet Berthe is carrying. As Aunt Juliana, Mary Haney too is caring, of George her nephew, and therefore of Hedda. Juliana is aware of Hedda’s pregnancy but not pushy about it. She is patient of George who will always be a young boy to her, but aware too that he is coming into his stride. She takes Hedda’s deliberate slight about her hat being left in the wrong place, with a coolness and checked hurt. Juliana knows the kind of woman Hedda is but hopes that things will improve.

As Thea, whom Hedda knew in girlhood—one can’t call them friends—Claire Jullien is confident, compassionate and certainly aware of Hedda’s mean streak . Hedda had threatened to burn Thea’s hair in the past. You become wary of that in the future.

As Eilert Loevborg, Hedda’s wild-man, Gray Powell has that haunted look of a man bedevilled. There are flashes of the man that Hedda was attracted to, as well as those moments of sadness that attracted Thea.

As an oily, dangerous yet elegant character such as Judge Brack, Jim Mezon nails him. The perfectly dressed gentleman. The sly smile. He is always courteous, but there is a dangerous watchfulness. He sits talking to Hedda with double entendres whizzing through the air. He carries a walking stick, the head of which he caresses and twirls in his hand, as he slowly draws the long shaft of it up and down over his ankle. The sexual subtext between Brack and Hedda is unmistakable.

Patrick McManus imbues George Tessman with a seriousness and awkwardness that is disarming. George is somewhat stooped; always adjusting his glasses; always eager to please; constantly ‘amazed’ at every bit of news but not really a fool. He comes into his own when he begins to put Loevborg’s papers in order with Thea’s help. George is multi-faceted and not just a wimp because of the intriguing way McManus plays him.

But it’s all about Hedda and Moya O’Connell is stunning in the role. She is an imperious, cold, coy ice-queen. She gets her kicks from being cruel to those she thinks are inferior (being snide about Aunt Juliana’s hat being on a chair; telling Thea she was going to burn her hair). She is comfortable and flirty with Brack and daring with Eilert. But overpowering almost everything is her boredom.

She is so bored her skin almost crawls. She is so bored she can’t keep still; pacing, re-arranging things, impatiently throwing that damned cushion that is always in the wrong place, frantically on the move. She recoils when George touches her. That’s understandable since she can’t hide her contempt for him. But later in Act II there is some business that is revelatory. Hedda has fallen soundly asleep on a sofa waiting, with Thea, for Eilert Loevborg to return from Brack’s party. (Interestingly Hedda seems to be the only one here who actually sleeps soundly.) Berthe quietly approaches the sleeping Hedda and puts out her hand to gently touch her on the head, not to wake her, but I think to show her tenderness. That delicate touch wakes Hedda instantly as if she had been hit with a hammer. Oh dear. Hedda loathes to be touched at all, by anyone. Imagine it. A life loathing to be touched; without affection. Stunning.

Later when Eilert returns confiding in Hedda what happened at the party (he lost his manuscript) and that all is lost, Hedda urges him to kill himself ‘beautifully.’ When he leaves that power she thinks she has over another life is intoxicating to her. She is buoyed. She grabs Thea by the hair and says she’s going to burn it. And we believe her too. Stunning.

It all crashes down after that. Brack returns to tell her that Eilert has died and that he didn’t shoot himself in the head (‘beautifully’ as Hedda instructed) but lower down. While one side of the theatre can see Brack clearly indicate where Eilert shot himself, it is obvious to those who see Brack from behind where his arms are pointing.

Finally when Hedda finds her drastic way out of this untenable situation, and there is blood on the wall and splattered on General Gabler’s portrait (symbolism is everything here), Brack is truly frightened in this situation, saying: “Oh God…People…don’t…do things like that…” He might be in tight with the police, who obviously often look the other way, but this situation will implicate him in something sordid he doesn’t need. He does something I’ve never seen in any production of this play—he quietly, quickly leaves, thus heightening the true horror of what has happened. Stunning.

HEDDA GABLER plays at the Shaw Festival until September 29.

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