by Lynn on May 14, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Coal Mine Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Playing until June 9, 2024.

By Henrik Ibsen

Adapted by Liisa Repo-Martell

Directed by Moya O’Connell

Composer, Emily Haines

Set and costumes by Joshua Quinlan

Lighting by Kaitlin Hickey

Sound by Michael Wanless

Cast: Nancy Beatty

Diana Bentley

Andrew Chown

Shawn Doyle

Leah Doz

Qasim Khan

Fiona Reid

A powerhouse cast in a contemporary adaptation which seems strangely unfinished. The production has intriguing moments but generally is obvious and lacking in subtlety.

The Story. At the best of times, Hedda Gabler is a popular play. This summer it’s doubly so: Stratford is doing its own production. It’s a powerhouse part for an actress because the part seems relentlessly driven.

Hedda Gabler was considered a catch for any man in that Norwegian town. She came from an upper-class family—her father was the highly regarded General Gabler. Many of the men Hedda seemed to keep company with were less than ideal. She was attracted to men who were dangerous and exciting. But she was also a product of her society and its attitudes towards women. Women must be respectable and scandal-free. Hedda knew that and respected it. More than anything, she feared scandal.

So Hedda Gabler married the first respectable man who showed interest, Jorgen Tesman. The problem was he was dull. He was a studious, boring historian who was in line for a promotion at the local university.  Jorgen adored Hedda and tried to give her everything she wanted.  This promotion would be very helpful for Jorgen to make money to cater to Hedda.

Hedda and Jorgen have just returned from their six-month honeymoon where Jorgen was also doing research. Hedda got the sense of what marriage to him would be on that honeymoon and she wasn’t happy. When she got home, to a house she told Jorgen she always wanted, we learn that Jorgen’s aunt is dying; that his promotion might not be assured and that an old rival, Eilert Lovborg and a former suitor to Hedda, is back on the scene. There is also Judge Brack, a rather shady but suave character who has arranged for Jorgen to buy the house. He too is interested in Hedda. To make matters even more complicated, Hedda is probably pregnant. There is a lot going on.

The Production and comment. Joshua Quinlan has designed a beautiful, spare set that establishes the size and elegance of the house that Hedda said she coveted (in fact she was toying with Jorgen). There is a piano up at the back wall, a table and two comfortable chairs are in the middle; they are on an elegant patterned rug, and up at the back behind a gauzy curtain is a large backyard.

As the audience files into the theatre, director Moya O’Connell has Berta the maid (Nancy Beatty) fuss with the many flowers that have been delivered to the house to celebrate the return of the ‘happy’ couple. Berta has put the flowers in vases, at least four, but doesn’t know where to put the vases. She hesitates to put them on the piano. So she arranges them all on the table in the main room. This bit of business nicely establishes Berta’s concern that she will not measure up to the standards of the imperious Hedda Gabler. Berta has always worked for the undemanding Tesman family of Jorgen and his two elderly aunts. Now she will work for Jorgen and his demanding bride.

When the production ‘begins’, the lights go up on ‘something’ in front of the piano. In fact it’s the bare back of a woman whose dress is undone. She sits on the piano bench with her head on the keys. She lifts her head and begins to play a mournful but beautiful piece of music (kudos to composer Emily Haines). It’s the middle of the night. This woman can’t sleep. We can assume it’s Hedda Gabler (Diana Bentley) and she is not happy. Again, director Moya O’Connell beautifully establishes Hedda’s ennui at her situation.

That ennui is palpable when Diana Bentley appears as Hedda in the morning.  She is beautiful and impatient. Hedda if almost quivering with impatience and frustration at having to contend with her dim husband Jorgen (Qasim Khan), his aunt Julia (Fiona Reid) who has come to visit, Thea Elvsted (Leah Doz) whom Hedda terrorized when they went to school together, and Judge Brack (Shawn Doyle). Brack offers Hedda some relief from these tiresome people. He is a kindred spirit, with whom she can joke about the others. She visibly relaxes in his presence. They share knowing looks and jokes.  

While Hedda hated scandal, she loved hearing about them and sordid events and so Judge Brack, with his colourful but sort of respectable background, was a perfect friend, as long as he didn’t get too friendly. But Judge Brack wanted to get close to Hedda and her husband, forming something like a triangle. Then Eilert Lovborg  (Andrew Chown) came back into her life. He had been trying to live a respectable life, acting as a tutor to two children. In the process he had an affair with the step-mother of the children. That was Thea Elvsted. She left her husband and his children to follow Eilert to this town.

Hedda is stifling. She’s married to a bore. She is pregnant and that is trapping her in another way. Judge Brack is posing an untenable connection. Hedda’s world is closing in on her. She is frantic to cope until she sees only one way out. I don’t think this is a spoiler alert, since the play has been performed since its debut in 1891 in Germany.

The cast is very strong, led by Diana Bentley giving a terrific, imperious performance as Hedda Gabler. Qasim Khan as Jorgen Tesman is a satisfied man. He has married the most unattainable woman in the town; he is in line for a promotion which will ease the worry of the debt he has incurred trying to please Hedda. And his beloved aunt Julia has given him his old slippers. He is buoyant with joy. Simple things please him. He is dim to every one of Hedda’s little slights. His glasses intrigued me. Jorgen wears wire-tipped glasses that he often takes off to wipe his eyes for effect, or to take them off to stare at a person to make a point, again for effect. Indeed, he took those glasses off to hold them so often, I wondered why he wore them at all. Hmmm.

As Judge Brack, Shawn Doyle is dapper, smooth, charming and dangerous. He and Hedda have a past. She is attracted to dangerous, unsuitable men. Brack served a purpose to amuse her until she found respectability with Jorgen. But Brack knows he has a hold on Hedda and he intends to tighten his grip.

Leah Doz is a highly charged Thea Elvsted. And joining her is the equally impressive Andrew Chown as Eilert Lovborg. These two characters are hanging on by a thread. They are trying to reform and cope. Wonderful work from Leah Doz and Andrew Chown.

Hedda Gabler is directed by Moya O’Connell, who herself is a very fine actress. She played Hedda Gabler in 2012 in a stunning production at the Shaw Festival. She is now adding directing to her many talents. Moya O’Connell has a good feel for staging and a clear idea of the world of the play. And one cuts some slack when O’Connell is beginning work as a new director in the theatre. But I couldn’t ignore the sense that the production seems tentative, unsteady. The pace sometimes is laggy. And dare I say it, it lacks subtlety. Moya O’Connell goes for the obvious in her direction.  Ordinarily there is a sexual innuendo between Hedda and Judge Brack. Here the sexuality is overt. When Brack first visits Hedda Shawn Doyle as Brack sits with his legs wide apart, one foot raised on something, widening the position, when talking to her. This removes a subtle inuendo that is hinted at. Here there is no mystery. Sex is what Brack is conveying. It’s more like, wham, bang, thank you ma’am that is too abrupt.

And the ending in Moya O’Connell’s production is absolutely bizarre. At the end, Hedda does something drastic to end her sense of being trapped. The ending is abrupt with little dialogue.  But then Hedda seems to resurrect herself to perform a frantic, crazed dance upstage with her back to us, her arms flailing and her hair flying. What does that mean, that Hedda will be eternally damned to hell and will not find peace in her drastic end? Bizarre. Moya O’Connell is smart, it’s just that I could not make head no tail of that ending.

This text of Hedda Gabler is adapted by Liisa Repo-Martell. She’s a wonderful actress in her own right who has gone into writing and adapting as an expansion of her art. Liisa Repo-Martell did the wonderful adaptation of Uncle Vanya that originally played at Crow’s Theatre, a year or so ago, and recently was presented in a co-production by Mirvish productions and Crow’s earlier this year.  Liisa Repo-Martell has a wonderful facility with language as is evident in Uncle Vanya. And she shows the same sensitivity in Hedda Gabler. There is a certain freshness to the adaptation in giving a sense of the claustrophobic society for women. But I couldn’t help but feel that the adaptation is unfinished. Of course, there are many adaptations of the play out in the universe, but there are aspects of the play that are similar in each adaptation. With this version they seemed to be cut completely. The ending in particular is abrupt without Hedda offering teasing lines along the way—that she is resolved and will fling knowing lines to those who will remain. I thought that this abrupt ending so strange, if not jarring.

So while there are things to admire in this production of Hedda Gabler, on the whole, I found it a disappointment, sadly.

Coal Mine Theatre presents:

Playing until June 9, 2024.

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (1 intermission)

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