by Lynn on June 17, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont. Playing until Sept. 28, 2024.

Written by Henrik Ibsen

In a new version by Patrick Marber

From a literal translation by Karin and Ann Bamborough

Directed by Molly Atkinson

Set and costumes by Lorenzo Savoini

Lighting by Kaileigh Krysztofiak

Composer and sound by Mishelle Cuttler

Cast: Bola Aiyeola

Joella Crichton

Brad Hodder

Kim Horsman

Tom McCamus

Gordon S. Miller

Sara Topham

Some fine acting and scenes of inventive direction, but the overall effect is an uneven, disappointing production.

The Story. Hedda Gabler is a strong-willed woman living at a time when women had to conform to a certain code of behaviour in order to be considered respectable. She was brought up by General Gabler, who instilled in her a way to expect to live. She should marry well, have servants and would entertain in a grand house.

Hedda was attracted to wild men of questionable character, such as Judge Brack and Eilert Lovborg. But she knew a close association with them would be socially wrong. So she married the only respectable man who showed interest, Tesman, a nerdy scholar who wanted to marry her and hoped that a professorship would lead to a good living.

They have just returned from an extended honeymoon where Hedda was bored to say the least. In the meantime, Tesman went into debt to buy Hedda’s ideal house. Judge Brack worked in the background to help secure the house. Tesman’s Aunt Juliana put up her annuity to secure the furniture, which concerned Tesman when he found out. And Tesman learns that Lovborg might be vying for the same professorship now that he has written a hugely successful book. Things begin to unravel quickly and Hedda felt not only bored in this marriage, but also trapped and desperate when she realizes that her social status might be jeopardized by ‘slippery’ Judge Brack.

The Production.  Lorenzo Savoini has designed a beautiful set to suggest the grand size of the house. There is only a chaise downstage and a fireplace upstage, otherwise the stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre is bare. A lighting effect on the whole width of the stage of the theatre illuminates the shadows of two large window settings, which also give the sense of the size of the house.Bravo for this simple and effective lighting by Kaileigh Krysztofiak.

When Aunt Juliana (Bola Aiyeola) arrives to see her nephew Tesman (Gordon S. Miller) and his new bride Hedda (Sara Topham) she looks up and around the space, adding another means of suggesting the size of the place—Kudos to director Molly Atkinson. Gordon S. Miller is a lively Tesman who is passionate about his work, and eventually stands up for his rights with Hedda.

When Hedda (Sara Topham) makes her entrance she is cool, regal, haughty and in command. The emptiness of the Tom Patterson stage provides an expanse over which Hedda can rule.

Sara Topham as Hedda strides across the stage, owning it.  The problem is that too often it looks like Molly Atkinson could not stage characters to appear as if they were having ordinary conversations on such a large stage. There is often such a distance between them, as if that is how she could ‘fill up’ the space.   Interestingly Molly Atkinson is more successful in staging/directing intimate scenes that take place on the chaise between Hedda Gabler and Lovborg (Brad Hodder) a former lover. The attempt at secrecy and reliving their former seductive connection is nicely achieved.

While Sara Topham has the hauteur of Hedda Gabler, the regal bearing and arrogant condescension, it seems as if she is skimming the surface of this deeply complex woman. There is more nuance to Hedda than Topham has invested.  

As Lovborg, Brad Hodder is a combination of a man who needs to appear as if he is reformed from his previous wild reputation, but also show that that wildness is close to the surface. The audience also gets an intriguing look at Judge Brack (Tom McCamus), an elegant and outwardly charming man, who keeps his darker purpose hidden for the most part. Judge Brack is one of Hedda’s wild, inappropriate men in her past, who will tighten his grip on her (figuratively and literally), leading her to make a drastic decision about her future. Tom McCamus is both seductive and dangerous.

Joella Crichton is a good actress, as was seen last year in her performance in The Wedding Band, but in Hedda Gabler she makes Mrs. Elvsted seem flighty and light-weight. Mrs. Elvsted has more depth than that. And I got the sense that Joella Chrichton was given line readings by her director, with deliberate pauses before words, thus making the performance seem laboured and tentative.  

Patrick Marber is a wonderful playwright, director and adaptor in his own right, but I found his new version of Ibsen’s classic, problematic. Most important is that this version seems wrong for this production. Patrick Marber initially adapted Hedda Gabler for the 2016 production directed by Ivo Van Hove for the National Theatre in London. In an Ivo Van Hove production more often than not, it’s about the director and his ‘vision’ rather than the playwright’s vision of the play (an exception would be his thrilling production of A View from the Bridge).  

This version is blunt where nuance, irony and subtlety are in order. When Hedda says they will have to fire the maid because she has left an old hat on the chaise, Auntie Juliana defends herself because it’s her hat and she bought it especially to impress Hedda. As Aunt Juliana, Bola Aiyeola shows her hurt but then she says to Hedda with an edge, “Don’t be mean.” Really? In a thousand years that character would never say that to Hedda because she was always careful not to put her nephew in jeopardy with his wife. That line or even a hint of it is not in any production I’ve seen or the various adaptations I have. I reckon that Patrick Marber put that line in because Ivo Van Hove told him to—playing fast and loose with the text.

Also, there is little here to suggest that Hedda and Brack are on the same wavelength even though they toy humourously with each other at the expense of others. I think of the ‘triangle-train’ reference in other versions of the play. Brack wants to be an important part of a domestic connection to a husband and wife that will form a triangle between Hedda, Tesman and himself.  Hedda says that she longed for another person on the train besides her boring husband to amuse her. Brack suggests that he would have loved that position. He says this to Hedda when Tesman is away. When Tesman returns, Brack says quietly to Hedda something like: “The triangle is complete….” In other productions Hedda would say, (in perfect balance) “The train moves on.” This dialogue illuminates the seductive connection between Brack and Hedda—secretive and eventually dangerous. To remove it from the adaptation diminishes the connection.     

Comment. There are some good aspects of this production but the overall effect is one of disappointment.

The Stratford Festival presents:

Plays until September 28.

Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes (1 intermission)

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1 Stuart June 18, 2024 at 4:05 pm

There was also a line that for me was an absolute clanger. The highly educated Tesman, referring to his effort to recreate Lovborg’s book, says something like, “me and Mrs. Elvsted are going to work…”
Really? I hardly think a candidate for a professorship, whose other language has been impeccable, would suddenly mix up subjective and objective pronouns. I recoiled in my seat.