Hijacking Hedda: Review of Belvoir’s Hedda Gabler
Hedda Gabler (1890) is renowned as one of the finest examples of realist theatre in the feminist tradition, and likewise the role of Hedda has been thought of as one of the great dramatic female parts. Because of this, Hedda has been interpreted widely over the years. In one regard, Belvoir has followed this tradition with director Adena Jacobs’ rather novel idea of placing a male in the lead role.
Ibsen’s play tells the story of Hedda Gabler, recently married to George Tesman, an affable if unremarkable academic. Hedda herself is a study in ennui: she finds no satisfaction in the life she has been forced into. She roams her home listless and bored, only finding entertainment in firing off rounds from her father’s old service revolver. At its core, Hedda Gabler is about control, exploring how people may fall under the influence of others. Hedda herself is a prisoner of social conventions, though, as the play unfolds, she attempts to bear her influence over the lives of those who cross her path (particularly Thea and Eilert). Things don’t go quite to plan, and Hedda ultimately finds herself falling under the control of Judge Brack, an unscrupulous family friend, who threatens scandal unless she agrees to become his mistress. Faced with unsatisfactory options, Hedda takes the only course that will release her from her bondage. Hedda Gabler was and still is a scathing critique of the social constrains placed on women and its consequences on their lives.
Adena Jacobs’ production is, and isn’t, this play. While textually it is very close to Ibsen, Jacobs’ Hedda is played by a man (Ash Flanders). Many critics have called this casting a ‘non-event’, but there is actually something curious going on. The reason the critics have called this a non-event is because the gender of Hedda has remained unchanged. She is still a woman; Flanders plays her this way and the other characters respond to her in this way. So what’s the point? Well, Flanders isn’t a woman, and the audience is never allowed to forget this because he spends more than half the play in various stages of disrobement (despite some skillful taping back). By now, we’ve probably all gotten used to Belvoir finding ways to slip in needless nudity, but in this case Jacobs’ is making a point. Jacobs has called her production ‘post-gender’ and the thrusting of Flanders’ body to the fore is her way of commenting on issues of transgender and intergender politics. Just as in 1890 Ibsen was critiquing the struggles that women face in a restrictive society, here Jacobs is making similar points concerning the struggle of those who live in a society that is not yet comfortable conceiving of gender as anything but a dichotomy (males on one side, females on the other, with nothing in between). People who don’t identify with either gender are forced to wear masks, constrained from being who they want to be, just as Hedda, as a woman, was.
However, the problem is that this is not the play Ibsen wrote. Despite some updates and cuts, Jacobs has left the text largely untouched. As a result, this becomes a feminist play attempting to open up a dialogue about an issue not supported by the text. In a sense Hedda Gabler has been hijacked to push a different social agenda. While there can be no doubt that Jacobs’ intentions were good, and that this is an issue that needs to be discussed, perhaps this issue would be better served by a play that actually deals with these issues, rather than forcing Ibsen to say something he doesn’t.
Surprisingly, Ash Flanders has a wonderful face for Hedda – angular and stormy. Yet when he opens his mouth, we lose Ibsen’s complexities. Instead, we hear an atonal mouthpiece whinging about power, whilst viewing awkward attempts to dress and walk like a woman. Flanders’ instincts are not in fact wide of the mark; nevertheless, his distance and melancholy, while certainly essential to a performance of Hedda, fails to engage the audience and lacks the depth envisaged for this almost indescribable woman.
Flanders’ casting has caused a storm of controversy, though some have suggested that this is because the majority of critics have been white men reviewing a feminist work. Needless to say, this review is being co-authored by a woman (just in case gender affected a reviewer’s credibility). It has further been forwarded that the casting of a man is justified as the role was created by a man and so would make better sense when taken on by a man.
Certainly, a man created Hedda Gabler. He has devised this character and the sequence of the events that follow. However, this does not mean that the character needs a man in the role for it to be fully realised. Whilst gender inversions can and do work well, they must give effect to the author’s intention. In this case, it arguably denies the feminist message contained within Ibsen’s text. To borrow from Ibsen academic, Rolf Fjelde, this production trivializes Hedda into a transvestite self-portrait of the artist.
As regards the rest of the cast, partnering Flanders with Tim Walter as George Tesman has also yielded problems. Simply, there is no sexual tension or connection between them. Whether or not Hedda loves Tesman at all is almost irrelevant, the lack of chemistry denies a layer to Hedda’s multifaceted existence. Unfortunately for Walter, his Tesman comes off as just plain boring. Arguably, Anna Houston’s Thea Elvested suffers in the same way; perhaps the gender recast has completely thrown the textual connections, or perhaps Houston fell behind a little. Whatever the case, Houston’s Thea is similarly limited, though her final exit was perfectly pitched and certainly not overdrawn.
Better performances came from Marcus Graham as the smooth-talking Judge Brack and Oscar Redding as the emotionally vexed Lovborg. Lynette Curran was a pleasure to watch as the loveable Aunt Julie, and Brendan Christie as the silent maid Bertha, added mystery to the Tesman household. These actors more successfully held their own, amidst an ultimately disconnected piece.
The set (designed by Dayna Morrissey) is a glass case that emulates a modern furnished apartment; this seems to be a staple in Adena Jacobs’ productions (thinking back to Persona, with a similar design). The set is meant to provide a kind of sterility to Hedda’s world, which it does, though it is only effective up to a point. Often the actors are hidden behind set pieces. Whilst some have suggested that this is a visualization of the characters’ disconnectedness, it often became merely awkward and a struggle to listen to. The poolside, whilst a nice touch, was sometimes overused.
A final point to make about this production is the strange detachment that radiated throughout. Whether an explicit choice or not, alienation is a dangerous outcome for a play that is not with Brechtian design. This is Ibsen, not Brecht; realism, not epic theatre. Audiences naturally look to connect and forced disengagement throws them off balance. This is the show’s largest failing. We have stopped caring about Ibsen’s Hedda.
While this production may not be ‘as bad’ as the criticism surrounding it, it is nevertheless an unsatisfactory experience.
Hedda Garbler is playing at Belvoir Street Theatre until the 3rd of August. For more information see, http://belvoir.com.au/productions/hedda-gabler/