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Hedda Gabler, Belvoir Hedda Gabler, Belvoir
photo Ellis Parrinder
You would think that the conceit of casting a male actor, well known for onstage cross-dressing, might add to the abundant psychological and social complexities of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. In this adaptation for Belvoir, directed by Adena Jacobs, the effect is reductive: Hedda, as played by Ash Flanders, is simply a languorously posturing, caustic, one-note man-woman monster. The rationale for the casting is opaque.

There are other hints of ‘difference:’ Judge Brack is perhaps bi-sexual and Hedda appears to ogle the black maid, with whom she elsewhere shares a cigarette in a quiet moment, but the rest of the roles are played utterly straight. Justifiably silly thoughts cross the mind as the production’s cinematic longeurs roll on (Hedda gazes out of window, Hedda plays a shoot-em-up video game, Hedda lolls by pool): when will husband Tesman reel with shock, “I’ve married a transvestite…or a transsexual!”? In Ibsen’s play Hedda expresses her boredom, which is played here as mere indolence in contrast with the generations of actresses who have realised a nervy, naïve but cruelly self-aware romantic fatally trapped by bourgeois marriage, convention, duties and corset (see for example Fiona Shaw’s riveting account on YouTube). Of course, the corset has gone and the duties, but marriage and convention still rule the plot, if archaically in this awkward transposition to the present.

It’s difficult to get a fix on just where this ‘present’ is: inside a Hollywood TV series? It’s not a noticeably Australian transposition nor has it found for the late 19th century Hedda a parallel 21st century middle class woman. Presumably Jacobs' Hedda is meant to present modern middle class women as genderless and narcissistic, while nonetheless doomed from the outset to make the same fatal choices Ibsen’s Hedda did, but with few of the conflicting emotions and less of the moral ambiguity that power the play’s existential force so strongly felt at the end of the 19th century. Jacobs' Hedda is no freer than her antecedents, but is more clearly, or simply, a sociopath for whom boredom, more than any desire for control or a badge of existential courage, is her determining trait. Consequently the revelation scene is played as abrupt melodrama, as if not much were at stake.

The recent ruckus over the alleged dominance of director-driven adaptations of classics over new Australian plays aside, the re-workings of great plays are a reminder of anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss’ rather psychoanalytic observation that the re-telling of a myth over thousands of years, in whatever form or permutation, reinforces the power of the original. Classic plays have mythic status in our culture; they are secularly sacred. Their recurrent appearances on our stages, the screen and in our studies sustains their power, even when diminished by productions deemed to have missed the mark. Several years ago in the Sydney Festival, a radically reconstructed Hamlet directed by Thomas Ostermeier was widely agreed to have captured the essence of Shakespeare’s play in very contemporary terms (or idiom perhaps, being reminiscent of the Dogme film genre). Adena Jacobs’ Hedda Gabler has for the most part been seen as desecratory: the narrative preserved but the text thinned out and the interpretation of the central role an unembodied conceit. (Alison Croggon makes a limited case for the director’s likely intention in ABC Arts online, ABC Arts Mail, 1 Aug). If the production had gone someway towards metaphorically pointing up the tragic suffering of transsexuals, then good; but it did not.

If the interpretation of the role of Hedda was muted and neutered the show’s production values were over the top and wearyingly cinematic (including a badly miked scene inside a luxury car by the pool), with emotion provided at a key point by a recorded thundering classical choir (a tired po-mo ploy in contemporary performance and theatre, usually Baroque). But no amount of theatre magic covers for the emptiness of the interpretation.

Belvoir, Hedda Gabler, writer Henrik Ibsen, adaptor, director Adena Jacobs, designer Dayna Morrissey, costumes David Fleischer, lighting Danny Pettingill, composer Kelly Ryall; Belvoir Street Theatre, Sydney, opened 2 July

RealTime issue #122 Aug-Sept 2014 pg. web

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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