Hedda Gabler review (Belvoir, Sydney)

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The most surprising thing about Belvoir’s Hedda Gabler is not that a man plays the title role, but that the casting is completely unobtrusive and presents no distraction. Where director and adaptor Adena Jacobs’ production falls down is in its inability to draw a compelling, complete world around Hedda and place her in any kind of context. While Ibsen’s fatalistic anti-hero is a creature unto herself, without a clear image of the world which pushes her to act, the audience is set adrift.

The gender swap turns out to be a bit of a non-event, but you can’t ignore the political side of the decision; Hedda is one of the most iconic female roles of all time and to hand her over to a male actor is sure to ruffle feathers and draw the ire of some feminists. There’s a dearth of great roles for women in the theatrical canon without giving one to a man.

But there are solid artistic reasons as to why Ash Flanders is playing the role; it speaks to the lack of control over one’s identity and hints at a universality in Hedda’s crisis. The most obvious reason is that he’s a very capable actor, the role should fit him like a glove, and he brings something unique and captivating.

Flanders is best known as one half of queer theatre duo Sisters Grimm (with playwright Declan Greene). They’re known for their high camp, DIY sensibility with subversive looks at gender, constantly with a wink and a nod. There’s practically no wink or nod in Jacobs’ Hedda Gabler, and, thankfully, Flanders shines without it. He’s not performing in “drag”; he’s simply playing a woman, appearing in basic makeup and simple costumes from a black swimsuit to a glamorous fur coat (by designer David Fleischer).

There are hundreds of ways to play Hedda, but they almost always have a capricious, destructive path. While she’s dangerous and destructive, there’s nothing inherently capricious about Flanders’ still, measured Hedda, and her path is laid with psychological clarity. Flanders is constantly speaking with a disconnected quality; Hedda really never has ownership over herself, she’s simply “trying on” phrases and actions like clothing. The only moments where we see hints of enthusiasm are when she’s breaking out of the role she’s cast in, or looks like she’s getting close to the “connection” she so craves by controlling another person. She bursts to life when trying to tempt Lovborg (Oscar Redding) to drink, but then quickly falls back to earth.

It was always a bold casting decision on Jacobs’ part, and it’s paid off. But one bold decision isn’t quite enough, and it takes a while for the audience to get inside Flanders’ Hedda and understand the direction he’s taken. It often looks like he has no connection to the material, but that’s largely the point of his take; Hedda isn’t connected to most of the things she says or does, she’s usually just playing the role she’s been given. Until the audience figures that out, this production doesn’t offer much.

Jacobs works in creeping silences and inertia which manages to feel both peaceful and oppressively still (very little happens for the first several minutes of the play). But if you’re going to adapt and update the entire script for today, there are opportunities to explore who the Hedda of today is, and details of the world she inhabits. Jacobs’ adaptation is faithful to Ibsen’s work, barely deviating from his plotting in any way, just slightly adjusting the language here and there. But it has a few anachronisms. (Are we really supposed to believe that Lovborg would have just one, hand-written copy of his manuscript today?)

Jacobs has made some inspired choices in the production. Hedda insensitively starts playing a violent video game as her husband Tesman (Tim Walter) receives devastating news, taking her frustration out on the digital characters she slaughters. But it’s never clear exactly why a gorgeous, black vintage car is part of Dayna Morrissey’s stylish, Hollywood-inspired set (although it does hark back to the white Ford falcon at the centre of Belvoir’s Death of a Salesman). Visual metaphors begin, but never reach an ending point.

Tim Walter gives his best as Hedda’s hipster-academic husband Tesman, sinking in the situation he’s landed himself in, while Oscar Redding draws the darkest notes out of the tortured genius and Hedda’s ex-lover, Lovborg. Marcus Graham is slimy and just a little too smooth as Brack, and Anna Houston impresses as the desperate and jilted Thea. Lynette Curran is the perfect doting aunt as Julia, swanning in and out, trying to make headway with Hedda. Branden Christine is a reliable presence as Berte, observing the absurd world she simply doesn’t belong to. But despite their best efforts, nobody in the cast (with the exception of Flanders) is given much to work with. Every supporting character is massively underwritten and underdeveloped in Jacobs’ adaptation.

This Hedda is blessed with a performance that fascinates on every level. But Ibsen’s masterpiece is too rich and too heavy for one woman or one man to carry entirely on their own shoulders.

[box]Hedda Gabler is at the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir until 3 August.

Featured image by Ellis Parrinder[/box]

2 responses to “Hedda Gabler review (Belvoir, Sydney)

  1. This review – excellently written – is even sillier than Jacob’s regie theater take on the play. And he fools no one

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