News & Commentary, Stage

Why Belvoir’s male Hedda is no gimmick

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In Belvoir’s new production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, directed by Adena Jacobs (Persona), the iconic title role is played by a man – notable performer and theatre-maker Ash Flanders (Summertime in the Garden of Eden, Little Mercy). For months, the Sydney theatre scene has been rumbling with controversy over the casting decision. This was probably always going to happen, given the role’s prominence as one of the great theatre roles for women.

Jacobs’ vision and Flanders’ performance have inspired a run of negative reviews from a majority of critics. While we’re all in agreement that some things didn’t work (notably the barrier between audience and cast caused by sound problems, and broadly drawn interpretations of some secondary characters), there is a trend appearing in reviews that’s more than a little uncomfortable.

Flanders’ career has Sisters Grimm at the heart of it, a queer, high-camp experiment in theatre subversion, with plenty of drag. Flanders has received widespread critical acclaim for performing heightened characterisations of women in these shows. And it’s starting to seem like audiences are happy to get on board with queer theatre that’s feminist when it’s a broad comedy, but that bringing those qualities into drama is met with confusion and a bit of hostility. Hedda Gabler isn’t a camp production and Flanders plays Hedda without that wink in his eye – as “serious theatre” – but that hasn’t stopped this casting decision from being labelled as a gimmick or, dismissively, gender-bending.

While this is not the most equitable example of gender-blind casting, it is an exploratory work with a title character that has been created jointly by a woman and a queer male performer. To dismiss the queer and female points of view in this show is far worse than worrying about a man playing a traditional female role and whether or not that’s “fair”.

Especially when this isn’t an unheard of concept. This isn’t the first time, by a long shot, the play has been restructured or re-mounted to look more closely at different themes. An all-male cast in the LA-based Fabulous Monsters production created a queer couple at the heart of the show, set in the 1960s, called Speed Hedda. Playwright and screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz created a modern adaptation of the play that has been lauded for its contemporary feminism. Mauckingbird in Philadelphia staged a lesbian interpretation of the text. Charles Ludlam played Hedda for the American Ibsen Theatre.

Hedda Gabler has long been called a feminist play, or a gender-challenging play, so why not evolve from there and bring it into a society that’s more familiar than ever with the notion that gender-conforming is not always a label that fits? Flanders is a gifted actor who is drawn to women and he plays his Hedda with a furious, deeply unapologetic internal focus. She is disconnected and dissociative; a very valid reading of the character.

And is it really too much to assume that a man playing a woman trapped by her gender and her social stratification isn’t really a radical take on a life? Countless people question their place in the world due to exactly how much – or how little – they live up to the bodies they’re born into and the characteristics they’re supposed to have due to their birth-assigned gender.

Hedda can represent who is different. Hedda can be everyone who doesn’t fit. Hedda at Belvoir is a female role played in genuine part by a male actor who is not being asked to suppress his identification with the feminine. Hedda is a subcultural, subversive figure without the subculture and community behind her; couldn’t that be any of us?

Critics have also been questioning the brief issue of nudity in the play. Hedda disrobes and stands before us for one moment, and in that moment she is naked and real and vulnerable, the one thing her icy silence doesn’t shield her from. And then she puts on a fur coat and the moment is over.

But because Hedda is being played by a man, much is being made of the decision to have him nude at all. It’s been called a confusing image.

But really, it’s a decision that’s very in Jacobs’ directorial style, as well as being character-driven. Jacobs was playing with and subverting the usual audience gaze even in Persona: Women are allowed to be naked onstage all the time, but Jacobs, in what could be called “equitable onstage nudity”, staged nude sex scenes in that show that were more about character conflict than they were about bodies.

Here in Hedda Gabler, she subverts the gaze by inviting us to objectify Hedda in the opening scenes. She makes us look for a long, long time. She makes us look as Flanders lounges by a pool, still as life swirls around his Hedda, reduced to prop, wife, settled, with her permission but without her consent. And when Hedda is naked, she’s asking us to look at something other than female objectification; to look beyond the body.

Flanders plays Hedda as a woman but doesn’t disguise that he is performing gender; he dons and discards a wig because it never fits who Hedda really is. She puts it on to die, because she can’t win against conformity. Flanders doesn’t pad his hips or wear fake breasts. Flanders adopts and performs womanhood and it’s such a clear parallel to who Hedda is, this woman who only marries because she has to and who feels increasingly trapped by her life and its expectations. Get married. Have a child. Stay in. No one ever looks beyond Hedda’s body or role. Why should we, a 2014 audience, fall into those exact same expectations? Can’t we be better than that?

Think the production is flat, or boring, or uninspired. That’s fair. But let’s not call a genuine challenge of gender and gaze a gimmick; let’s call it what it is: a genuine theatrical experiment, a reflection of modern ideologies and individual displacement.

*Read Ben Neutze’s review of Hedda Gabler

[box]Featured image by Ellis Parrinder[/box]

3 responses to “Why Belvoir’s male Hedda is no gimmick

  1. “…with her permission but without her consent.” What is this even supposed to mean? Permission IS consent! This reviewer seems to be caught up in confusing semantics. And why not call a spade a spade? Of course the casting is a gimmick. But that shouldn’t matter if the trick works. If it had, everyone would be applauding the “gender-bending” performance.

  2. Another example of poorly thought-through theatre being rationalised away by claptrap. Too many productions lately have been weighed down by the director’s ‘look at me, aren’t I clever’ demands, and this sounds like it falls into just that category. Play with the gender by all means, but make sure it comes from a place of intelligence and insight – that the gender-play comes out of a deep exploration of the text rather than simply being imposed on it, which is what seems to have happened in this case. I don’t think there was anything troubling in the way critics responded to the production – they saw a spade and they called it a spade. Ash Flanders is a fine actor, but many fine actors haven’t managed to fully realise Hedda. Saying so shouldn’t be read as any sort of critique of his other work with Sisters Grimm, or elsewhere.

  3. When the gender bending is a distraction rather than a useful access to the play’s inner meaning it may be because the actor couldn’t drive the interpretation or maybe it was just a lousy idea – albeit worthwhile giving it a go.

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