Hedda Gabler – Henrik Ibsen

Written by:
Nina Nichols
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Our review of a Broadway production

of Hedda Gabler

The current Hedda Gabler at the New York Theatre Workshop goes for big sound, big gestures, on a big–nay vast–stage, where it takes big risks. The space is an echoing vault, apparently calling for the actors’ screaming throughout. Its white on white dot patterned walls created an illusion of still greater space, while pots of cut flowers and a few stray shoes on stage presumably meant to convey the contrary sense of an intimate interior. From time to time the three principals squeeze onto a small sofa facing stage left when they’re fagged from striding forth and back, up and down, several miles per night. To complete the set, there’s also a small straight backed chair against the left wall for Berte (Elzbieta Czyzewska), the housekeeper, interestingly wearing a silky black dress and high heels; and an upright piano stripped of its front panel and most of the time parked center stage. Nobody ever plays a song on it. Before the action begins (there’s no curtain), the actress who will enact Hedda (Elizabeth Marvel) hunches over the keyboard and picks out a three note, atonal figure which she repeats and repeats with irritating monotony. She’s barefoot, in a short, pink satin slip covered up by a long, baggy gray sweater that almost symbolizes her character here–sexy hidden by frumpy.

Visually, the sum of all this veered from mildly amusing to disorienting. The director, Ivo van Hove, clearly wanted the disjunctions typical of post modernism, perhaps with a dash of absurdism thrown in. But the rubrics don’t entirely fit his aim: to reveal "what’s really happening at the bottom of everything."

The thing is, Ibsen’s 1890 play already revealed quite a lot of "the bottom of everything." His modernism shocked audiences with a worm’s eye view of ordinary middle class people. To change the metaphor, he stripped the social skin off marriage with Hedda Gabler and came close to staging the essence of woman’s desire.

The action is simple. A frustrated woman of thirty-seven discovers she has married a silly, weak man for economic security and social freedom. These no longer strike us as compelling since women may find these independently of men. The deep subject, however, bridges the distance in manners and mores between 1890 and 2004. Hedda enacts the psychology of a character who finds herself at an impassable dead end–that’s the universal cable connecting her to a contemporary audience. She believes her sole routes of escape from the tedium vitae of life in a small town are to give big parties and or take a lover.

Hedda deeply fears scandal and, since producing children would involve an intolerable sexual relation with her wimp of a husband, the scholar George Tesman (Jason Butler Harner), neither lover nor husband provides a viable solution. Cold marriage. He is busy anyway producing his "child," a book about the future of civilization. As for now possessing the house where she always wanted to play hostess, she finds the "bottom" of that image, too, since Tesman is near penury. They will have to make do with each other, he tells her. Her spirits sink, her passion turns destructive.

Despite disillusionments, Hedda cherishes her remaining romantic fantasy of a secret liaison with her soul mate, Eilert Lovborg (Glenn Fitzgerald), a mock Dionysos-cum-poet of excess whom she imagines with "vine leaves in his hair." Refusing to share him even with his work, she secretly burns the manuscript he mislaid, knowing it is irreplaceable. Her confidant and suitor, Judge Brack (the handsome John Douglas Thompson), for the sake of Hedda’s illusions, censors his report of the party at a local Diana’s where a drunken Lovborg shot himself in the groin with a pistol that Hedda had urged on him. She, perhaps imagining a neat wound to the temple (?), is satisfied he "did it beautifully," like the dying god.

The Judge knows all; she is in his power; on discovering this, she exits to the next room and shoots herself. He find her and delivers his famous line: "People don’t do such things."

This summary means to put Ibsen at the "bottom of things." He levels each detail and character to distinctly unromantic size, along the way inventing modernism and its ironic mode. Ibsen reflects the period’s decorum about sexual experience, yet every line carries at least three levels of metaphor, one of them sexual. There are references to light, house, fire, pistol; another critic might include shoes.

Van Hove’s way is to let metaphor fall where it may and drive the rest "over the top." Hedda is explosive most of the time. She pounds the stage as she walks; she may throw away a line or two in a nearly inaudible voice, but she yells most of them. Hedda is in a fury. (Intentionally or not, her aggressiveness even is suggested by the tattoos around each ankle and on her upper arms. Were they painted on for the production?) An odd business with those cut flowers makes violence almost palpable. She pulls them out of their pots and nails them to the walls with resounding bangs of a big staple gun. She’s "stamping" out signs of life? consistent with shutting out the sunlight before a word in the play is spoken? She is decorating? objectifying things of beauty? Remaining flowers strewn about turn the stage into a mess.

For sheer violence, however, nothing tops Brack’s assault on Hedda when she rejects him. Blocking her screams with his hands over her mouth, he backs her physically to a wall and bangs her head against it over and again. Then he throws her on the ground and straddles her. Lovborg gets to act out too. When he arrives, at one point, at the darkened house, he physically hauls the servant to break in the locked doors. Thea Elvstead also gets a chance to explode at Lovborg when she discovers his attention has wandered. All this is lively, noisy, physical action and a new take on Ibsen’s drama, though without the poetry or nuance. There is even a streak of something like perversity at work here, for Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler pivots on the penalties of social decorum. Far from expressing her emotions, Hedda suffers them with discipline and restraint; they build up steam and finally break out. On that score, Ibsen taught Freud a few things.

The acting is uniformly fine, if you discount the shouting. Elizabeth Marvel, however, is a pure gift to theater. She and director van Hove teamed up in 1999 on their reputedly explosive production of A Streetcar Named Desire. The company renders van Hove’s point of view admirably, that is, what he calls his "exploratory irreverence" toward a "masterpiece." The set is functional; the costumes not too ugly, except for Thea’s, a hideous maroon blouse and black skirt. With her blonde hair piled up fetchingly, she resembles a pouty blonde slut. The rest look like pleasant enough people until they begin to act and blow the lid off a great play.

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