Stage Door Review

Hedda Gabler

Sunday, May 12, 2024


by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Liisa Repo-Martell, directed by Moya O’Connell

Coal Mine Theatre, 2076 Danforth Ave., Toronto

May 9-June 9, 2024

Hedda: “Everything I touch turns to ashes”

Coal Mine Theatre concludes its 2023/24 season with a rare trip into the late 19th century. As Coal Mine showed with Strindberg’s Creditors (1889) in 2015, it demonstrates again with Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (1891) – some plays from the 19th century have such deep insight into human nature that they still have the power to shock. Liisa Repo-Martell, who did such a fine job in adapting Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (1899) for Crow’s Theatre, has updated Ibsen’s language to exactly the right level to increase clarity and immediacy. Moya O’Connell, who played Hedda at the Shaw Festival in 2012, brings her insights to Coal Mine’s production. It is therefore an unhappy duty to report that the main weakness of the present production is Coal Mine Co-Artistic Director Diana Bentley in the title role.

Entering the Coal Mine Theatre I was surprised by how spacious it seemed even with rows of seats placed on three sides of the playing area. I was immediately reminded of my favourite theatre in Canada, the Court House Theatre at the Shaw Festival, which the Festival no longer uses. Designer Joshua Quinlan has used broad wooden planks as flooring for the entire playing area to create an atmosphere of rusticity that a few oriental carpets attempt to conceal. The set is thus a fine metaphor for the central conflict in the play between civilized appearances and the raw reality of nature underneath.

The character of Hedda Gabler is considered one of the greatest in European theatre because she is such a mass of contradictions. Raised in the upper class by a military father, whose portrait is the only one in the room, Hedda’s primary concerns are wealth, propriety and social status. She married her husband Jorgen Tesman, not because she loved him, but because he was the only one of her suitors who was socially acceptable.

At the same time her deepest desire is for “poetry” and the freedom to live life untrammeled by convention. These feelings are embodied in Eilert Lovborg, the man she did love when she was young, but could never marry because of his notoriously dissolute life. When young she would live her life vicariously through him and relished his detailed accounts of debauchery.

Lovborg committed such outrages that he was driven out of town. He found a position working for the husband of Thea Elvsted, who was once a schoolmate of Hedda’s. Under Thea’s influence, Lovborg completely turned is life around and even wrote a book about western civilization that has rehabilitated his reputation as a brilliant thinker. This reformation is deeply disappointing to Hedda. When she hears that Lovborg is back in town, her goal is to bring him back to his former untamed self.

While Hedda sees living life free of conventions as brave, she knows that she herself is not brave enough to live in such a way. This has led her to live through other people or at least through the gossip about other people that she receives from Judge Brack, who would be glad to have Hedda as his mistress. In the course of the play, Hedda moves from merely living through others to directly trying to influence people’s lives. This begins on a small scale when Hedda deliberately ridicules a hat of Tesman’s Aunt Julia just to see her uncomfortable reaction, to burning the only copy of Lovborg and Elvsted’s second book, to encouraging a despairing Lovborg to commit suicide.

The huge irony is that every plot of Hedda’s to affect the lives of others, in fact, causes her to become more entrapped. Though a supposed lover of freedom, she becomes the author of her own imprisonment. What causes Hedda as a character to be ranked with Shakespeare’s Hamlet as one of the greatest characters in theatre is that both are painfully aware of their own failings. Hamlet at least has Horatio, a steady person to confide in. Hedda has no such person. The closest is Judge Brack who looks for any information from Hedda that will subject her to his power.

The result is that Hedda is constantly acting. Nothing she says to another person is sincere and without an ulterior motive. Even simple statements about being glad to see someone are lies. Yet, Hedda speaks in such a way that good-hearted people like Tesman or Julia can believe her while we, the audience, perceive what she really thinks.

This is the central flaw in Bentley’s performance. Bentley gives us the surface of what Hedda says without also suggesting the subtext that underlies it. When she tells Tesman that she hopes Juliana was not insulted, we should know that Hedda could care less what Tesman thinks and is speaking merely to maintain her image as a dutiful wife. When Hedda wants Elvsted to tell her the whole story of leaving her husband to follow Lovborg, Bentley should make us know that Hedda could care less about Elvsted and only wants to know if she and Lovborg are in love.

As director O’Connell gives Bentley moments of private celebration of what Hedda perceives as secret victories over her victims, but this is not the same as having a Hedda who can infuse everything she says with multiple meanings. Bentley repeats Hedda’s lines that she is bored and deflects any talk that hints that she is pregnant, but Bentley never conveys the deep disdain that Hedda feels toward all the other characters or the deep self-hatred she feels for being too cowardly to live in the free manner she idolizes.

Qasim Khan gives an excellent performance as Tesman. Khan projects all of Tesman’s good-natured boyishness, especially around his Aunt Julia, a trait in Tesman that Hedda abhors, and Tesman’s essential innocence and unworldliness. Khan shows that all Juliana’s veiled refences to Hedda’s future motherhood completely wash over his pleasant, uncomprehending face. Yet, Khan’s Tesman is not foolish. He has Tesman manifest a true nobility of mind when Tesman’s admits that Lovborg has written down ideas that would never have occurred to him, a statement that demonstrates that Tesman can overcome all personal prejudices he may have to recognize greatness when he encounters it.

As Lovborg, Andrew Chown certainly captures the character’s intensity and impulsiveness, almost to the point of suffering pressure of speech. The difficulty is that Chown makes almost no distinction between the enthusiastic, sober Lovborg we first meet and the despairing, drunken Lovborg we later meet. Only when Chown has Lovborg calm down enough to contemplate committing suicide as Hedda suggests, do we see that Chown could have played the later Lovborg in an entirely different, more effective manner.

Leah Doz is superb as Thea Elvsted. Though Doz plays Elvsted as frequently distraught, Doz also makes evident that Elvsted, unlike Hedda, possesses a deep inner strength that will see her though any disaster. While Hedda shuns scandal, Elvsted has already done what Nora does in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879). She has left her husband and the children because she found the confines of such a life unbearable. Free of Hedda’s notions of what is proper and proper, Elvsted is able to see the intellectual virtues of both Lovborg and Tesman, in a way that Hedda cannot.

As Judge Brack, Shawn Doyle is an icy presence. Doyle makes a large distinction between the formal way Brack speaks to an assembled group and the portentous way he speaks to Hedda in private. Doyle could make us feel Brack relishing his power over Hedda more subtly, yet Doyle makes clear that Brack’s hold is inescapable.

It is luxury casting to have Fiona Reid, who played Hedda at the Shaw festival in 1998, play Tesman’s Aunt Julia. Reid gives a exemplary demonstration of how to create a memorable character in just a few strokes. Reid makes us perceive that Juliana may seem like a fussy elderly woman but is full of good will. When Julia’s long-suffering sister dies, Julia shows that she has the kind of strength and purpose that Hedda completely lacks, since caring for others is a task Hedda disdains. Reid depicts Julia’s taking on the role of caring for others appear to be no hard choice but a matter of course for anyone minded to do good in the world. The fact that Elvsted and Julia find so much to do in the world, whereas Hedda finds the world boring, reveals how debilitating Hedda’s classist prejudice against work really is. For Hedda, “work” is summed up by the kindly, but meek drudge of her maid Berta, ably played by Nancy Beatty.

Liisa Repo-Martell has made a bright adaptation of Ibsen’s text that cleverly solves the du-De distinctions. The strangest aspect of her adaptation is the omission of the play’s final line. After Hedda’s suicide, Judge Brack exclaims, “People don’t do such things”. The line is important because it shows that Hedda has finally summoned the courage to do something that breaks all social conventions and to do it “beautifully” as she had hoped Lovborg would.

Strangely, too, O’Connell has the play end with Hedda performing a wild dance in the shadows. We assume it is meant to show that Hedda is finally free. The play, however, has shown that Hedda’s notion of absolute freedom is purely egocentric. Tesman, Elvsted and Julia are all examples of people who find meaning in life by helping others, not by escaping the world. The ending would have been more effective if O’Connell had allowed Hedda’s death to be as full of contradiction as her life.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Diana Bentley as Hedda Gabler; Andrew Chown as Eilert Lovborg; Qasim Khan as Jorgen Tesman and Shawn Doyle as Judge Brack; Leah Doz as Thea Elvsted. © 2024 Elana Emer.

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